Researching the research tech

Plug into the funding landscape, streamline your workflow and organise your data with the top research management tools for higher education. Luke Dormehl reviews what’s out there

A university that excels at high-level research can attract both talent and funding – as well as providing society with all the benefits that come from those investigations.

Software isn’t going to replace the need for human researchers any time soon, if ever. But it most certainly can help streamline the research process: whether that’s helping alert researchers to funding opportunities and helping them apply, organising documents in one place to promote collaboration among the parties involved, checking proper ethical requirements are adhered to or simply helping track a particular project through from its pre-award foundations to the finished research papers appearing in journals (and the repercussions that come from that).

Welcome to the world of research management software. It’s one that’s moving extremely fast – even if it can be a little tricky to pin down.

“[What research management software refers to] depends who you ask,” Alex Hodgson, who heads up sales, marketing and support for the acclaimed research-tech software company ReadCube, told University Business. “Whether you’re talking to a librarian, or you’re talking to somebody in a research office at a university, or you’re talking to a faculty member, or a grad student in a lab, they are going to give you a different answer. For me, research management tools are how I find and organise my data, so as to be able to efficiently collaborate with the people I need to.”

Software has, of course, been a foundational part of university research projects dating back decades. However, in recent years, the rise of innovations like cloud computing and more have ushered in a new wave of revolutionary research management tools.

How broad is this category? What are some of the key tools that can help researchers deliver on their ambitions? University Business has rounded up some of the biggest game-changers.

Managing the money

Universities are well-versed in applying for funding from external bodies for their research projects. Yet the process of putting an application together to show how much money needs to be spent, and then to manage this budget over the course of the project once it’s been awarded, can be time-consuming and labour-intensive.

Worktribe produces cloud-based software that allows these applications to be developed collaboratively, complete with costing and workflows from submission through to award. Its tools also boast a comprehensive ethical review management, streamlined project management with spend tracking, real-time reporting, and more. At the end of a research project, its software offerings will then allow users to document the project outputs and make them discoverable. In other words, it’s a must-have system for larger research projects that involve competitive bidding processes.

“We’re the only [tool] that really comprehensively covers the entire life cycle [of a project] in a single solution,” Jon Hackney, account manager at Worktribe, told University Business.

Worktribe’s comprehensive solution begins with Worktribe Pre-Award, which features research costing tools, and continues through Worktribe Post-Award, which includes budget management and tracking. All of these seamlessly fit into a clear workflow that covers everything from the initial bid to keeping tabs on staff workload allocations.

“It’s very intuitive,” Hackney said. “People have told us that they’ve used the system with little or, indeed, no training at all. We always say that if people can use Amazon and eBay without needing a training session, they should be able to do the same with a system like this, provided they understand the language around research projects.”

Promising no shortage of impressive integrations that allow Worktribe to fit seamlessly into existing systems as a research project management tool, this is a great illustration of how the right joined-up system can prove transformative.

Managing funding opportunities

While it’s not technically a research management solution, companies like Idox Software nonetheless play an important, adjacent part in this research process. They provide tools and databases that allow researchers to seek out funding opportunities that are available to them and then apply for these.

These are off-the-shelf funding and policy portals like GRANTfinder and RESEARCHconnect, which provide constant, real-time access to approximately 15,000 funding opportunities, guided by an intuitive, content-rich interface. Idox Software’s offerings won’t necessarily guide you through the entire project from start to finish, keeping everything in one place. Nonetheless, they’re adjacent tools that make it easier to plug into the funding landscape, as well as identify effective funding strategies and opportunities.

ReadCube’s Papers is a desktop and mobile app that streamlines the process of working together on research projects


A Kanban-do-it attitude

Scale has a lot to do with the kind of research management tool you’ll find most helpful. Picture it as a list of tasks to be carried out. At home, your list of to-do items might be relatively short and straightforward, and served best by a simple list pinned on the fridge that everyone in the household can see. A fully integrated, cloud-based SaaS offering, allowing every member of the family to access and sign-off on the approvals process needed to buy a pint of milk and fix the shed door, would probably be overkill. On the other hand, a list on the fridge likely wouldn’t work for a large company mapping out its detailed roadmap for the next quarter.

