Nine parts of the university that should be building digital knowledge exchange, but often can’t or won’t

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In the modern external impacts arena, the development of effective knowledge exchange expertise will be spread across up to nine powerful and often well-funded, centrally managed units. These are

  • the university library,
  • its online open access repository,
  • a university press,
  • website and information technology services,
  • the communications (press/media) division,
  • a unit handling government relations or elite contacts,
  • a research support division,
  • fund-raising and alumni relations organizations, and
  • the contract work or consultancy support service.

Not all of these are present in all universities, but most are. So the top leadership in any university directly controls substantial resources, that could be made to be key for developing its external impacts. However, in fact each of these organizations tends to have a ‘legacy’ identity or culture that in the modern period may not be very well adapted to seeking external impacts, especially in digital mode. What is most important for generating academic and external impacts is whether the unit concerned understands or sympathizes with the idea of two-way knowledge exchange, and how effectively they have recognized the efficacy of digital and social media and moved to adapt modern methods. I review each type of organization in turn:

The university library was historically concerned with paper-based books, journals and archives-preservation, and with getting students and academics to physically visit the library buildings. This orientation is a hard one for long-established libraries to leave behind, even as they have transformed into primarily digital curators. A key legacy is often librarians’ concern to maximize three priorities. First is the continuing roles of specialist librarians, whose labor intensive operations are costly to fund. Second, librarians want to preserve their purchasing budgets for buying paid-for resources (paywall journals, ebooks and paper books), which have often been whittled away by pressures from the rest of the university and rising journal costs, especially in STEM sciences. Librarians in big universities are also often committed to maintaining and adding to their established series of research journals, and reluctant to give up legacy purchasing patterns. Third, librarians often over-identify with their physical building(s) and an ethos of services to in-person users — this is their heartland ‘mission’, like flying planes is for air forces.

Especially in small and medium or less research-intensive universities, some libraries have moved over to primarily digital methods of working, with fewer staff, smaller buildings, fewer paper-based resources and more IT-intensive modes of operating. But paid-for resources are still very critical for them, since the ability to meet journal subscription costs (often now in consortia of universities) and cover ebooks needed for teaching remains the key determinant of how much the digital library can effectively substitute for more traditional modes of operating.

There are very few jobs for librarians in managing staff or student use of free-to-access resources like blogs and open access journals — that is something they can perfectly well do themselves, so long as IT services provides the right infrastructure and bandwidth to sustain large-scale access. Conservative librarians often tend to see open access resources beyond journals as not peer reviewed and unimportant in research or teaching terms. Many university libraries still do not collect even their own academics’ on-line publications, except those received via journal subscriptions. They will characteristically not collect blogposts, for instance. And they may provide no training or guidance to students or academic staff on key blogs to follow in their discipline, nor how to use social media to create an effective push-media system to keep themselves up to date at low cost. This marginalizing of the new digital scholarship paradigm is sometimes broken down in a few areas like science communication or digital humanities, where grant or external resources can fund a specialist librarian, for a time.

Many individual librarians are personal stalwarts for open access. But otherwise university libraries’ role in generating external impacts may be rather small, with little wide involvement in developing knowledge exchange activities. In extreme cases the library staff’s contribution to impacts may be confined to just its own collection initiatives with some external relevance. They will also sometimes do the purely ‘bibliographic’ or ‘bean counting’ tasks of archiving materials for publications or impact case studies, or checking their references, to be submitted to funding-linked or ranking-linked audits like the British REF or the Australian ERA (or ‘Herdic’) exercises.

