Virtual filing for research

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Research funders are starting to demand different information in order to assess research quality and they want that information more quickly than they have done in the past. They aren’t the only ones either. As researchers juggle the information needs of their university, commercial partners and even their own colleagues, they are increasingly become project managers for others. Some universities like University College Dublin in Ireland have even introduced modules in research management to support postgraduate students through this minefield of mixed demands.

One of the ways of managing administrative information and metadata about projects is by using a research lifecycle model. This begins with the conception of an idea, through writing a proposal, finding partners and managing the grants. The research process itself, including experimentation, analysis and synthesis, follows and hopefully results eventually in publication, allowing the cycle to start again.

During each of these activities there are different data and information demands, from people within and outside of the institution. Universities have a responsibility to keep up-to-date administration about the research they host. This is primarily for assessment by research councils and other stakeholders, but also to inform strategic decisions about that research, and to offer useful services. How they collect this varies from institution to institution, and can affect individual researchers differently depending on the amount of collaboration required.

In this complex field there is much to be gained by working together and aligning activities on a national level. In the UK the research councils are currently working on the joint Research Outcomes project, alongside HEFCE’s work on the new Research Excellence Framework which will begin providing research evaluation in 2013. The business case for the development of a pre-award through post-award system for universities is under the spotlight at the University of Exeter which is running a project on Research Management and Administration Systems.  Centralised work like this enhances efficiency through shared services between systems and offers better return on investment. However, it also means that many information management concerns are handled by universities and research councils in a top-down way.

At JISC we are working to put responsibility for information management back in the hands of the researchers themselves. There are a number of benefits for this. It puts information at researchers’ fingertips, and saves them time because they don’t need to rewrite the same lists of funders or planned research outputs. It also helps to address different needs: making sure that the researcher gets credit where it’s due. For example, researchers could indicate a right-of-first-use for the original data collector and clarify who owns copyright. It also guarantees that institutional needs are met by planning how regularly information will be backed up and how long it will be kept.

Universities usually employ a range of processes to manage information. These may include human resources and finance systems, staff directories, grant management systems and repositories. Sometimes these systems don’t ‘talk’ to each other effectively, so adding an extra layer can sort the data into a common format for re-use: the so-called ‘service oriented-approach’. Providing direct access to these systems can also help speed things up. For example, researchers at the University of Wolverhampton have developed software to transfer their data automatically into the university repository.

A range of virtual technologies like cloud computing, the semantic web and Web 2.0 solutions like Mendeley are also helping to provide one-stop solutions for people looking to connect researchers with their research information. We are creating a one-click publication sharing system, where a paper can be uploaded and simultaneously deposited into the institutional repository, text mined for keywords and co-authors and connected to an online profile of the author. Just as email has brought personal contacts across the world together, so researchers could soon be using virtual systems that bring them closer to, not further away from, information about their own research.

Effective research information management depends, not just on a technical infrastructure, but on building skills among academics. JISC infoNet hosts structured guidance on information management and digital repositories and the new JISC press blogging beta site can help researchers get comments from colleagues on their drafts.

As researchers make increasing use of digital technologies, virtual research environments are helping people remotely manage their information across different institutions and work collaboratively. With work about to start on innovating virtual research environments and a parallel call for Research Information Management projects (RIM), research information should soon be managed better in individual universities, with growing UK knowledge and expertise in this area.

Frederique van Till is e-Research programme manager at JISC in the UK