Why is it so difficult to understand the benefits of research infrastructure? – Digital Science

Persistent identifiers – or PIDs – are long-lasting references to digital resources. In other words, they are a unique label to an entity: a person, place, or thing. PIDs work by redirecting the user to the online resource, even if the location of that resource changes. They also have associated metadata which contains information about the entity and also provide links to other PIDs. For example, many scholars already populate their ORCID records, linking themselves to their research outputs through Crossref and DataCite DOIs. As the PID ecosystem matures, to include PIDs for grants (Crossref grant IDs), projects (RAiD), and organisations (ROR), the connections between PIDs form a graph that describes the research landscape. In this post, Phill Jones talks about the work that the MoreBrains cooperative has been doing to show the value of a connected PID-based infrastructure.

Over the past year or so, we at MoreBrains have been working with a number of national-level research supporting organisations to develop national persistent identifier (PID) strategies: Jisc in the UK; the Australian Research Data Commons (ARDC) and Australian Access Federation (AAF) in Australia; and the Canadian Research Knowledge Network CRKN, Digital Research Alliance of Canada (DRAC), and Canadian Persistent Identifier Advisory Committee (CPIDAC) in Canada. In all three cases, we’ve been investigating the value of developing PID-based research infrastructures, and using data from various sources, including Dimensions, to quantify that value. In our most recent analysis, we found that investing in five priority PIDs could save the Australian research sector as much as 38,000 person days of work per year, equivalent to $24 million (AUD), purely in direct time savings from rekeying of information into institutional research management systems.

Investing in infrastructure makes a lot of sense, whether you’re building roads, railways, or research infrastructure. But wise investors also want evidence that their investment is worthwhile – that the infrastructure is needed, that it will be used, and, ideally, that there will be a return of some kind on their investment. Sometimes, all of this is easy to measure; sometimes, it’s not.

In the case of PID infrastructure, there has long been a sense that investment would be worthwhile. In 2018, in his advice to the UK government, Adam Tickell recommended:

Jisc to lead on selecting and promoting a range of unique identifiers, including ORCID, in collaboration with sector leaders with relevant partner organisations

More recently, in Australia, the Minister for Education, Jason Clare, wrote a letter of expectations to the Australian Research Council in which he stated:

Streamlining the processes undertaken during National Competitive Grant Program funding rounds must be a high priority for the ARC… I ask that the ARC identify ways to minimise administrative burden on researchers

In the same letter, Minister Clare even suggested that preparations for the 2023 ERA be discontinued until a plan to make the process easier has been developed. While he didn’t explicitly mention PIDs in the letter, organisations like ARDC, AAF, and ARC see persistent identifiers as a big part of the solution to this problem.

A problem of chickens and eggs?

With all the modern information technology available to us it seems strange that, in 2022, we’re still hearing calls to develop basic research management infrastructure. Why hasn’t it already been developed? Part of the problem is that very little work has been done to quantify the value of research infrastructure in general, or PID-based infrastructure in particular. Organisations like Crossref, Datacite, and ORCID are clear success stories but, other than some notable exceptions like this, not much has been done to make the benefits of investment clear at a policy level – until now.

It’s very difficult to analyse the costs and benefits of PID adoption without being able to easily measure what’s happening in the scholarly ecosystem. So, in these recent analyses that we were commissioned to do, we asked questions like:

  • How many research grants were awarded to institutions within a given country?
  • How many articles have been published based on work funded by those grants?
  • What proportion of researchers within a given country have ORCID IDs?
  • How many research projects are active at any given time?

All these questions proved challenging to answer because, fundamentally, it’s extremely difficult to quantify the scale of research activity and the connections between research entities in the absence of universally adopted PIDs. In other words, we need a well-developed network of PIDs in order to easily quantify the benefits of investing in PIDs in the first place! (see Figure 1.)

Luckily, the story doesn’t end there. Thanks to data donated by Digital Science, and other organisations including ORCID, Crossref, Jisc, ARDC, AAF, and several research institutions in the UK, Canada, and Australia, we were able to piece together estimates for many of our calculations.

