Making strategic choices about library collaboration in RDM

Academic libraries are responding to a host of disruptions – emerging technologies, changing user expectations, evolving research and learning practices, economic pressures, and of course, the COVID-19 pandemic. While these disruptions create challenges, they can also present opportunities to support research and learning in new ways.

Pursuing these opportunities often obliges libraries to invest in new capacities to support evolving roles and shifting priorities. A case in point is research data management (RDM). Securing the long-term persistence of research data, along with enabling its discovery, accessibility, and re-use, is now widely acknowledged as responsible scholarly practice across many disciplines. In response, many academic libraries are investing heavily to acquire RDM capacities as part of a broader effort to support an evolving scholarly record and growing interest in open science.

The recent OCLC Research project Realities of RDM defined a general RDM service space (see figure) and found that academic libraries have adopted a range of strategies for sourcing capacity within this space, including building in-house, contracting with external providers, and collaborating with other institutions around shared programs, expertise, services, and infrastructure.

Examining multi-institutional collaboration in RDM

Among the various sourcing options, multi-institutional collaboration – collective action to meet mutual needs – can be an inviting, or even preferred choice. A number of factors motivate this, ranging from the practical – e.g., recognition that prospective investments are beyond the means of a single institution – to the principled – e.g., arguments that universities should collaboratively own and manage scholarly infrastructure currently controlled by commercial enterprises.

But the decision to source RDM capacity through multi-institutional collaborative arrangements is a strategic choice that must be evaluated on a case-by-case basis. Collaboration is a sourcing option that entails both benefits and costs, and different libraries will make different choices. Our OCLC colleague Lorcan Dempsey recently observed that:

“it is not simply more collaboration that is needed – it is a strategic view of collaboration … There should be active, informed decision-making about what needs to be done locally and what would benefit from stronger coordination or consolidation within collaborative organizations.”

This observation is the starting point for a new OCLC Research project, Library Collaboration in RDM, in which we will examine what “active, informed decision-making” means in the context of choosing to source RDM capacities collaboratively across institutions. What circumstances suggest that cross-institutional collaboration is a better choice for RDM than other sourcing options? RDM is an excellent context for exploring these questions, in that it is both an emerging area of strategic interest to academic libraries, and one in which the decision to collaborate is highly relevant. Our goal in conducting this project is to help academic libraries make intentional, strategic choices about cross-institutional collaboration in RDM.

The project will consist of two phases.

  • In the first, we will explore relevant academic literatures such as economics, political science, and organizational theory to see what they have to say about the factors and decision points that figure most prominently in the decision to source capacity through collaborative arrangements. In reviewing these literatures and synthesizing their major findings, we hope to build a framework of “strategic principles” guiding the decision to collaborate: the key elements to consider when evaluating the pros and cons of the collaboration option. Our inspiration here again comes from Lorcan, who has noted that “there is a large literature on organizations across several disciplines which would provide a valuable context for the examination of collaborative library work.”
  • With these strategic principles in hand, the second phase of the project will explore how they play out in real-world decision-making about multi-institutional collaboration in RDM. We will conduct a set of interview-based case studies in which we will use the strategic principles as an analytical frame, taking a “deep dive” into how they shape the process of evaluating the collaboration option. Combining the results from both phases of the work, we will then work out some general recommendations for academic libraries as they consider which RDM activities are usefully pursued through cross-institutional collaborative arrangements, and which are best accomplished through other sourcing options. Although our recommendations will be developed in the context of RDM decision-making, we expect that they will also inform any situation where collaboration is being considered as a sourcing option. 

The Library Collaboration in RDM project benefits from the deep expertise of an international advisory committee:

  • Donna Bourne-Tyson, Dean of Libraries, Dalhousie University
  • David Groenewegen, Director, Research, Monash University Library
  • David Minor, Program Director for Research Data Curation, University of California San Diego Library
  • Judy Ruttenberg, Senior Director of Scholarship and Policy, Association of Research Libraries
  • Michael Witt, Interim Associate Dean for Research, Purdue University Libraries and School of Information Studies
  • Maurice York, Director of Library Initiatives, Big Ten Academic Alliance

We are grateful for the opportunity to consult with this group as the research moves forward.

Why is this work important?

Library collaboration has always been an important topic, but never more so than today. Advances in digital and network technologies have amplified the benefits and lowered the costs of collaborations that lift capacity above the scale of a single institution, at the same time that economic pressures have called into question the feasibility of duplicating capacity across institutions at sub-optimal scales. The onset of the COVID-19 pandemic has introduced new uncertainties into the mix, and collaboration may be seen as an opportunity to blunt the impact of risk and economic burdens by spreading them across multiple institutions. As interest in the collaboration option grows, it becomes correspondingly more important for academic libraries to be purposeful and strategic in their collaboration choices.    

Stay tuned for more information on this project as it unfolds. Please get in touch with me or my colleague Chris Cyr with any questions; we’d be happy to hear from you!

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