Open access repositories are generally run by university libraries, but with a different ethos. They may begin to modify their parent institutions’ legacy policies somewhat, depending on the ambition of the repository. Most of them in the UK are strictly academic-audience focused, reflecting the fact that making researcher’s publications available open access is mandated if the university is to receive block grant research funding from UK governments. In Europe a looser move to open access by 2020 will probably produce similarly academic-targeted repositories. Typically these facilities have very limited impacts in boosting external impacts because they are so difficult and unattractive to use. Normally the user interface of repositories is primitive and text-only. And the internal search systems are worse than, or at best comparable to, normal (dumb) university library catalogues. Some internal search engines initially worked OK, but have subsequently crumbled into uselessness given the scale of the publications being archived. (Quick test: put in an author name and see if the archive prioritizes the stuff they actually wrote, or just serves up a random sequence of any document in there with that author name in the text somewhere).

The presentation of materials is also normally text only — devoid of images, videos or audio resources. There is no assistance to searchers, no lists of popular downloads, no advice on similar items, and so on. Repositories also routinely do not use social media nor seek to create a community of users that could support new users in looking for information. For instance, they never advise readers — ‘If you liked that, try this’, nor do they collect or communicate other users’ evaluations of items or reading advice. Overall, repositories are likely to be less salient for external impacts than getting academics to sign up for the main external sites for hosting research materials — especially ResearchGate and which are far better indexed and accessible to external users, and provide advice or recommendations. Along with Google Scholar Citations (GSC) they also maximize the Web visibility of researchers and departments.

An interesting questions also arises about why hundreds of universities worldwide spend money on having their repositories separately collect, edit, refresh and repost bibliographic information on their staffs’ and researchers’ publications when GSC does this task better, free. Why not just mandate your academics to have a GSC page?

A university press exists in some universities and at first sight might seem like an organization that could greatly help external impacts work. In fact, presses tend not to play a big role because they are self-financing commercial bodies. The largest and most successful university presses typically have huge ‘legacy’ paper publishing operations in books and journals. They confront all of the same problems as big private sector publishers in adapting to digital-only and to open access publishing. They are also big, commercial operations in their own right, very committed to paywall journals and to publishing overall portfolios of books that cover their costs, or (better still) help boost the net profits flowing back to their host university. Small university presses are less locked into large legacy operations, but are typically too small to make much impression even if they could operate in different ways. Only a few university presses worldwide have yet adapted to a role that could better support external impacts, including the Australian National University Press (run by its library) which has moved across to digital only and open access publishing, covering 50 books a year. Even here, however, university presses make only limited use of social media dissemination, and the operation relies a lot on recouping costs from sales to other libraries. So compared with the blizzard of research content that universities with many big blogs and better social media operations can originate, the outputs of most university presses are too small and too weakly disseminated to count. And where they are more substantial, they are generally entirely separate operations with their own operating cultures.

Website services and IT services units can have a crucial influence on external impacts, depending especially on who is running the university website, blogs and social media. If this all forms part of a single IT services department, the development of these services is often hampered by ‘legacy’ staff attitudes. These tend to prioritize the university’s administrative and transaction services IT (for recruiting students, garnering fees, running email, paying staff etc). New Web-based services are often seen as ‘less essential’, so under-funded and under-staffed, especially where they do not directly bring in money. Communications with students are still run by email, even when there is mounting evidence that students don’t read them or miss assignment dates because email is a dead medium for young people. The idea that departments or university units should use social media that students normally use to liaise with them(even as supplementary tool) is anathematized.

More modernized IT services departments still tend to view university external communications almost exclusively in terms of a fixedly attachment to running a massive conventional (synchronous) university website. Such websites require a dedicated content management system (CMS), so staff in every department and lab have to be specially recruited or trained in order to put up even a single page of new materials. The size of university web sites always expands hugely, but internal search capacities are typically weak. The site architecture of university websites rapidly becomes byzantine as ‘a thousand nettles bloom’ partly uncontrolled, while at the same time departments complain of the centralized restrictions under which they must struggle. Many webpages become ‘deserts’ with no content, and others are ‘derelict’, with content that has lapsed or gone out of date. Broken links that are not business-critical multiply largely unchecked.

