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Academic researchers play an essential role in society and in higher education. By developing specialist knowledge on a subject and creating and disseminating new knowledge, they contribute to the development of society, improve the reputation of a university and make an institution more attractive to students.
Technology can be transformative for researchers, giving them the tools to eliminate time-consuming tasks, collaborate with others around the world, and ensure their work is shared – challenged and understood – as widely as possible.
Despite this, digital transformation to date has largely focused on education and student experiences, sometimes overlooking how technology can help researchers more easily produce and disseminate world-class research.
A recent report from professional services firm EY – based on a survey of more than 3,000 undergraduate and postgraduate students, group discussions with faculty and professional staff, and interviews with university leaders around the world – shows that researchers face a number of challenges. of academic and administrative burdens that may hinder their work.
The report shows that researchers need the equipment, technologies and computing power to support their work and also want tools that allow them to spend more time conducting cutting-edge research in new areas.
Avantika Tomar, a partner at the consultancy EY-Parthenon who focuses on higher education strategy, says researchers want to identify gaps in research, promote collaboration and minimize administrative tasks.
While universities have often invested in technical equipment and computing power to enable leading-edge research, they have sometimes neglected to focus on other ways technology can help researchers succeed.
So how can technology free up researchers’ valuable time so they can better focus on the work they love?
Increasing the bandwidth of researchers
One of the most time-consuming tasks for researchers is sifting through information and identifying research gaps that can be further explored. Tomar says: “I have a PhD myself and I remember that everything I would think of as a potential research topic, someone somewhere in the world had already done or was currently doing. There is an overwhelming amount of data available, published in all its forms – some as articles, some as chapters in books, some as books themselves, some as blogs.”
However, digital tools such as ResearchGate and academia.edu can ease these burdens. Using the right keywords and themes, researchers can search information more efficiently to identify what data they are looking for and discover gaps in the research.
“What it helps [researchers] doing is saving time,” says Tomar. “Time they can spend on the analytical or insightful part of the research, as opposed to the mundane data-related part. I think saving time is the most important thing. You can innovate more if you have the time, space and bandwidth.”
Spend time on research – not on administration
An important frustration for researchers is the amount of time spent on administrative work, according to research by EY. There are a large number of administrative tasks associated with conducting academic research, many of which are still paper-based, or require academics to access multiple systems and enter the same data multiple times. Universities can make a real difference to their research communities by improving these processes through technology – ideally with an end-to-end digital system across the research lifecycle and institution-wide.
“In the future, we want to create an environment in which researchers can concentrate on their research and are not burdened by management tasks,” says Prof. Atsushi Kanai, professor at Hosei University in Tokyo.
“A large number of procedures require teams to enter identical sets of information into multiple documents,” says Prof. Yasushi Asami, a professor at the University of Tokyo. “We plan to expand our use of digital transformation to end that kind of duplication.”
Technology can help streamline mundane and time-consuming administrative tasks that distract from more meaningful parts of the research. Administrative tasks such as grant applications, risk assessments, progress reporting, budget management, reviews and publication can all be made easier through the use of technology.
Building relationships with research partners
Technology can also help researchers connect with each other to share data and ideas, another key priority for research academics, the EY report said. Researchers need effective collaboration platforms, tools to securely share sensitive data and opportunities for face-to-face networking, they say.
“It’s a double-edged sword,” says Tomar. “Building relationships with researchers worldwide takes time and effort; but if you don’t, you will find it difficult to get your article published or have a network that will allow you to attend the right conferences.”
Digital communications tools such as social media, podcasts and video calls help promote collaboration, making it faster, more efficient and easier to connect with others around the world and share data and ideas, improving the quality of research and pool of potential collaboration partners is expanded, which is especially useful for people working in niche areas.
Institutions that have embraced technology are already feeling the benefits. As one researcher in Singapore emphasized: “I work so effectively with other researchers around the world. Our research is done in different laboratories in different parts of the world. My co-researchers can follow the results from afar, work with the data, talk to me, talk to my colleagues. Thanks to digital technology, it is now a completely different world.”
However, it’s important not to forget the value of face-to-face collaboration – the kind of water-cooler moments that occur naturally in the offline world. To maximize the effectiveness of research, online and offline collaboration must be promoted and nurtured.
Universities must also carefully manage their collaboration tools and information systems and implement robust cybersecurity measures and processes to protect sensitive research data, the report found.
Research helps reach a broader audience
The impact of even world-class research will be limited if no one has access to it. Digital tools allow researchers to share their work more broadly and help people outside academia understand it. “Sometimes I feel like academic research is only for academics,” says Tomar. “But data visualization tools can make it more readable for a lay audience, allowing you to present your research to policymakers and industry and increase its impact,” says Tomar.
Related: Save time and become more effective: How new technology can free university staff
Digital tools have the potential to transform the research world for the better and increase the chances of finding real applications for scientific progress. However, researchers need access to the right equipment, technologies and computing power. Digital technologies and advanced online resources, such as libraries, large databases, statistical packages and modeling tools, will have to be accessible to everyone.
“Many of these technologies are not accessible or affordable for every researcher,” says Tomar. “To get to the point where we can use technology meaningfully, it must become more accessible to a broader audience, rather than just a select group.”
With the right efforts and tools, academics could focus their energy purely on the topics they are passionate about and produce leading research with fewer obstacles. “We are moving in the right direction,” says Tomar. “The tenacity of academic researchers and implementation of the right technology transforms research to achieve superior results.”
To learn more about leveraging technology to transform research, consult EY’s latest report on higher education