Issues and challenges of research information management in higher education institutions – and possible solutions

Author: Misheck Nyirenda, Durban University of Technology

Published March 2017 

In recent years research has become one of the most important undertakings of higher education institutions (HEIs) worldwide. Increasingly important is the information, emanating from research which is conducted in HEIs. Research information is regarded as an essential enabler in the knowledge based economy. Research information managed by HEIs has become the main source of knowledge in this knowledge-based economy era.

Appropriate management of research information is extremely vital for HEIs. Without effective and efficient research information management (RIM) in HEIs, the benefits which are expected from research, technology, and development goals, envisaged by HEIs and countries at large, cannot be easily realised. Thus, many governments, national and international institutions also view management of research information as a paramount task for every HEI. There are many benefits that can be realised from proper management of research information in HEIs.

Firstly, proper management of research information showcases research outputs to a global audience. Dora and Kumar (2015), assert that by opening research information up to the public it enhances the visibility of the host institution and its researchers. Secondly, appropriate RIM attracts new collaborators and research partners nationally and internationally (Bruce 2014). Kahn et al (2014) avow that collaboration between institutions, groups and individuals could help in reducing duplication of research effort. Thirdly, good RIM ensures compliance with research data expectations of most funding bodies. Other RIM benefits include facilitating the sharing and reuse of research information for future research, and therefore accelerating the generation of more new knowledge. Dora and Kumar (2015) assert that long term preservation of research information provides a platform for validation checks in the future, and this has the potential of enhancing credibility and transparency of the research information. Indeed, high quality research can be easily realised in HEIs if researchers have access to an extensive range of relevant research information that has been produced and made public. Lynch (2014) noted that appropriate management of research information brings great opportunities of improving the pace and effectiveness of scholarly inquiry especially when relevant research information is discovered, reused, recombined and repurposed in creative ways.

Despite these many benefits that RIM promises, there are still numerous issues and challenges that stifle many HEIs from fully realising these benefits (Winn 2013). The following section discusses specific issues and challenges that are currently prohibiting HEIs from reaping the fruits of RIM.

Issues and challenges of RIM

High volume of research information and lack of tools

The advancements in information technology, availability of large number of electronic data sources and powerful data analysis software, have together helped researchers to generate and work with large data sets, which in turn has resulted in large volumes of research information. Hence, it is reported that there are more and more researchers all over the world who are continuously working and generating large volumes of research information on a daily basis. Consequently, this has resulted in a critical challenge in terms of preserving and disseminating this large volume of information, which could be very valuable to the academic community (Dora and Kumar 2015).

In 'Research: The Big Data Management Challenge' Biddick (2012) asserts that this challenge has also made it difficult for HEIs to manage their research information efficiently and effectively. Among many factors which exacerbate this difficulty, is the lack of effective tools, particularly in HEIs in developing countries, for storing, processing and disseminating research information (Itegi and Juguna 2013). Yanosky (2009) also highlights the very same challenge in his study when he suggests that the great challenge facing HEIs regarding content management is the lack of tools.

Unintegrated approaches to RIM

The literature reveals another issue with RIM in HEIs is the use of heterogeneous systems in different departments. This often brings about a situation where research information and the context of research projects are being held in numerous systems run by different organisational units, which often use different formats and data models for storing this information. For this reason, it becomes difficult, if not impossible, to combine, aggregate, or integrate this rich information to serve specific institutional requirements (Scholze and Maier 2012; Clements and McCutcheon 2014). Kahn et al. (2014) also iterate on this issue when they stated that, 'the sheer volume and distributed nature of data emanating from research has led to the increased challenges of collecting, storing and reusing of this data'.

Complex RIM systems

According to Curdt and Hoffmeister (2015) some challenges of RIM are technical. According to Oliver (2007), many RIM systems do not completely satisfy the user requirements of HEIs typically because most of these systems are developed by following an ad hoc approach. This approach does not incorporate the requirements specification stage in the development lifecycle of the system, and is also likely to produce systems lacking in flexibility to cope with immediate and future changes.

Besides, according to Curdt and Hoffmeister (2015), the design process of RIM systems is doomed by the lack of communication between researchers and data managers, which results in a lack of consensus in terms of requirement specification. This is very crucial in systems development because it helps build systems that are robust since errors and omissions are taken care of at an early stage (Sommerville 2009). Another technical challenge which is somewhat related is the inflexible design of most RIM systems. Many RIM systems cannot adapt to mobile phone environments, particularly those with smaller screens (Jeffery 2012).

Lack of institutional policies

According to Jeffery (2012) another issue of RIM in HEIs is the lack of mandates for researchers to follow policies (e.g. workflow, open access etc.), relating to research within the institution. Related to this is the absence of a coherent research information management policy itself. In her article 'Meeting the research data management challenge', Bruce (2014) states that many HEIs are undeniably still experiencing some difficulties in putting a policy in place as far as RIM is concerned. This has greatly affected the completeness and quality of research information in most HEIs.

