World-class ambitions

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After 20 years in financial services and the IT sector Paul Feldman is now chief executive of Jisc, the UK higher, further education and skills sectors' not-for-profit organisation for digital services and solutions

How will your previous time in commercial corporations inform your work at Jisc? 

Our vision is clear – we want to be a world-class power house for digital transformation in UK education and research. To make this a reality we will need to make changes to the way we work, while still delivering for our members. We need to look at how we can work more efficiently, offer a range of services that universities and colleges are prepared to pay for, in addition to core funded ones, and start branching out to see where our services can offer value in other sectors. My commercial background will assist this.

What are the biggest challenges facing universities in terms of research?

The UK is a world leader in research; for me the biggest challenge is how to we stay there. We want the UK to keep attracting the best and the brightest from around the globe.

Open access (OA) is opening up research globally, but the costs of transition to an OA model are high for universities and funders. Although OA provides an opportunity to save money and improve the reach of research outputs, the move to OA journals is proving too slow and expensive. Put this together with diversity in the market – meaning administrative inefficiencies and a lack of price sensitivity among academics – and this limits the effect of normal market mechanisms. 

We must improve our approach; funding available to develop workable systems will not last forever – it isn’t sustainable. Now is our opportunity to make OA work. We want to support publishers and engage internationally to develop and explore models that work for all.

Research data management (RDM) is another challenge for universities. The systems are not currently in place to allow the ease of reporting and sharing of research that could be possible through the use of technology. Activity to find a solution has moved up a gear over the past few years, but the external environment including changes concerning compliance, funding and service infrastructure is impacting progress.  

How can Jisc help universities meet these challenges?

Jisc has a role to play here. We support a move to OA through both green and gold OA publishing. OA offers greater visibility and impact for UK research, and research is more easily accessible for re-use. Think of the benefits this could offer on a global scale. Through reducing admin, saving money and improving the speed of research, we could not only improve the quality of global research but cures for cancer could be found more quickly, vaccines developed faster…the opportunities are endless.

We’re working with publishers, funders, researchers and universities to develop sustainable models. We’ve published a discussion paper to gather your views on the challenges around and impact of hybrid journal publishing. Your thoughts will be fed back to government and other parties involved. We also offer a range of OA services that save researchers time and money. 

We’ve been negotiating deals with publishers to reduce OA costs for universities. For example researchers in the UK are now able to publish their articles OA in more than 1,600 Springer hybrid journals without direct cost or administrative barriers. The Springer Compact agreement combines OA publishing and subscription access in one annual fee. In the two first months more articles have been published as Gold OA than during the whole of 2014.

Regarding RDM, we’re currently working with universities, researchers, librarians and others to develop a set of shared services and solutions to meet their needs. We’re developing a service to allow universities to store, manage and preserve their research data, another to make research data from UK universities and data centres discoverable, and a solution to track the usage of research data. 

Last, but by no means least, we’re providing a world-class network to support research. Our Janet network connects researchers globally and provides a base for building the services needed to support RDM; it’s a jewel in the UK’s crown. 

Briefly outline your hopes for Jisc’s development over the next few years...

I would like to see us continuing to provide tech for education and research to keep the UK as a world leader. I want us to help universities, research institutes and colleges embed the use of technology, driving the adoption of new tech. We’re still not reaping the benefits on offer – cost savings, improved student experience, improved quality of research and better access to resources. Let’s make it happen. 

Interview by Tim Gillett