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Plugging the gaps – the Jisc ARMA Study Tour

(This blog is also available on the ARMA webpages)

A year on from our successful hosting of an ARMA Study Tour at the Jisc London office, we were delighted to be able to host another event in 2020, albeit this time online. We certainly missed meeting everyone face to face and informal discussions over lunch, but the quality of discussions and the insight provided by those attending was as vibrant and useful as last year.

A UK research sector partner

When registering, we asked participants about their interest in Jisc and what they hoped to get out the event. The overwhelming majority wanted to learn more about Jisc, its services and products, and other ways in which we provide support to the UK research sector. The day therefore started with a whirlwind overview of Jisc, Jisc’s role in the UK research sector and research related Jisc updates.

Jisc is the UK not-for-profit organisation providing digital services, solutions and support to the higher education, research, further education and skills sectors. Our vision is for the UK to be a world leader in technology for education and research.

Jisc supports UK research through a comprehensive corpus of technologies and through enhancing end-to-end research lifecycle management. Not only does Jisc provide Janet, the ultra-fast network that UK research relies on, we also support the research sector through:

These services are underpinned by research and development and co-design models for innovation.

As Jisc staff we frequently find ourselves partnering with the sector, taking the role of facilitator in sector wide initiatives, especially in areas of policy and standards development. Examples of this are our current work around Persistent Identifiers and the recent launch of the Digital research community group.

Starting a conversation

Like last year, we were keen that most of the day would be interactive, providing a forum for discussion among ARMA members and an opportunity for Jisc staff to learn from the experience and expertise of those attending. We weren’t disappointed.

We ran two main sessions:

Both sessions involved a presentation followed by open discussions, where the attendees provided vital feedback and perspectives on our current activity in these areas. Rather than report on the two sessions separately, I’ll outline the key themes which emerged during the day – some of which came up in both sessions. (Spoiler alert – they weren’t necessarily what we expected. Rather akin to the cartoon below)

xkcd cartoon - scientist tech help
CC BY-NC 2.5 https://xkcd.com/2341/

New technologies and their impact on the research life cycle

New technologies can lead to new ways of doing research. Some optimism was expressed that technology will enable visibility of the entire research life cycle and could facilitate a move away from the focus on a final output. The use of digital research notebooks (for example e-Lab notebooks) and persistent identifiers for all research-related objects and activities (including facilities and equipment) were mentioned as important. Both offer faster routes to sharing research, and enhance reproducible, responsible and interoperable research. Their use enables a more holistic documentation of research activities and outputs, which in turn will increase opportunities to share, cite, reuse and assess activities across the whole research life cycle.

There was a view that there is still scope to find more effective ways to manage impact in terms of collecting evidence, corroboration and shaping narratives. Similarly, documentation of Practice Research has unique challenge,s which were highlighted in the 2019 meeting Practice research is for life, not just REF.

Despite the optimism, some caution was also expressed that digital solutions may not always make life easier, especially for smaller universities. There is both a direct and indirect cost (in terms of staff time) in using an increasing number of systems, as highlighted in some of the discussions covered below.

Research management systems – the “re-key” problem

The use of research management technology (such as systems to manage research grants and contracts, ethics systems, impact systems, repositories, CRISs) is well established in many UK universities. Despite this, there were still multiple examples of system incompatibility and the requirement for manual re-keying of information. This has a huge impact on the ability of staff to do their jobs efficiently and effectively.

There were a variety of reasons quoted for this including capacity for investment in Research Management systems or a lack of advice during procurement or delays in feature development. Other factors could include lack of APIs and open, standardised formats.

It was clear COVID had impacted procurement of new systems, while a fragmented workforce had highlighted the gaps more glaringly. Remote working also pushed system security and identity management up the agenda.

The desire/demand for more research information and analytics continues to grow. Experiencing difficulties in accessing or sharing information was a common theme and the way systems are set up often doesn’t help. Participants were keen to identify tools and connectors to improve processes and workflows to speed up reporting.

Understanding research management technology

An interesting development in the afternoon session emerged following Helen Clare’s presentation of the Researcher digital experience insights survey 2020. The survey had highlighted some development needs for researchers, and how universities could look at supporting researchers. We had envisaged a discussion on how research managers could support this. However, quite rightly, a number of the attendees preferred that we focussed on their development needs for gaining a better understanding of digital technology and research management systems. In particular, support for developing skills and understanding around the causes of and solutions for friction in research management workflows would be welcomed.

I suggested what may be needed was a ‘research systems 101’, this seemed well received. Perhaps guidance in this area could include (off the top of my head):

  • What are the systems generally used across research management practice
  • What are the standards they are built on
  • What are open standards
  • How can systems be ‘integrated’
  • What are the pitfalls of trying to integrate workflows across different systems
  • What is different between an open source and proprietary system
  • What is SaaS, what’s a managed system, what’s a self-hosted system, what’s the ‘cloud’ – and for each what resource is the university required to provide
  • Issues around data management
  • Issues around systems and data security
  • What would a totally integrated research infrastructure look like

Even if systems join up and work well, there’s also a need for help with communication and training so that users can keep up. Digital technology moves quickly, and training can’t always move at the same pace, especially in a large institution.

Jisc as an intelligent customer?

There was also strong agreement that Jisc was well placed to provide advice and guidance for procuring research systems. This could take the form of

  • a set of a key questions to ask stakeholders before going out to procurement,
  • a checklist for discussions with other departments such as IT and Procurement
  • how to approach key issues such as interoperability with vendors

Purchasing frameworks and dynamic purchasing systems would also help institutions by

  • maintaining minimum standards around interoperability and information security
  • providing efficiency savings by avoiding full rounds of procurement
  • a simplification of the process for institutions.

Jisc already maintains a Research outputs repository dynamic purchasing system, and there is a strong case to be made to provide similar support for other research systems, such as CRISs and research notebooks.

Looking forward

Digital technology can be exciting and has the potential to transform research and research management. But the issues it creates must not outweigh the problems it seeks to solve. Research managers have high levels of expertise and knowledge; their work should not be hindered by incompatible systems and ill-informed procurement decisions. As research and research management digital technologies mature, it is somewhat dispiriting this remains a predominant focus of discussions!

Jisc is ideally placed to partner with ARMA and its members to identify appropriate training and solutions to help plug the current gaps.  We have a long track record in working with the UK Education, Research and Skills sectors to solve similar issues, and we already provide a number of research-related resources and services which may help to address some of these difficulties:

Jisc is also co-ordinating the establishment of a national PID (Persistent Identifiers) strategy.

Keeping talking to us

We would like to thank the time and thought that ARMA members put in to this year’s study tour and for the important and insightful feedback we received during the discussions. It’s really important we understand fully the problems research managers are facing on a daily basis, so that we can provide you with the most appropriate help.

We’d like to keep the conversation going. Do you have thoughts, questions or comments on any of the topics discussed? If so please contact me at tamsin.burland@jisc.ac.uk or on Twitter @tamsinburland

If you want to keep up to date with news from Jisc, sign up to our newsletter Headlines. After you register, we’ll send you an email so that you can pick the areas that interest you most (eg Research updates) for your bespoke edition.

The slides presented during the day are available to view and download.

By Tamsin Burland

Tamsin Burland spent more than 25 years in research and research management, working at 5 different universities and research establishments, before moving to Jisc in 2015. She works as part of the Open research services Team, leading on the following Jisc services: Research repository, Research systems connect and Research outputs repositories dynamic purchasing system.