Friday, 18 March 2016

Feeding Piranhas and Living to Tell the Tale

The Researchfish system is used to collect information on the outputs, outcomes and impacts that have arisen from Research Council-funded research. It tracks over 90,000 awards worth more than £40 Billion, and is used by over 63,000 researchers who have produced in excess of 1 million output reports to date. 

Submitting data on such a wealth of projects is no easy task, and universities across the UK have been making sure that their investigators provide these by the current deadline. At Kent, the job of ensuring its compliance fell to Sue Prout, Research Services Clerical Officer and PA to the Director of Research Services. Below she gives an insight into the challenges she faced in this unenviable task.

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The 'chase list': a work of art
Another RCUK Outcomes Submission period finishes and it is time to reflect on the relatively few joys of using the Researchfish system to record outcomes of Research Council funded awards.  One of my academic PIs referred to this as ‘the Research Piranha Fish’ and if the cap fits….

Having experienced this process in 2014, I wasn’t particularly looking forward to playing my part as the Research Outcomes Coordinator for the University of Kent and sure enough the five-week submission period  brought the usual round of complaints about the system and the process, including

“the Researchfish website is one of the most poorly designed, over-complex and jargon-stuffed sites I have seen for a long time”
“The Researchfish system is incredibly complicated and clunky and it says much that the two of us with, collectively, five degrees have struggled to make sense of this”
But I did it last year

And my particular favourite:

“…the requests for this work look like some research social network and I ignored it. :)”

I devoted a considerable amount of work time to ensuring that Kent’s submission was as complete as possible, including doing nothing else for the last four days but email people asking them to go onto Researchfish and submit a return. .  I’ve been sad enough to look through my emails and it would appear that I sent out nearly 500 emails, most of them in the last four days.    My bank manager would probably have been delighted  if I’d had a pound for every email I’d sent out telling people that,  although they thought they’d done all that was required, they still hadn’t clicked on the red submit button.

One of the more ludicrous and frustrating parts of the process for the  ‘coordinator’ is that the only  easy [!]  way to monitor progress of submissions and thus know who to chase, is to print off a list of PIs from the dashboard  and then go through each PI’s awards and then mark up the list accordingly.   By the end of the submission process, my eight-page  list needed three different colours of biro and FIVE different colours of highlighter pen for me to able to keep on top of who I was chasing and why. 

It is a sad reflection on an on-line submission system that the only practical way to monitor it is using good old fashioned pens and paper.   The much-annotated many-coloured list is a thing of great beauty which could probably be entered for the Turner Prize and win – now that would be a research outcome with impact!

I’ve passed my feedback to both Researchfish and RCUK but, given that some of the issues were raised in my feedback on the 2014 exercise, I’m not particularly hopeful of any changes in the near future.

So all I’ve got to do now is try and create a procedure note to explain the processes involved in ensuring that our University has the best possible result when submitting research outcomes to RCUK and so avoiding sanctions; then I’m off to look at our stationery supplier’s catalogue  to see what other colours of highlighter are available as I have a feeling that red, blue, green, yellow and pink alone won’t be enough next time round.

1 comment:

  1. Sadly the usefulness of Researchfish for HEIs is very limited, both in terms of access to information submitted and the effective monitoring of compliance. Given that it is expected by funders that HEIs devote considerable resource towards completing reports each year, shouldn't the system be of more value to us? We spend ages cajoling academics into reporting on their progress and impact of their research and we can't collate and analyse that data easily ourselves.

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