Take, for example, the Digital Science Dimensions database, which provided us with the data we needed for our Australian and UK use cases. It uses advanced computation and sophisticated machine learning approaches to build a graph of research entities like people, grants, publications, outputs, institutions etc. While other similar graphs exist, some of which are open and free to use – for example, the DataCite PID graph (accessed through DataCite commons), OpenAlex, and the ResearchGraph foundation – the Dimensions graph is the most complete and accessible so far. It enabled us to estimate total research activity in both the UK and Australia.

However, all our estimates are… estimates, because they involve making an automated best guess of the connections between research entities, where those connections are not already explicit. If the metadata associated with PIDs were complete and freely available in central PID registries, we could easily and accurately answer questions like ‘How many active researchers are there in a given country?’ or ‘How many research articles were based on funding from a specific funder or grant program?’

The five priority PIDs

As a starting point towards making these types of questions easy to answer, we recommend that policy-makers work with funders, institutions, publishers, PID organisations, and other key stakeholders around the world to support the adoption of five priority PIDs:

  • DOIs for funding grants
  • DOIs for outputs (eg publications, datasets, etc)
  • ORCIDs for people
  • RAiDs for projects
  • ROR for research-performing organisations

We prioritised these PIDs based on research done in 2019, sponsored by Jisc and in response to the Tickell report, to identify the key PIDs needed to support open access workflows in institutions. Since then, thousands of hours of research and validation across a range of countries and research ecosystems have verified that these PIDs are critical not just for open access but also for improving research workflows in general.

Going beyond administrative time savings

In our work, we have focused on direct savings from a reduction in administrative burden because those benefits are the most easily quantifiable; they’re easiest for both researchers and research administrators to relate to, and they align with established policy aims. However, the actual benefits of investing in PID-based infrastructure are likely far greater.

Evidence given to the UK House of Commons Science and Technology Committee in 2017 stated that every £1 spent on Research and Innovation in the UK results in a total benefit of £7 to the UK economy. The same is likely to be true for other countries, so the benefit to national industrial strategies of increased efficiency in research are potentially huge.

Going a step further, the universal adoption of the five priority PIDs would also enable institutions, companies, funders, and governments to make much better research strategy decisions. At the moment, bibliometric and scientometric analyses to support research strategy decisions are expensive and time-consuming; they rely on piecing together information based on incomplete evidence. By using PIDs for entities like grants, outputs, people, projects, and institutions, and ensuring that the associated metadata links to other PIDs, it’s possible to answer strategically relevant questions by simply extracting and combining data from PID registries.

Final thoughts

According to UNESCO, global spending on R&D has reached US$1.7 trillion per year, and with commitments from countries to address the UN sustainable development goals, that figure is set to increase. Given the size of that investment and the urgency of the problems we face, building and maintaining the research infrastructure makes sound sense. It will enable us to track, account for, and make good strategic decisions about how that money is being spent.

Phill Jones

About the Author

Phill Jones, Co-founder, Digital and Technology | MoreBrains Cooperative

Phill is a product innovator, business strategist, and highly qualified research scientist. He is a co-founder of the MoreBrains Cooperative, a consultancy working at the forefront of scholarly infrastructure, and research dissemination. Phill has been the CTO at Emerald Publishing, Director of Publishing Innovation at Digital Science and the Editorial Director at JoVE. In a previous career, he was a bio-physicist at Harvard Medical School and holds a PhD in Physics from Imperial College, London.

The MoreBrains Cooperative is a team of consultants that specialise in and share the values of open research with a focus on scholarly communications, and research information management, policy, and infrastructures. They work with funders, national research supporting organisations, institutions, publishers and startups. Examples of their open reports can be found here: morebrains.coop/repository

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Open Access Monographs: Digital Scholarship as Catalyst – Digital Science

Bringing humanistic research into the digital environment – and supporting new and diverse voices and perspectives – is one of the great benefits of Open Access, write the authors of the latest in our OA books series.

How research is generated and shared can drive meaningful change across disciplines, organizations, and communities. Consider digital scholarship. Emerging tools and methodologies prompt new questions; resultant hypotheses and argumentation call for innovative presentations; interactivity and other enhanced user experiences bring about heightened awareness and agency; increased inclusivity leads to new, diverse perspectives. Combining digital scholarship with open access (OA) publishing models expands significantly the possibilities for impact by offering more equitable access to research, alongside new and powerful ways for authors to articulate complex arguments. In sum, the intersection between innovative forms of scholarship and revolutionary dissemination processes can benefit multiple stakeholders the world over.