Faced by new demands to run blogs as well, even modernized IT services often do not take them seriously, assigning them low priority, and resenting the need to run 24/7 servers separate from the main website. Often IT managers seem in some way affronted that academic department and lab staff without specialist IT training can run whole blogsites, using modern software like Wordpress. IT units often recommend to academic departments that they run a blog as a component part of the university website or a sub-site. In fact, this approach never works well, greatly restricting the blogs’ visibility, and requiring staff to grapple with content management systems, Even where modern blogs are technically supported at a basic level with a dedicated server, the IT services department may not have anyone good at showing blog managers how to use the many apps or add-ons for Wordpress, nor easily able to diagnose and disentangle occasional malfunctions with blog editing.

If a separate Web services department exists (often within a differently managed Communications division) the priority and support for key external impacts IT like blogs and social media can improve (see below). But then some fault lines of divided responsibilities between Web or blog services and main IT can open up.

Communications departments may still be conventional university press offices, generating paper press releases, paper newsletters and magazines, and focusing on personal contacts with journalists, broadcasters and occasionally external elites. The Comms unit here sees its main roles as public relations, generating a flow of materials that constantly ‘hype’ or put a favourable gloss on what the university has accomplished, while also providing advice and help to university leaders to ‘fire fight’ any public criticisms, gaffes or other problems that may surface. (This last orientation is often supported by nervous top leaders who run scared of things going wrong). Normally an old-style Comms unit like this will still marginalize web-based knowledge exchange, even if they also run the Web site. A key ‘tell’ for this legacy orientation is that the press office sends university leaders daily ‘press cuttings’ or weekly details of press and broadcast coverage, but make little or no mention of social media performance or coverage.

At the other extreme a few top Comms divisions have now migrated to a fully ‘digital-first’ approach, offering researchers help with the integrated production of digital press releases, plus accompanying tweets, Facebook posts, and posts on major blogs. A key ‘tell’ for such a unit is that it offers extended social media support and training to academic departments, and the unit staff are all up to speed with the latest social media trends. They fully take on board the concept of two-way knowledge-exchange as a key aspect of contemporary universities’ pubic engagement with students, alumni and external donors.

Most university Comms units probably fall somewhere between these two poles. Typically they still have relatively more staff doing historic or inherited activities with long-sanctioned core funding, like generating non-digital (hype) press releases or magazines and supporting public events. If the main university Website is managed from Comms this too forms part of the non-controversial blocks of work. Meanwhile a minority of (overworked) staff try to support newer blogging, social media and knowledge-exchange activities. They periodically have to battle to get some time-limited or conditional funding and university support for the area. In committees they often must additionally fight off criticisms from traditionalist academics or those academics coming in new to senior university roles.

Government relations offices or elite public affairs units are often separate and powerful bodies in bigger or well-connected universities. In smaller universities this role may be filled by one or more staff who form part of the top leaders’ personal office. The role involves handling top relations with national or state politicians, university dignitaries (such as members of governing boards or councils), corporate relations around large initiatives, top professional bodies, and sometimes major philanthropic bodies or large external donors. Such units always work closely with the university president or vice-chancellor, much of whose timetable is spent on engagements with these kinds of targets. Their activities always stress ‘offline’ personal contacting, and their influence is often to minimize top leaders’ digital and public impacts activities. Instead they encourage top leaders to devote their scarce time and funding overwhelmingly to ‘behind the scenes’ and elite-level contacting activities. These units’ influence often means that university leaders are both digitally invisible to a wider public, and also get quite cut off from what academic departments and labs in their university are actually doing — except as seen through ‘hype’ press releases and ‘showcase’ fund-seeking events, a potent route for misinformation.

