A marathon, not a sprint: implementing research information management systems (RIMS) in the US

Photo by Markus Spiske on Unsplash

Research information management systems (RIMS) are an area of growth and investment for US libraries, which OCLC Research has explored in several previous research reports. Recently the OCLC Research Library Partnership hosted a webinar where we learned about the RIMS implementations at three partner institutions through presentations from:

  • Jason Glenn, Program Director for Research Information Management Services, Carnegie Mellon University Libraries
  • Brian Mathews, Associate Dean, Research & Innovation, Carnegie Mellon University Libraries
  • Laura Simon, Research Support Librarian, Bernard Becker Medical Library, Washington University School of Medicine in St. Louis Missouri
  • Mark Zulauf, Researcher Information Systems Coordinator, University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign

Each presenter shared about the origin, history, and current status of their RIMS implementation, along with information about system scope, uses, and institutional partners. While I’m providing a high level synthesis in this post, I encourage you to review the publicly available video recording and slides.

RIMS support multiple use cases

In the 2021 OCLC Research report, Research Information Management in the United States, we identified six discrete use cases for US RIMS systems, and the webinar presenters shared about the four use cases currently being supported at their institutions:

  • Public portals that feature profiles of individual researchers affiliated with the institution, to support expertise discovery and institutional reputation management
  • Metadata reuse through repurposing of RIMS data for dynamic updates to faculty or unit web pages and directories
  • Strategic reporting and decision support through reports and visualizations, often in response to queries about research collaboration and impact
  • Faculty activity reporting, to support annual academic progress reviews and/or tenure and promotion workflows
Public portals

The need to support reputation management and expertise discovery through a public portal was the impetus for RIMS adoption at both the University of Illinois and Washington University School of Medicine. Both institutions license the Pure system from Elsevier, and each institution has about 3,000 public faculty and researcher profiles. At Carnegie Mellon, which licenses Symplectic Elements as part of the broader Digital Science suite utilized there, about one third of 1,500 faculty profiles are now publicly available.

The expertise discovery portals support campus users in many ways at all three institutions. For instance, Laura described how Research Profiles is used at WashU to promote mentors and enhance recruitment for students, postdocs, and residents and fellows. Today Illinois Experts, which has been live since 2016, has about 40,000 visitors/month, and is used to find research collaborators, support media requests and links to research outputs, and identify reviewers for fellowship and award committees.

These public portals promote a consistent brand image, which is explicitly leveraged in Washington University School of Medicine marketing materials, particularly as a single, aggregated referral site about the school’s research productivity.

Metadata reuse

Colleges, departments, labs, and faculty members have long maintained their own web pages. However, by leveraging the Pure API, many Illinois units now receive dynamic updates from Illinois Experts, reducing burdensome data reentry and ensuring that information is current and synchronized with other campus pages. Similarly, the WashU Department of Medicine utilizes RSS feeds to maintain a current list of publications for each of its divisions. RSS feeds are also used to maintain publication lists for laboratory or individual web pages at Illinois.

Strategic reporting and decision support

RIMS are part of the toolkit that libraries are increasingly utilizing to support data-driven decision making. Both Illinois and Carnegie Mellon use RIMS data to support timely and accurate decision support for campus needs such as accreditation, bibliometric and research impact analysis, and grant proposal preparation. RIMS data has been leveraged at both institutions to answer questions about the breadth of research in areas such as food scarcity or AI, revealing expertise spread across many campus units. Illinois has also used RIMS to explore collaboration networks, by quantifying institutional collaborations with external industry partners and identifying units where researchers have co-authored with other researchers at minority-serving institutions.

Carnegie Mellon, in particular, is investing in this area, working to build expertise and capacity to support data visualization and reporting for campus users, similar to the type of library-based research analytics and decision support resources in place at Virginia Tech.

Faculty activity reporting (FAR)

At many (and probably most) US research institutions, RIMS facilitating public profiles are separate from platforms that support faculty activity reporting, annual performance reviews, and tenure and promotion processes. Furthermore, these faculty information system (FIS) processes are often still decentralized at the college level, although campus centralization of these workflows is trending upward, as seen at institutions like UCLA, Penn State, and Texas A&M.

