Thursday, 14 May 2009

Comparing perspectives on Research Activity data

As I progress on my data collection for the BRII project I feel the need to share my thoughts about the people I have met and the information I got from them. So far I have done 16 interviews across the University and I have scheduled a few more for the next few weeks. I could classify my interviewees in four groups:
  • The administratives - these are departmental administrators or heads of administration
  • The academics - PI's (principal investigators) or researchers doing investigations in research projects or research groups
  • The research facilitators - I think they lie between the academics and the administratives. They provide administrative and management support to facilitate research developments and initiatives. However to be able to do that they should have extensive knowledge and expertise in the research field they are working on.
  • The others - (no, this is not the movie. I have not come up with a name for this group yet. At the moment it gathers staff who do not belong to any of the three groups above.) Within this group there are people whose work is perhaps tangential to research activities. So for example the Information-Press Office who publish news about research projects or new discoveries among other University activities. Or project teams working on other information systems initiatives which may have an overlap with BRII.
These groups' perspectives on research management data in general and research activity data in particular vary and I could classify them in many ways. The following is just an exercise at trying to organise all their views.

The first thing that comes to my mind when I think of the data I have collected is that there are broad and narrow perspectives. They depend on where the staff are standing in relation to the actual research activities.

Broad perspectives come from staff whose jobs involve overseeing more than one set of research activities, so research activities within a department or group or perhaps the whole University. These staff are or would like to be standing high above so they can see everything that is going on, but at a distance. They would like to have an idea of what is there, overall topics of research, some highlights and statistics. Their interests are not limited to one discipline. Quite the opposite. The purpose of standing above is to be able to find links between different areas, to identify similarities, patterns and trends. This could lead them to identify potential collaborations, research gaps, strengths and weaknesses. A good example of someone having a broad perspective is Dr Heather Bell director of Oxford's International Strategy. She told me her work involves gathering information about research activities from around the University. The aim is to improve the visibility of Oxford including its research. So for example if the Chinese Ambassador is visiting the University, she would prepare a brochure with all information related to research about China, collaborations with Chinese scholars and institutions, etc. She said she is not interested in specific details and perfect accuracy but on information that provides an idea of what is going on in the University.

Another person I met whose work involves overseeing a large number of research activities is Dr Liesl Osman. She is a grant advisor at NDM. She told me that one of her responsibilities was the identification of weak areas of research like the ones for which the department does not get much funding, research gaps where there is little interest or skills in their staff and the matching of the department's research strategy with their PIs interests. In some cases Liesl generates statistics that can help her with identifying the above. NDM currently have more than 1000 research projects running. I guess they also have archives with information about many more thousands of projects that have finished. All that information is useful for Liesl to learn from past experiences and to identify better ways of dealing with new grant applications.

Narrow perspectives come mainly from academic staff who are directly involved in one or more research activities and who are interested mainly in one research field or discipline. Staff belonging to this category usually have an established network of contacts and a preferred means to obtaining information about research in their areas. These means are usually publications or databases. In general I have seen little interest in being able to access information from other disciplines. Information from other areas that would be relevant for them would also appear in academic publications. Academic publications are trusted and valid sources of information for academics. If someone has written about a link between physiology and parallel programming then that is something that has been proved (as it has been peer reviewed) and worth following. However I think that academics would welcome any tool that would help them to identify publications and their writers in less time. They will definitely put that information under scrutiny and therefore would need as much detail and context as possible. This is information that perhaps needs to be very specialised to every field of expertise and will need to connect to other sources which are related to that subject or to that research activity. The more information about specific activities we can provide the closer and more involved they would be/feel. Being closer to information about specific research activities would help staff to indentify experts, and networks of researchers in their fields. Also to know about the details of individual efforts. The purpose would be to aid individuals in their research careers.

These two perspectives entail different needs, as I explained above. However I also envisage a third area of need. It is the ability to cross over both perspectives. So going from detail to an overview and vice versa. Some academics would be interested in this. One example could be an academic looking for an expert in a specific area. But that area is not very well known by the academic. So s/he has to first get an overview of that area and identify where he could have a closer look. Once he is able to identify the specific area of expertise he would be able to get a list of experts.

What are the implications for the Research Information Infrastructure (RII)?
Obviously I need to work more on analysing my data. I am just starting. However from the top of my head I see the RII having the power to aggregate and disaggregate data (as it will be seen by its users.) A sort of zoom in - zoom out tool. I talked to Monica, our developer, and she said she liked this idea. So hopefully she will be able to develop it.

Additionally the RII will hold information about different dimensions of research activity objects. Web services accessing that information should be able to move from one dimension to the other so to speak. So for example we could create different views - for the different groups I described at the beginning of this post - of the same set of projects. The RII users should be able to move from one dimension to the other depending on their needs. I think that very few people would be interested in obtaining all information related to one research activity in one screenshot. Most of them would be interested in only one dimension which is relevant to them. One way of understanding this would be to see research activity objects as multidimensional cubes. So when you have access to the cube you can only see one face at a time. However accessing the other sides should be a matter of one click. Print this post

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