Skip to Content

Research Information Management

Research information is structured information about projects, researchers, research outputs and their impact throughout the life cycle of the research, as well as about participating organisations such as universities and funders. However research information is often spread across different systems - in university departments such as finance offices and human resources departments, in institutional repositories or with external bodies such as research funders or the Higher Education Statistics Agency (HESA) in the UK. University research offices are often tasked with managing this information across the institution for the purposes of external research reporting and internal research management processes.

Author: Rosemary Russell
Last updated on 2 May 2013 - 3:31pm

Research information has traditionally been created and managed in an ad hoc manner, depending on the changing needs of external reporting processes for funders and internal research management processes. However, many different individuals in various departments across an institution may be responsible, from the inception of a research project through to its completion, for different parts of that information, which may or may not be coordinated into a reusable corpus of data. Increasingly, technological solutions are being sought to manage this data across the various departmental processes and heterogeneous software platforms and databases that they may be using, although there is often little interoperability across the services. Many institutions are still relying in great part on manual entry of data from paper forms, although there is increasing use of new technology: this varies considerably between universities.

In these circumstances efficient management is difficult – information is often duplicated across multiple services since identification and exchange of required data is impractical. In order to meet former Research Assessment Exercise (RAE) reporting requirements in the UK, many universities developed temporary systems, which were often costly solutions. It is not yet clear whether these will, in all cases, be appropriate for the purposes of the Research Excellence Framework (REF) that has replaced the RAE. In recognition of the need for better overall management, as well as the increasingly regular reporting demands from multiple funders, many UK universities have been implementing CRIS – Current Research Information Systems. Some CRIS are based on the CERIF metadata format. The commercial platforms all now implement CERIF either wholly or in part; where universities have developed bespoke, in-house software solutions, these systems are much less likely to be in any way compliant with CERIF.

Another acronym commonly used to refer to the same broad area of work is RMA - Research Management and Administration; ARMA is the Association of Research Managers and Administrators UK. In this context, Electronic Research Administration (ERA) is considered to be any IT-based systems that supports RMA. The current RMAS project is described in the next section.

There are a number of drivers for the current upsurge of interest in improving research information management in UK HEIs; most prominent is the upcoming REF exercise, although institutions are also taking a longer term view and implementing systems to meet broader management and reporting requirements on an ongoing basis. RIM is currently experiencing significant investment across the sector and a lot of useful work is being carried out.

The ongoing JISC RIM Programme has been influential in driving development and promoting best practice. JISC commissioned a significant study in 2009 - EXRI-UK (Exchanging Research Information in the UK) - which recommended that CERIF should be the basis for the exchange of research information in the UK. The RIM Programme has subsequently focused effort on increasing uptake and engagement with CERIF.

The Common European Research Information Format (CERIF) is a standard for managing and exchanging research data. It provides a data model and metadata elements that can be used to describe the research domain, including relationships between the constituent parts, and how these change over time. CERIF is a complex standard with a relatively steep learning curve. However, its flexibility means that it has the ability to support the complexities of the research information domain; there are significant advantages to be gained from using a CERIF-compliant CRIS to achieve a standardised and interoperable managed research information environment. There is currently no significant metadata standard that directly competes with CERIF, although the same ends can be achieved by assembling a de facto application profile from subsets of other metadata schemas, most prominently Dublin Core. This is effectively the most frequent approach that is taken, on a local basis, where CERIF is not in use.

CERIF can be used in three main ways:

  • as a model for implementation of a standalone CRIS (but interoperation-ready)
  • as a model to define the wrapper around a legacy non-CERIF CRIS to allow homogeneous access to heterogeneous systems
  • as a definition of a data exchange format to create a common data warehouse from several CRIS.

There are many existing examples of each type of use. A set of CERIF CRIS case studies was produced for the DRIVER project, covering Denmark, Ireland and the Netherlands . Denmark, for example has had a centralised national CERIF CRIS system for many years. Trinity College Dublin and other universities in Ireland have successfully integrated their CERIF CRIS and institutional repositories. However institutions with existing fit-for-purpose non-CERIF CRIS can still realise significant benefits by installing a CERIF ‘wrapper’ to act as an interface between internal data structures and the external environment.

