A crisis has been quietly developing over the past several years in academic institutions around the world, and it needs to be addressed urgently. As part of research that we at MoreBrains have recently completed on behalf of Jisc in the UK, we estimated that researchers and administrators waste around 55,000 person days a year just on rekeying information about publications, grants, and projects into university systems. That equates to nearly £19 million (~$23 million USD) of waste. Similar work we did earlier this year on behalf of the Australian Research Data Commons (ARDC) and the Australian Access Federation (AAF), found similar levels of waste — 38,000 person days, or $24 million AUD (~ $16 million USD). This is clearly unsustainable in terms of both time and money, and it has real consequences for the health of the higher education and research sector.
To put it bluntly, many researchers simply don’t have the time to do much actual research during normal working hours, such is the level of the administrative bureaucracy that they’re subjected to. I personally hear researchers talk about what ought to be their core job as some sort of treat or hobby, something that they get to do in their spare time. As Marcus Munafò put it in an article earlier this year:
… academics spend their days on jobs that do little to generate knowledge and which others could do more efficiently. Academic managers, such as heads of department, show little awareness of what staff workloads actually are, certainly at the level of the individual academic.
Researchers are frustrated, and expressing that frustration in editorials and opinion pieces. The situation is getting worse and, arguably, coming to a head at precisely the time in history when we most need researchers to be able to focus on meaningful and impactful knowledge creation. We’ve recently been very pointedly reminded of our collective vulnerability, with the emergence of COVID-19. Meanwhile, the IPCC is warning that we’re running out of time to address the climate crisis; and, with eight billion people on the planet, global food security is under greater threat than ever.
This is all pretty serious stuff, and it’s clear that we’re not going to solve these problems by doing more of the sort of thing that got us into this mess. In other words, we need to learn, and better use what we already know, and we need to do both quickly. That’s not going to happen if the exercise of expanding human understanding continues to be ever more gummed up with tedious and stifling bureaucracy.
Growing concern at policy levels
Voices of concern are growing louder among policy makers and funders. A policy paper from the Department for Business, Energy & Industrial Strategy (BEIS) released in 2020 set the agenda for bureaucratic reduction in the UK Higher Education sector. This year, BEIS and the national research funder United Kingdom Research & Innovation (UKRI) released a report on Professor Adam Tickell’s independent review of research bureaucracy, which stated that there are too many complex and duplicative requirements around bureaucratic quality assurance processes, and a lack of trust between stakeholders.
In Australia, there is perhaps an even greater sense of urgency. In August, the Minister for Education, Jason Clare MP, wrote to the Australian Research Council (ARC) outlining his expectations. His letter included requests to reduce the burden associated with applying for research grants, as well as for participation in the Excellence in Research for Australia (ERA) national evaluation exercise. This has led to the 2023 ERA being canceled, so that a transition plan can take place to streamline it.
In the USA, the 21st Century Cures Act (2016) called on the FDA and USDA to collaborate to reduce administrative burden, which, according to this post on NIH Extramural Nexus, has led to those agencies harmonizing annual reporting, simplifying submission timelines, and making facility inspections more efficient.
While the situation in the UK and Australia may be further advanced than many other countries, it is clear from talking to funders, institutional administrators, librarians, and researchers around the world that growing frustration with academic bureaucracy is a global problem.
Roads, hell, and good intentions
In many ways, the rise in bureaucracy is understandable. A lot of research is done with public money, so governments, quite rightly, want to make sure that the public’s money is being spent wisely. How are government departments or civil services charged with making those determinations going to understand how to allocate resources without gathering information from institutions through mechanisms like the Research Excellence Framework (REF) in the UK, or the Excellence in Research Australia (ERA) process? How are funders, institutions, and publishers going to know if researchers are complying with openness and reproducibility requirements without asking for documentation? How are universities going to make sure that they’re offering students the best experience possible (and justifying the course fees) without holding staff accountable through oversight?
Working towards a solution
As Alice Meadows and I wrote in a previous post after the release of the UK Cost Benefit Analysis, the use of persistent identifiers (PIDs), are a key part of the solution to reducing these burdens. Integrations of funder, institutional, and publisher systems into PID authentication systems like ORCID single sign-on and metadata registries won’t remove all administrative burden, but they will eliminate much of it, particularly with assurance and accreditation requirements. For example, In a 2021 interview with AAF, Joe Shapter, the pro-vice-chancellor of the University of Queensland explained that ARCs integration with ORCID was saving him between three and four days per grant application.
Based on work done as part of the UK national PID strategy, Professor Tickell endorsed the creation of a UK PID support network to help institutions and funders increase adoption, create consensus-based best practice guidelines, and develop documentation.
The Review endorses the proposal for a PID consortium made by MoreBrains in their report : ‘The case for investment in a UK persistent identifier strategy: Resilience, insight, and leadership in global research and innovation’ and would recommend extending this model to other facets of digital research platforms as appropriate. As the designated umbrella body for digital services and solutions, Jisc should take a leading role in co-ordinating this activity for the higher education sector.
Calculations that we’ve done since the original analysis show that the net cost savings amount to £46 million over five years, even after offsetting the nearly 55,000 person days spent rekeying metadata (at a cost of £19 million each year) against the expense of integrating university systems and the creation of a dedicated PID support network. That sounds pretty worthwhile, but if you also consider the secondary benefits, we arrive at some extraordinary numbers. Evidence given to the House of Commons Science at Technology selection committee states that for every £1 spent on research and innovation, there is a £7 benefit to the UK economy. So, by redirecting that £46 million in net savings to productive research, the resulting benefit is £315 million.
These numbers are impressive, especially considering they’re for only one single country. The financial aspect alone would be reason enough to justify investment from governments, funders, and institutions, as well as advocacy and support from publishers, university presses, and learned societies. For me though, it’s not just about the financial and time waste. More importantly, the crushing, unsustainable bureaucratic burden that we impose on researchers cannot be allowed to continue. It damages mental health, drives people out of the sector and, although I haven’t touched on it here in this post, the unequal allocation of burden is a diversity and inclusion issue in its own right.
The academy deserves better. Clunky, disconnected information systems result in a bureaucratic burden being passed down from funder to institution and from institution to researcher. With comparatively small levels of investment in infrastructure, we can massively increase research productivity, face the challenges of the 21st century, and make working conditions inside our academic institutions tolerable again.
Thanks to fellow chef, Alice Meadows and the rest of the team at MoreBrains for help with fact checking, example finding, and proof-reading.