Modelling Research Data

Coming up to nearly a year and a half working at the University of Lincoln, my work around research information systems is starting to show some serious progress with a prototype application that we’re currently demoing to interested staff and academics.

A bit of background for the uninitiated. Academic research is a really interesting area and over the last sixteen months I’ve been garnering a greater understanding of what actually goes on not just within a research project, but also surrounding it. There are whole infrastructures set up to support research projects from financial and license management, to recording reach and citation post publication. The big problem is that these infrastructures tend to exist within their own ecosystems within separate institutional departments, sometimes even within third party organisations, and don’t link directly to the others. Central to this, for myself at least, is the institutional repository, a piece of software which allows the University to catalogue each research output generated by an academic under their employ. At Lincoln we use EPrints, and the repository is available at http://eprints.lincoln.ac.uk.

One of the biggest pressures on research staff at Universities, outside of day to day interaction with academics and Research Information Systems (RIS’s) is the Research Excellence Framework (REF). An assessment exercise drawing on an institutions research outputs, the REF is described on the official website as:

The primary purpose of REF [is] to assess the quality of research and produce outcomes for each submission made by institutions:

  • The four higher education funding bodies will use the assessment outcomes to inform the selective allocation of their grant for research to the institutions which they fund, with effect from 2015-16.
  • The assessment provides accountability for public investment in research and produces evidence of the benefits of this investment.
  • The assessment outcomes provide benchmarking information and establish reputational yardsticks, for use within the higher education (HE) sector and for public information.

To create the REF report, the team at the University looks at a number of criteria surrounding research outputs including data such as quality of work, citation counts, impact of outputs and the income generated for the institution. As I’ve previously mentioned, this information is available in disparate systems, but the act of drawing it together in a report is manual and often stressful and tedious.

It really doesn’t need to be.

That’s where the idea of the Research Bridge comes in, an application that will act as a hub for all of these sources of data and allow them to be joined up in a number of different ways.

Building on the ideas explored by the (now sadly defunct) Orbital project (http://orbital.blogs.lincoln.ac.uk/) the bridge is, at its core, a collection of simple functions designed to talk to a number of API’s and retrieve packets of data. By creating very general functions we can then easily repurpose them in the second layer which takes the data provided and “does stuff” with it. That could be anything from a simple display of information to a complex report which compares many different aspects of the data. This is all built onto a WordPress framework for a number of reasons that we will get into later.

Let’s take, for example, the primary view of the bridge which is a function to display a logged in users research outputs, as stored in EPrints, alongside useful citation data. This function in itself shows one of the main reasons I built this on top of WordPress. By using the LDAP authentication plugin, the user need only log in with their standard University credentials. We can then capture their staff ID from the Active Directory. This is the primary ingredient in this function. Once the bridge has this it runs through the following sequence:

  • Retrieve all output records from EPrints relating to the author as JSON
  • Parse through and, for each record:
    • Go to Altmetric and check for any citation data there
    • Go to Scopus and check for any citation data there
    • Add the record to an output container
  • Output the container to the screen

All of that is done using the reserved functions, meaning they can be easily repurposed. Again, with the flexibility of WordPress, we can build these as shortcodes that can be easily inserted into pages, often with specific parameters allowing us to customise the reports to certain users. With user authentication, we can also set up user groups to allow us to restrict access to specific reports, meaning that managers can access the information that they are interested in without it bogging down a dashboard for academics. For the REF, this means that we should be able to monitor outputs and start building a picture of what we want to submit to the next REF in 2020, even building models based on hypothetical acceptance criteria. That would be a powerful tool for the staff involved in putting together the REF submission!

There’s still a lot of work to do in the system, but the mantra of keeping it simple and flexible means that it’s not hard to expand and adapt the functions that we have in place already. We’re looking at localised caching for metrics, working closer with managers and academics to improve the functionality provided and also work with other departments to discover ways we can not only share data out of this system, but also how we can ingest more data to be able to add value to the reports we are generating.

It’s a pretty exciting tool and I’m very keen to get it into the hands of end users. We’re working on pushing it out as a “pre-alpha” so that we can get some commentary and feedback as we develop. Again, using WordPress, I’ve added the BBPress plugin to allow us to set up forums for the users to contribute feedback and help us identify bugs. On a whole, this is a really interesting and properly exciting project, and I hope to be able to talk more about its application in the future!

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