Research support divisions in large universities can be very powerful and sophisticated operations. The role involves constant horizon-scanning for opportunities from government funding bodies or philanthropic foundations; alerting academic departments to opportunities; helping them draw up grant bids; concerting innovative bid teams; and the dense mechanics of getting forms filled in correctly and on time. This unit may also help university leaders resolve frequent conflicts of interest: How many bids can we feasibly submit to a given funding call? How do we choose between bid A with funding g and chance of success x, versus bid B with funding h and chance y? These units play an additional key role in relation to any external audits of research, like the UK’s REF or Australia’s ERA processes. They brief leaders and academic staff on the process requirement, oversee preparations, help departments and labs fine-tune their strategies, and advise top leaders on university policies, e.g. in the UK’s REF process, who get submitted as a ‘research active’ academic, and who does not.

Research divisions vary a great deal in their orientations to impacts. The older-style, legacy departments are often like traditionalist academics in only valuing either (i) government or foundation research grants on uber-academic topics, that lead to articles in top-cited journals; or (ii) large endowment funding from corporations or private donors that allows the university to set up new initiatives, centres, institutes or labs (that will then produce more articles in top-cited journals). A hallmark of such units is that they constantly monitor how their university is scoring on numerous university rankings and research rankings. However, they are often fatalistic about the visibility of their university’s research, and they rarely have any positive strategies for improving it.

More modernized research funding units, and those with corporate relations as part of their remit, pay more attention to external impacts. In the UK, where a minimum of 25 per cent of government research block grant funding (plus around another 5% under the ‘research environment’ heading) is now allocated for impacts case studies, research divisions normally have to help academic departments plan and write up cases. It can be big business now — with a 4* impact case perhaps worth as much as 1 million pounds extra grant to a UK university in 2021–26. Universities where corporate relations and external consultancy or company linkages are big business tend to hive these functions off to separate units. Alternatively corporate relations (with businesses, government agencies and big NGOs) may be located with alumni relations in an external fund-raising division. So even in large, modernized universities, the research divisions tend to be rather conservative on, or poorly informed about, generating external impacts.

Fund-raising/alumni relations departments are very influential in all American universities (where private philanthropy is bigger in scale) and in the relatively few big European universities that have pluralized their research funding sources away from dependence on government funding. The most developed fund raiser units focus only on garnering large donations, and stress personal cultivation of very wealthy individuals or foundations. They are only interested in aspects of external impacts work that may help them hook such a donor, leading to them endowing a chair, a whole new centre (ideally with a building) or a big research program. Like governmental relations/public affairs units their own activities are characteristically digitally invisible. They also hive off mundane fund raising to departments or individual academics themselves, or to alumni relations staff, while insisting that key donor ‘targets’ are off limits to anyone but themselves.

Traditional alumni departments are also orientated to linking to former students via older-style communications media (such as paper magazines), reunion events and postal or email funding appeals, seeking smaller contributions that fuel the university’s general endowment. They tend to be more interested in convincing alums that the university is pursuing public interest goals, and so also orientated to pure research, than in external impact linkages. They have almost never used crowd-funding or kickstarter approaches amongst alumni to generate financing for particular research or impact projects. Often such units are also very orientated to developing the whole-university brand. So they not so keen on departments having sub-brands of their own, nor maintaining their own direct relations with their alums, since both might impede the flow of support to university-wide funds. All in all, they tend to have a culture that is indifferent to, and may even be hostile about, departments’ and labs’ efforts to grow external knowledge exchange.

By contrast, modernized alumni operations are far more digitally orientated. All alumni units know that a key determinant of fund-raising is whether alums value (or can be persuaded to value) a continued relationship with their university after graduation, to feel involved with its ongoing research and teaching work, to have contact with current students, to be sympathetic to the university’s pro bono activities, and to want to help advance its positive reputation. Digital communication with alumni is far cheaper and can be differentiated and targeted far more than paper-based media, especially where it is based on ‘big data’ analytics (and generates more information for such efforts). If alumni see regular blogs attuned to their current professional and personal interests, they are more likely to feel that their university is doing relevant research and impact work. And perhaps if alums themselves are asked to write blogposts, book reviews or comments on areas where they have expertise, or to advise current students on career issues in person or via Skype or Facetime, then they will be more likely to feel valued by their alma mater.