Neither Illinois nor the Washington University School of Medicine are currently supporting the faculty activity reporting (FAR) use case. However, Carnegie Mellon is supporting FAR in a limited way by leveraging Elements data to develop standardized CVs for reappointment, promotion, and tenure processes for College of Fine Arts faculty.

Greater interoperability between these systems offers significant potential to reduce redundant data entry practices for faculty and staff, and I see growth as likely—particularly as more institutions seek to centralize FIS workflows for increased efficiency and cost savings.

Unsupported use cases

Unsurprisingly, given weaker national mandates in the United States, the presenters didn’t mention leveraging the other two use cases described in the 2021 report:

  • Open access workflows that simplify researcher deposit processes into institutional repositories
  • Compliance monitoring through the tracking and reporting of information about research activities or open research, in response to external mandates.

These use cases dominate in other national environments such as the UK, Australia, Belgium, Netherlands, and Finland, and offer potentialities for future US uses as well.

Challenges

Each of the presentations made it clear that successfully implementing a RIMS is extremely challenging, including such things as:

  • Faculty skepticism
  • No mandates for unit or researcher buy-in
  • Churn in campus leadership, resulting in uneven support (or even awareness), which can put a RIMS program at risk of losing support
  • Tensions between institutional and researcher needs
  • Decentralization
  • Resource limitations
  • The absence of any implemented use cases to build upon (i.e., you are starting from scratch)
  • The necessity of building trust-based collaborative relationships with other campus units

There are also specific limitations related to the data in the RIMS:

  • Need to enrich with data from a broad range of internal and external sources
  • Limitations of scope and usefulness of local HR data
  • Gaps in coverage for humanities, arts, and social sciences

Data enrichment and expanding uses over time

Mark Zulauf’s slides provide a powerful visual representation of maturation of the Illinois Experts system since its launch in 2016. At that time, it primarily aggregated publications for affiliated researchers, harvested from Scopus, with the public portal as the only user of that data. Today, the aggregated dataset is much more robust and useful for facilitating campus insights, as it also includes patents, press/media reports, honors and awards, and researcher datasets ingested from multiple campus sources.

The 2023 slide also visualizes the increase in use cases and data consumers. In addition to the expertise discovery portal, the data is shared via API with campus web pages and the ORCID registry. And it is also available for use for institutional analysis and reporting. The system is now widely used across campus, providing previously unavailable insights and saving time in many ways, the result of a sustained investment by the University of Illinois Library and the Office of the Vice Chancellor for Research.

Strategies for success

The presenters described some of the strategies they applied to make forward progress with their RIMS, despite the challenges.

Build a richer dataset. Most RIMS implementations begin with metadata harvesting from external sources like Scopus, but, as Mark described, this is really just the starting place. By partnering with other campus units, the RIMS can include local data like patents and academic honors, making for a more robust view of campus research activities. Carnegie Mellon shares this vision, with a view of adding institutional facilities and equipment to their RIMS, to provide additional insights about the connections and ROI of these resources. WashU adds local membership data from on-campus centers and institutes to showcase relationships to help support buy-in.

Directly engage with campus units. To support metadata reuse in other campus systems, the Illinois Library worked with the web development teams in the colleges of Liberal Arts and Sciences and Education on API integration into their websites. This investment has played a critical role in securing campus buy-in for Illinois Experts, first with administrators and later with faculty.

Tailor solutions to unit needs. Operating in a decentralized, even federated campus environment, Carnegie Mellon has worked to identify the pain points of individual colleges and develop a plan for each unit. For the Tepper School of Business, this has meant leveraging Elements data to support accreditation reporting, while the library has provided aggregated publications for analysis to the College of Engineering.

Stay laser focused. Related to their RIMS effort that began in 2019, Laura Simon emphasized the need to stay focused on the core objective of expertise discovery (the public portal use case). For Washington University School of Medicine, a conservative approach to deliver on this goal, despite other interesting opportunities, has helped them succeed.

This is a marathon, not a sprint

A major takeaway from this webinar was that achieving success with RIMS in the US takes time. It furthermore requires focus, investment, collaboration, and commitment to the project despite the significant challenges. Libraries are achieving success as campus leaders in these implementations, by leveraging library expertise with publications metadata, scholarly communications, persistent identifiers, publications indexes, open research, bibliometrics, and much more. I hope you will take the time to watch the full webinar presentation.

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