For smaller institutions that are doing very little in the way of research, but would like to do more, tools like Asana and Trello can be good ways of keeping on top of research projects as they travel the journey to completion. Asana and Trello are cloud-based Kanban project management applications, which allow multiple team members to collaborate on projects and tasks according to a workflow process that they design.

While neither are built exclusively for managing research projects, their flexibility means that they can be set up to do so, enabling researchers and project managers to easily see where a particular research project is at that moment, who’s responsible for it, and whether it is on schedule. Asana and Trello also let users attach files and hyperlinks, making it a useful repository for resources.

One key benefit for tools like Asana and Trello comes down to cost. Fully fledged, premium research management tools may be expensive. If you’re seeking a smaller research grant, it might be deemed unnecessary to spend a sizable percentage of this on a premium tool that can offer more complexity than you need. Even for larger institutions with more available resources, however, this is a useful tool for at-a-glance project management.

Some software can even let you know if there have been research retractions


Transforming the research process

“As a researcher at an organisation, you will collect hundreds of papers a year, in pursuit of your own research,” said Alex Hodgson. “That’s because you can’t discover something new unless you know what came before you. As researchers, whether you’re a scientist or you’re working in the humanities, you’re constantly reading other people’s research to evolve and discover your own approach [to a particular] research topic.”

This is where Papers, a desktop and mobile app created by ReadCube, comes into play. It allows users to keep all the relevant research papers for their projects in one place, while greatly enhancing their usefulness by offering features like full text library search, metadata matching, advanced sorting and filtering, keyword tagging and more. The idea, in essence, is to create a seamless way of making it possible to navigate the complex world of research: a game changer compared to the bad old days in which research paper repositories wound up being an impenetrable, overfilled folder on your desktop stuffed with inscrutably titled PDF documents.

Papers also offers one-click PDF downloads, inline and sticky notes for highlighting important information, more than 10,000 citation styles supported, text-to-speech, and a handy discovery system that offers personalised recommendations based on what researchers are likely to be interested in. (It will even let you know if there have been any research retractions you need to be aware of – particularly essential over a long-running research project.)

Research has always been based on collaboration… it’s just that now we have the tools to make it faster and easier

One of the most important aspects, however, involves collaboration. “Research has always been based on collaboration,” explained Hodgson. “It’s not that it’s a new thing, or that it’s happening more; it’s just that now we have the tools to make it faster and easier.” With that in mind, Papers offers the ability for up to 30 users to create and share libraries of papers.

If they are writing a paper together, they can easily share notes and annotations in order to establish a streamlined workflow. As Hodgson noted, it’s a way to streamline the process of working together.

Others in this space

Papers is a great example of a tool for staying on top of research. It’s not the only one, however. Mendeley, a company that provides products for academic researchers, has long enjoyed an excellent reputation in this area.

Chief among its offerings is the Mendeley Reference Manager, an app that can either be installed on the desktop or run as a web application, which makes it easy to keep track of references in a library using collections and tags. One of its many nimble features is a notebook that allows users to collect annotations and highlight text from PDFs as they come across them. As with Papers, it’s possible to share these in private groups from inside the app.

Other Mendeley tools include Mendeley Cite, which makes it easy to generate citations and entire bibliographies with just a few clicks, and Mendeley Web Importer, a browser extension for building up a library of references while searching on the internet. Thanks to product offerings like these, research management can be made significantly easier.

Research management: The next generation

Post-pandemic, universities are able to get back to research as usual, complete with face-to-face meetings among team members, in-person conferences and access to facilities such as labs. In other words, the importance of tools to aid research are only getting more important.

By utilising some – or even all – of the breakthrough technologies listed in this roundup, HE institutions can ensure that their research projects run as smoothly as possible. It’s yet another example of how the latest tech is making life easier throughout higher education. Who would ever want to go back to the way things were before?

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