The interoperability imperative in research support

Photo by Mila Tovar on Unsplash

The “dictionary definition” of interoperability is the “ability of a system … to work with or use the parts or equipment of another system.” Boiling this definition down to its very essence, we can say that interoperability involves one thing “working with” another to create value that neither could achieve independently. A growing body of work produced by OCLC Research in the area of research support touches on the theme of interoperability – between systems, between people, and between institutions. And the ubiquity of this theme across our findings, as well as its demonstrated importance in delivering robust, sustainable research support services, has led us to label it “the interoperability imperative.”

Technical interoperability

What does interoperability mean to you? For many, technical interoperability comes to mind: linkages between multiple systems, creating integrated, seamless processes. Research support systems are certainly no strangers to interoperability of this form: think of data exchange and synching between repositories or harmonizing metadata between an institutional repository and a research information management (RIM) system. A forthcoming OCLC Research report Research Information Management in the United States, featuring case studies of RIM systems at five research universities, asserts “In today’s universities, we need our systems to be technically interoperable” and encourages “institutional stakeholders [to] adopt an enterprise view of RIM practices—examining silos, redundancies, duplication of effort, and providing insights into opportunities for improved interoperability, decision support capabilities, and informed institutional investment.”

Social interoperability

We have recently introduced another way to think about interoperability in the context of research support services: social interoperability, which we define as “the creation and maintenance of working relationships across individuals and organizational units that promote collaboration, communication, and mutual understanding.” Our recent report Social Interoperability in Research Support: Cross-campus Partnerships and the University Research Enterprise collects insights from university stakeholders on the importance of working across campus units to provide research support services. In the report, we highlight the “significant challenges of trying to coordinate highly independent individuals with different goals and interests, spread across a large, decentralized organization” like a university, and conclude that “[s]ocial interoperability is a means of cutting through these complexities and obstacles, promoting mutual understanding, highlighting coincidence of interest, and cultivating buy-in and consensus.”

Institution-scale interoperability

The two projects described above focus on interoperability between systems and between people, with those systems and people often located on the same campus. But we can also think of interoperability between institutions. We are currently working on another project, Library Collaboration in Research Data Management (RDM), where we are exploring institution-scale interoperability in the form of cross-institutional collaborative arrangements to support research data management (RDM) needs. Our motivation for the project draws on Lorcan Dempsey’s observation that “library collaboration is very important, so important that it needs to be a more deliberate strategic focus for libraries.” Or as we state in the project description:

“Libraries have a rich history of working together to meet mutual needs. Current advances in digital and network technologies have amplified the benefits and lowered the costs of cross-institutional collaboration, making it an inviting choice for academic libraries seeking to acquire new services, expertise, and infrastructure … As interest in library collaboration grows, it becomes more important for academic libraries to be purposeful and strategic in their use of this sourcing option.”

So three different projects – one focused on systems, one on people, and one on institutions – and the common thread uniting them, apart from a shared foundation in research support services, is that they all feature some flavor of interoperability. One of the interview participants we spoke to for our Social Interoperability report remarked: “Well up front, I would say I can’t get anything done without partnerships. I mean it’s just absolutely essential to partner, whether it’s with centers, institutes, department chairs, academic deans, research deans, all the above.” While this person was speaking about social interoperability, the substance of their observation – “it’s just absolutely essential to partner” – applies equally well to interoperability in all its forms.

In a sense, the need to “work with” other systems, people, and institutions is almost a universal property of well-designed, sustainable research support services.

This is what we call the interoperability imperative – a term coined by my colleague Rebecca Bryant.

The interoperability imperative

The interoperability imperative means that in developing research support services, increased attention needs to be dedicated to what happens at the boundaries between the key agents that bring those services to life: systems, people, and institutions. How do those agents interact, and what infrastructure – technical, social, or collaborative – do we need to catalyze and facilitate those interactions?

For example, for technical interoperability, we need infrastructure like APIs, data exchange standards, and global persistent identifiers (PIDs) that allow different systems to “talk to” each other and exchange information. For social interoperability, we need both formal and informal social infrastructure, like standing committees, cross-unit working groups, or even regular coffee meet-ups (or the virtual equivalent) that bring people from different campus units together to cultivate and leverage effective working relationships. And for inter-institutional interoperability, we need the collaborative apparatus to convene institutional partners around shared research support needs, apportion costs and responsibilities, and find consensus in priorities and direction.

A focus on bridging the boundaries between systems, people, and institutions – including the infrastructure or contextual opportunities needed to close gaps and make connections – helps weave the research support eco-system into a navigable, coherent whole. This is especially important in a service environment in which research support functionalities are split across many systems; research support expertise and administrative responsibility are distributed across many people in many different campus units; and vital research support capacities are often most efficiently provided through the pooled contributions of multiple institutions operating shared services at scale.

One thing that we have noticed in our work looking at the interoperability imperative from the technical, social, and collaborative perspectives is that there is a fractal-like quality to our findings: the general patterns or features of effective interoperability seem to replicate themselves whether the focus is systems, people, or institutions.

For example, technical interoperability is facilitated through the adoption of shared data exchange formats; in the same way, we found that social interoperability is strengthened by speaking a “common language” that avoids potential misunderstandings over jargon, terminology, and concepts from different professional backgrounds. Or another example: we found that social interoperability is furthered by “knowing your partners” – their responsibilities, priorities, and pain points. In the same way, a sustainable and effective collaborative network of institutions requires a level of trust that commitments to the collective effort will be kept – a trust often cultivated through the familiarity of long-standing associations such as consortia. In short, although our work on the interoperability imperative splits its focus across systems, people, and institutions, there is lots of cross-pollination of ideas and findings.

As we continue our work in the area of research support, we will have much more to say about the interoperability imperative. It’s a crucial part of orchestrating valuable connections across a decentralized and diffuse research support service space.

Thanks to my colleagues Rebecca Bryant and Annette Dortmund for helpful suggestions that improved this post!

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