Creating multimodal digital monographs, for many authors, is about making the humanities relevant and accessible to wider audiences who can both benefit from and contribute to scholarly production in tangible, meaningful ways. At the same, open access publication provides not only wide distribution but also a mechanism by which digital scholarship may undergo formal development and evaluation with a university press. But the ability to create open multimodal publications is itself fraught with inequity, requiring collaboration partners, expertise, and funding not yet widely available to all scholars or to their publishers.

In an effort to take stock of the wide range of innovative practices and system-changing interventions that characterize a growing body of digital scholarly publications, Brown University and Emory University co-hosted a summit in spring 2021. The intention from the start was to call attention to the faculty-led experimentation that was taking place across a number of libraries and humanities centers, some of which already involved university presses. Shifting the focus away from tools and technology, as important as those discussions remain to the larger scholarly communications ecosystem, the summit emphasized author and audience needs and opportunities. As such, it highlighted the importance of investing in a people-centric, content-driven infrastructure.

“How can we encourage a shared vocabulary for these reimagined forms of humanities scholarship?”

Case studies of eight recently published or in-development OA works provided the basis for in-depth, evidence-based discussions among scholars, academic staff experts, and representatives from university presses: What models for publishing enhanced and interactive scholarly projects are emerging? What are the common challenges that remain and how do we address them? How can we encourage a shared vocabulary for these reimagined forms of humanities scholarship among the wider scholarly communications community?

While each of the projects, representing a broad disciplinary range and span of subject matter, offers a different perspective, when taken together they reveal lessons learned and clarify key priorities. All the projects demonstrate in myriad ways how digital content and affordances can enrich and deepen a scholarly argument. Some works provide distinct opportunities to examine the ethical implications of humanities research and to consider the new ways in which digital publication engages with audiences beyond the academy. Others foreground the powerful outcomes of collaborations between university presses and universities, modeling how such partnerships leverage resources and expertise to strengthen the humanities infrastructure and allow for innovation within it.

Although the summit focused on a selection of projects supported by the Mellon Foundation’s Digital Monographs Initiative, the presentations and generative discussions that followed raised important concerns and opportunities that extend well beyond the featured projects. These findings were released in July 2022 at the Association of University Presses 2022 Annual Meeting in Washington, D.C. A key objective of the report, “Multimodal Digital Monographs: Content, Collaboration, Community,” is to promote greater inclusion and equitable access of diverse voices as the development, validation, and dissemination of digital scholarship continues to unfold.

That digital scholarship developed and distributed as an OA monograph can transform how and where research is carried out and whom it reaches is undeniable. In the case of Feral Atlas: The More-than-Human Anthropocene (Stanford University Press, 2021), four project editors compiled the contributions of more than 100 scientists, humanists, artists, designers, programmers, and coders. The atlas contains 330,000 words and 600+ media assets, and had attracted 60,000 unique visitors in the six months between its publication and the date of the summit. The publication As I Remember It: Teachings from the Life of a Sliammon Elder (University of British Columbia Press, 2019), published on the RavenSpace platform, offers a model for including Indigenous communities in the creation of scholarship, while also addressing the needs of both public and academic audiences through a thoughtful interplay of text and multimedia.

“We need to continue putting pressure on what it means for scholarship to be open, to be digital, to be public.”

For all the successes noted in the report, we need to continue putting pressure on what it means for scholarship to be open, to be digital, to be public. Such scholarship has the potential to offer powerful counterpoints and alternatives to the disinformation that pervades current discourse on the web, and to bridge the gap between scholarly and public discourses.

As the pathways for humanities scholarship expand in the digital era, “Multimodal Digital Monographs: Content, Collaboration, Community” serves as an invitation for all its practitioners to engage in conversation about the evolution of content itself, as well as with the authors who create it and the audiences whom they seek to engage. The importance of sharing and learning together as a community, for finding innovative and productive ways to share expertise and resources through collaborative models, emerges from the summit and cannot be underestimated in these still early and formative days. We further hope that more universities will seek ways to support their own faculty, as well as the publishers of their faculty’s work, in efforts to bring vital humanistic research into the digital environment and to welcome new and diverse voices and perspectives throughout that process.

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