Some CERIF CRIS systems have been developed by institutions in-house (such as Trinity College Dublin), but it is now more common to purchase a commercial solution. Pure from Atira and CONVERIS from Avedas are examples of commercial systems built on the CERIF data model and in use across Europe. A large number of UK institutions have recently bought Pure and CONVERIS software, and are in the process of implementation. Symplectic is another UK-based platform which has become CERIF-compliant. In 2010 it was estimated that between 10-15% of UK HE institutions had a CERIF-compliant CRIS; by early 2012 this had increased to 30%. A UKOLN document produced to support the JISC RIM Call for proposals in July 2011 reports on UK CERIF initiatives. An updated summary table is also included at Appendix C of the UK CERIF Landscape study. UKOLN also maintains a set of broader resources relating to research information management activities, particularly in the UK.

A CRIS would normally be implemented using a subset or superset of the full CERIF model, depending on the size and complexity of the requirement.

RIM: institutional issues

  • Understanding institutional data
    • Information about research is spread across many departments within institutions
  • Data access negotiation
    • Reaching agreement on access to research data eg financial and HR information can be challenging; high-level support within the institution is needed (PVC for Research in particular), in addition to diplomacy
  • Data quality
    • Research information is often stored in ad-hoc, non-standardised systems such as departmental spreadsheets. It is frequently only when data needs to be exchanged across systems that inaccuracies and inconsistencies even within one system are highlighted. Institutions implementing CRIS have found data cleaning/standardisation to be a particularly useful by-product.
  • Data mapping
    • Mapping data correctly is challenging and time consuming; compromises may be required
  • CRIS/Institutional Repository interaction
    • Most institutions have integrated the institutional repository with the CRIS; however many have started to question whether the CRIS can replace IR functionality. King’s College London and the University of Bristol are the first universities to take the decision to use Pure to provide IR functions.

RIM: UK research community issues

  • Research organisation agreements
    • Alignment is needed across the wider research domain eg vocabularies
  • A centralised service?
    • Is a national shared service for research information needed for the UK? The UKRISS project is conducting a feasibility study.
  • CRIS vendor market
    • The CERIF CRIS market in the UK is concentrated on just three vendors; in particular, one system has been favoured by UK institutions since 2010 (Pure). Only one university (Huddersfield) is developing an in-house CERIF CRIS.
  • CRIS user group organisation
    • The rapid growth in CRIS uptake has resulted in very large CRIS user groups which now require some reorganisation to ensure continuing effectiveness.

RIM: CERIF issues

  • UK alignment
    • Agreement across organisations is required on how CERIF is used eg schemas
  • CERIF complexity
    • There is a widespread perception that CERIF is a complex standard, and sometimes that it is overly complex for institutional needs.
    • In particular, institutions find CERIF semantics complex.
  • Lack of CERIF expertise
    • Many institutions are not engaging with CERIF directly, with a resulting lack of expertise in the UK - there is a dependence on vendors, as well as on several existing instutional CERIF experts via user groups. This contrasts directly with the rapid UK uptake of CERIF. It is likely to change as more institutions complete their CRIS implementations.
    • Some institutions are concerned that lack of expertise will hinder full exploitation of their CRIS
  • euroCRIS participation
    • The only UK institutions actively involved in euroCRIS are those working on JISC projects. (Again, this may change as the market matures.)
  • CERIF is untested
    • The CERIF capabilities of UK CRIS are largely untested because the organisations collecting research information (eg HEFCE, the Research Councils, HESA) have not had CERIF-enabled systems. This has now started to change eg a test version of a CERIFied ROS (RCUK Research Outputs System) is now available; HEFCE is working towards CERIF for REF.
  • CERIF benefits still to come
    • The key benefits of CERIF have not yet been realised because of the lack of fully implemented CERIF systems in the UK to enable full exchange of data. See bullet above - the day is approaching.
  • Nearly 70% of UK institutions do not have a CERIF CRIS.

Dr. Radut | subject