The future of research in tough times

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'Efficiency must not come at the cost of effectiveness' was the message coming out of the recent JISC research conference, write Matthew Dovey and Nicola Yeeles of JISC

What do research-intensive institutions need to do to maintain and expand their expertise? A recent review of higher education in the UK highlighted the issues of efficiency and effectiveness. Universities need to maintain research concentration based on excellence, by funding the very best research ideas. However, they should not spread their resources so thinly that they risk damaging world-class research areas within research-intensive universities. These were some of the issues discussed at the JISC research conference held recently in London.

Martin Hall, vice chancellor of Salford University, delivered the keynote presentation at the conference. He said: ‘The real change in research is that we are now swamped with information. Anyone in an active field like medicine will know that by the time you’ve done a literature search, more papers have been published. This is a fundamentally different research problem.’

In his presentation, Hall looked ahead to what the university of the future might look like and said that he would put an open-access repository at its heart. At Salford, it is now compulsory for all staff to put research data in an open repository. Prizes are given out for the most contributions to the repository and researchers have found that their citations have gone through the roof.

Salford is not the only university to do this – Southampton is another good example – but some institutions have not embraced this sort of approach.

Responding to a question from Peter Burnhill, director of the EDINA data centre at the University of Edinburgh, about how widely his views were shared across the sector, Hall said: ‘We haven’t got the message through to vice chancellors in significant numbers. The issue of open access is being narrowly contained as a research issue around publications – but it speaks to the open content agenda too. We have been a victim of compartmentalisation.’

Wim Leibrand, chief executive of the SURF foundation in the Netherlands, agreed. He said: ‘It is highly interesting to ask the question “How will we develop and build an information infrastructure to deal with the new emerging data-intensive research questions?” If you want to profit from all the technologies we have at the moment then it does make sense to put an open-access archive at the heart of the university – and that can add real value not only to researchers at the institutions but also to society as a whole.’

Measuring effectiveness

The question of how to measure the effectiveness of such a publishing model was simple, according to Leibrand – by the usage levels.

Alma Swan, a consultant at Key Perspectives who has written widely on open access, added that effectiveness comes through visibility, usage and academic impact. She argued that the visibility of open access comes from the web search engines because repositories are indexed by Google.

She said: ‘All you need to do is put a name or keywords into the search engine and you will get free copies of any papers that have been made available.

Martin Hall, Salford University

‘Visibility is evidenced by usage we see from repositories. The University of California [repository] has seen 11.4 million views in the eight years it has been running and has about 36,500 items. The University of Liege has seen 129,000 downloads in just the last year.’

Such numbers are appealing to institutions that are trying to attract, retain and support their researchers on a shrinking budget, because research reputation is very important. For research-intensive institutions, this is about maintaining a high-profile presence in the research arena. For those that are newer to research, the concern is about building a reputation from scratch. Reputation is built on the opinion of funders, so we need to ensure that institutions are assisted to manage their research information in the most efficient ways possible. The views of outside academics are also vital to how an institution is perceived. Making research more visible through open-access platforms can help to reach a wider audience.

And the benefits of being efficient and effective go beyond the institutions themselves. According to evidence submitted to the UK’s recent higher-education review, for example, research contributes £30 billion annually to the country, which is equivalent to two per cent of gross domestic product. Now is the time to re-evaluate and reconfigure how we manage our research and our researchers. We can’t afford to stand still.