Internal consultancy and business development units are the last part of central university administrations to consider here. They help departments and researchers to do contract work with external clients, especially applied research and staff training. One key set of roles involves making contract-activities easier via horizon-scanning for opportunities; alerting suitable academics and helping them to make contacts; providing indemnity insurance and university branding; allowing research and teaching staff to be recruited on flexible and shorter term contracts than normal; administering contracts with clients; and collecting a percentage share of the overall contract price for the use of universities facilities and offices. A second set of intellectual property rights (IPR) functions is important in STEM science departments, where university research may lead to patents or licenses that are revenue-generating over the short or long term. These roles all sound as if they should strongly help external impacts, and they may well do so, especially where the central unit makes it much easier for individual academics or departments to manage their involvement with external clients.

But there are also some potential barriers here, chief of which is that the central unit is normally required to be self-financing and to return a certain ratio of profits to the university. This can produce a short-termist focus in consultancy offices, a tendency to focus on blocks of work that are easy to get and maintain. Ideally they chase repeat or routine work of a relatively undemanding kind; or incremental IPR gains of a familiar type (like patents or licensable artefacts/techniques) that can be confined to the university alone. These more mundane activities deliver regular returns and reliable contributions to the consultancy team’s high overheads, with none of the risks of people doing research on new topics or making relations with new clients. So these units are often less keen on the expense of cultivating new contacts (who might or might not bite), or promoting to clients innovative or experimental projects, that are likely to be one-off pieces of work or involve areas that seems remote from commercialization or securing future IP (intellectual property) rights. Smaller university units may go for decades without ever making any investments in ‘risky’ start-ups, or taking any equity stakes.

However, the biggest universities also have central units with a third, macro-level string to their bow, namely encouraging researchers to develop partnership or ‘star-burst’ companies. Here the university retains an equity stake or other linkage, especially in the STEM sciences in fields like life sciences or software engineering. University environments and decision processes are perhaps ill-adapted to contributing to rapidly changing industrial fields and commercial markets, where first movers reap key advantages. The university (and department) interest is in persuading researchers to move forefront work into companies with a university involvement. Or if they move into completely private firms (funded by venture capital) the interest is to maintain good and close relations between the firm founders and their originating academic department (see pages above).

The whole area around research-lead entrepreneurship by university researchers is difficult to manage, especially where the future prospects from boosting equity stake values are potentially large but also very uncertain. Some universities use a portfolio approach like that of venture capital firms (where some investments are big hits, and others just cover costs). This can generate large external impacts from some kinds of STEM research. The opportunities for such effects are more limited in less fast moving STEM science areas, and generally small or non-existent in the social sciences and humanities. In terms of both university and external politics this discipline-selectiveness is a constraint. Top leaders cannot normally afford to have their university’s development become too lop-sided, or seemingly corporate-sponsored or corporate-directed.

Overall, the fragmentation across these nine units is a key barrier to digital change within universities, however active its researchers and academics may be in promoting new modes of digital scholarship. Dozens of connected digital shifts are taking place at once, and these legacy organizational structures mostly cross-cut or inhibit them. Top university hierarchs are not well placed to realize that they have problems, partly because ‘power makes stupid’ as Nietzsche said. Leaders pay most attention to the people they meet in person, senior folk with big budgets and out of date paradigms. But digital change is (always) being built by young researchers and teachers in their own ways, mainly using resources that the university ‘standard desktop’ won’t include for another ten years.

Help improve this analysis: Does the picture above fit with your experience? Critical comments or additional thoughts are really welcome, on or @Write4Research

For related content, see the LSE Impact blog. My @Write4Research Twitter feed also covers some relevant commentary.

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