Intra-campus collaboration around research support: Formal or informal?

Photo by Aubrey Rose Odom on Unsplash

Think about intra-campus collaboration around research support at your institution – how does it take place? How are campus stakeholders brought together around these services?

  • Does it occur through “top down” standing committees, task forces, working groups, policies, or other types of formalized inter-unit arrangements?
  • Or is it catalyzed through “informal” channels, driven by personal relationships, influential champions, and serendipitous discovery of mutual interests?

Research support services are a growing part of the academic library mission, but the provision of these services is often the joint responsibility of multiple campus units, working in partnership with the library. Consider, for example, a research data repository that is maintained through campus IT services; data documentation, description, and deposit support offered through the library; and repository metadata funneled into the institutional research information management system operated by the Research Office. In our recent Realities of RDM report series, we noted the prevalence of multi-unit responsibility for research data management (RDM) services, with RDM capacity often branded at the institutional level rather than under the aegis of any single campus unit.

Recent discussions by the OCLC Research Library Partnership (RLP) Research Support Interest Group gave us an opportunity to hear about the ways intra-campus collaborations around research support services played out. Some key observations from the discussions include:

Collaborative relationships on campus are both formal and informal

In the discussion, participants supplied examples of both formal and informal collaborations enabling research support services.

One participant offered an interesting example of a hybrid approach: she built relationships with colleagues on campus in order to be included on formal committees that afforded opportunities for collaboration. In this case, cultivating relationships through informal channels led to more formal collaborative arrangements. Another participant pointed out that while collaborations can begin informally, strengthening them through more formal arrangements, such as an MOU, might become important over time.

Who you know is important … build your networks

Although participants acknowledged the importance of both formal and informal channels for catalyzing collaboration, the discussion seemed to return again and again to the more informal approach of proactively building cross-unit personal relationships, and having those relationships drive collaboration.

This can be especially important for librarians, whom campus stakeholders may not readily imagine as a prospective partner for research support services. Building relationships across campus can raise the profile of the library and its resources in communities that historically have had little contact with librarians. For example, one participant noted the value of an invitation to speak at the National Organization of Research Development Professionals (NORDP) conference, which led to many positive interactions within that stakeholder community.

Sustainability can be an issue for informal collaborations

Good collaborations can only release their full value if they are sustainable. In this case, formal collaborative arrangements, with clearly delineated responsibilities, accountability, and explicit budget lines may have the advantage.

Several participants noted concerns about the persistence of initiatives undertaken through informal collaborations, where there is a collective (cross-unit) stake in a project, but no one necessarily treats it as a priority.

Sustainability can also be an issue when the provision of a service is too tightly linked with a particular individual – if that person leaves, the service may disappear. For example, one participant noted that an RDM “office hours” service at their institution ended abruptly when the person responsible for it changed jobs.

Appeal to partners’ missions

Several participants emphasized that successful collaborations on campus – formal or informal – were usually the result of tying the effort into the various partners’ parochial missions. In other words, in advocating for the benefits of a given collaboration, it is not enough to say, “we can collaborate on a service”, but rather, we can collaborate on a service that, if successful, will advance your organizational mission to the campus”.

It is important to keep in mind that each campus partner – including the library – brings a set of organizational interests, special expertise and perspectives, and established ways of getting things done. An important aspect of successful collaboration around research support services is finding complementarities while at the same time managing differences.

While these observations were raised in the context of discussions of campus collaboration around research support services, it is worth noting that they are sound advice for any kind of collaboration, both on campus and beyond.

Provision of research support services is often something that cannot be addressed by a single campus unit; rather, it is a task that must be parceled out to different campus units according to their special expertise and resources. Because of this, effective cross-unit collaboration, whether formal or informal, is an essential ingredient for making research support services robust and sustainable. The importance of this topic, and its increasing relevance in the library service environment, is the motivation behind a new OCLC Research project, in which we are taking a close look at intra-campus collaborations to build, deploy, and sustain research support services. Stay tuned for updates on this project! And if you are affiliated with a Research Library Partnership member institution, please consider joining the Research Support Interest Group.

Thanks to my colleague Rebecca Bryant for helpful advice on improving this post!