Ethical or social-cultural challenges

Curdt and Hoffmeister (2015 advocate that social-cultural or ethical challenges is one of many issues that obscure HEIs from achieving acceptable RIM. Brown et al (2015) affirm this when they write that 'research data management professionals will need to overcome researchers' reluctance to offer up research data or, better still, enthuse them so that they engage willingly with the RDM process'. The reluctance by researchers is also enunciated in an article by (Jeffery 2012) as the 'downside concerning stubbornness and strongly held views' by researchers. Related to the downside is the reluctance by researchers to engage with the research information management system.

Lack of funds

Financial constraint is another challenge that impedes RIM. Many HEIs lack the funds to invest in institutional RIM. Njuguna and Itegi (2013) assert that financial constraints – especially in Africa 'impact virtually all aspects of research including its mission, processes, participants' integrity, as well as dissemination of findings'. Many HEIs are struggling with tightening budgets to effectively carry out their RIM activities (Hodson and Jones 2013).

Proposed solutions

The issue with the high volume of research information in HEIs can be solved by putting in place robust but cost-effective research information management systems that are capable of storing these high volumes of research information, while at the same time allowing easy access to it by researchers for reuse. Appropriate tools for managing research information are critical as they speed up the processing of information and its dissemination (Biddick 2012).

HEIs can address the issue of unintegrated approaches to RIM through a coordinated approach (Clements and McCutcheon 2014) to management of research information. This can be accomplished by the use of web-based technologies which allow research information from different departments within the HEI to be centrally stored. Further, this approach allows easy and timely access to useful research information by research managers and researchers. Further, an integrated approach will help research managers to easily get an institutional overview in terms of research performance and take appropriate steps to advance research. An institutional overview of research performance is of extreme importance for HEIs especially in the current economic landscape where every HEI is competing at national and international level for funding which has become performance-based. Therefore research managers, researchers, and other actors within HEIs are strongly urged to make RIM a cross-institutional concern where different teams within HEIs must work together to achieve a coordinated approach (Bruce 2014).

The complexity of RIM systems can be addressed by building systems that satisfy all user requirements. In order to build such systems, it is necessary to follow appropriate techniques. Recent studies have advocated the application of formal methods in the software development process to specify, verify, and validate requirements in developing software. According to Gurupur et al. (2014) formal methods have the capability of bridging the gap that exists between user needs and software implementation efforts in the area of software development. It is also important that during the development process, users are closely involved so that they can test the system components as they are developed and provide feedback which may allow for modifications if users are not satisfied. Thus far developers are encouraged to use formal methods in developing research information systems to overcome the complexity issue.

The issue of inflexibility of RIM systems to adapt to mobile phone environments can be solved by using web-responsive technologies which allow the system to adapt and display content on mobile phones, depending on the size of the screen of the mobile device. Implementation of RIM systems that can be accessible on a range of mobile devices can be motivating for researchers as they allow them to provide and access research information regardless of where they are via the internet. As Jeffery (2012) states 'from an end-user point of view the requirement is access from anywhere at any time using any appropriate device'. Therefore, systems for managing research information should be built with this end-user requirement in mind.

The lack of policies regarding RIM in HEIs can be addressed through implementing a research information management policy. The RIM policy should clearly highlight procedures that researchers are supposed to follow in order to enhance RIM. The policy should also clearly address any institutional and funder mandates that researchers are supposed to adhere to regarding RIM. Success stories of RIM policy implementation have been reported and documented in various papers. For instance, Delasalle (2013) writes about a success story of research information management at University of Warwick where a RIM policy, which was compatible with the requirements of important funders and satisfied the particular needs of the university, was implemented and set the direction for best practice in research information management. Hodson and Jones (2013) in their paper titled 'Seven rules of successful research data management in universities', also mention RIM policy and strategy as one of the seven rules for successful research information management in universities.

The socio-cultural or ethical issue of RIM in HEIs can be unravelled by sensitising and incentivising researchers. It is important that researchers become aware of the many benefits of RIM. Brown et al. (2015) write that in order to overcome the challenge of researchers' reluctance to provide research information, it is important that a robust RIM policy should build or support a reward culture to excite researchers to provide information. The authors emphasise that researchers need explicit and meaningful rewards for engaging effectively with RIM as compliance alone will not result in researchers embracing RIM willingly. It is also argued that diversifying the reward structures would motivate the researchers to provide information as most current reward structures seem to be too focussed on high impact journal publications (Brown et al. 2015). Jeffery (2012) writes that the social challenge regarding reluctance by researchers to engage with the research information management system can be lowered by intuitive, intelligent and helpful user interfaces with associated help or learning facilities to assist the researcher.

The financial problem affecting HEIs regarding RIM can be reduced if HEIs can diversify ways of funding, rather than relying on government funding as is the situation in some HEIs, particularly in Africa (Njuguna and Itegi 2013). One way of diversifying sources of funding is by intensifying research and producing information which is usable to society. Reputable research in HEIs is likely to attract the attention of funders who will be willing to invest in research. However, for this to work well there is need for a research base to be established in HEIs. Therefore, governments are implored to fund HEIs to establish the research structures which will assist in spearheading the research excellence in HEIs.

Conclusion

HEIs are encouraged to take an active role and embrace RIM and associated dissemination activities, so that research is discoverable and usable by various actors. Therefore, investment in infrastructure development, such as a network and systems to support integrated storage and access to research information, is important. Equally important is the implementation of effective RIM policy, which will provide best practices for researchers to follow.