Anyone willing to estimate how many times per day the adjective “decentralized” gets uttered in the administrative halls of US higher education? American research universities are notoriously decentralized in their organizational structure and decision processes. On the positive side, this allows institutions to function in an inclusive, democratic manner, in which faculty have a strong voice, and the most effective leaders are the best consensus builders.

However, it also means that university administrations can be slow to respond to social and technological advances and that sorely needed change is often long in coming. The costly implications include significant redundancy across units in administrative technologies, a lack of coordination in policies and systems, and the large burden on researchers that results from having to interface with this uncoordinated infrastructure.

This picture stands in stark contrast to what we see at universities based in countries like the UK, where there is government-mandated reporting on research productivity. British universities are, on the whole, many years ahead when it comes to coordinated research information tracking and reporting. As a result, British researchers benefit from more support when it comes to using tools to help them track their own publications and scholarly activities. But even in the absence of national assessment exercises, which no one would wish on U.S. researchers, U.S. universities stand to benefit greatly from efforts to streamline and integrate the management of scholarly information, both in terms of cost savings and improved “business intelligence”.

At the vast majority of research universities the capacity to support data-driven planning, in areas ranging from faculty hiring, promotion, tenure and sponsored research strategy, is handicapped by the absence of coordinated research information management. Greater coordination in the management of research information across institutional silos is imperative, to help researchers and administrators meet growing demands – from internal, as well as external sources, such as funder requirements – to track research and other academic data. By research information I mean both the research itself, such as publications and data, and information about the research enterprise, such as faculty appointments, grants, and other academic activities.

While there is growing awareness of these challenges at senior administration levels with US universities, and a variety of excellent new technologies intended to help institutions, progress towards optimally integrated, coordinated management of these information types has been slow, even at the most well-resourced institutions.

Based on my conversations with administrators at several institutions, it is seemingly not unusual for a Vice Provost for Research, who bears responsibility for compliance with federal research data requirements, to implement policies and solutions without coordinating with the library administrators who are responsible for providing researchers with data archiving solutions. Similarly, there are many technical systems at universities that traffic in information about faculty – faculty websites, faculty activity reports, repositories, grants management systems, human resource systems, etc. – but that do not share data or otherwise interoperate. In large part this is because no one seems to “own” interoperability or have the authority to insist that a system serving one academic department or administrative unit be designed to exchange data with systems controlled by other administrative entities.

The risks and costs of failing to coordinate operations in this area include duplicative systems and planning efforts; continued failure to leverage available business intelligence; data inaccuracies and the added burden of reconciling data across multiple silos; and the sheer inability of central administrators to help departments and faculty manage these important information resources. One university administrator I spoke with estimated that the tenure and promotion review process currently costs her institution over $10 million per year and can take up to 300 days per case. How’s that for inefficiency?

What might the job description for a hypothetical Research Information Manager look like? To begin with, it might include the following responsibilities:

  • Convene stakeholders from the library, information technology, institutional research, human resources and the provost’s office, to devise and promote a university-wide research information management strategy
  • Develop faculty data standards and best practices, as well as university policies on data sharing and access, and advise on central and local academic planning efforts
  • Support central and local units on faculty data process improvements; implement mechanisms to track faculty awards, honors, leadership activities, and create a faculty expertise classification system
  • Launch a range of new faculty and research information services in partnership with the library, and co-manage relevant purchasing and development resource allocation decisions

Observant readers will note the prominence of the library voice in the above list. The library role in the stewardship of the institution’s scholarship places library systems and expertise at the core of this vision. Our academic institutions need to formalize the research information management and strategy function, and provide their libraries with a larger and more well-resourced role in these efforts.

Who knows, maybe one day soon we’ll start seeing job positions in the Chronicle of Higher Education for Research Information Manger, reporting to the University Librarian.