Digitisation as research

With the REF on the horizon, most academics are currently concerned with matters of impact and academic recognition. Therefore, getting academic recognition for a digitisation project, such as those funded under the JISC eContent programmes, is an important question. In order to receive JISC funding to digitise content, one has, of course, to demonstrate the academic value of the resource to be digitised, and to explain how making it available digitally will increase that value. The impact and value of digitisation outputs themselves, and how they fit into peer-review structures, has been the subject of previous studies, but the issue of getting credit for undertaking digitisation itself is less clear. This can cause problems when dealing with outside bodies concerned with the review or evaluation of research; or even with one’s own institution. In some cases, for example, digitisation activities might be interpreted as software development or IT support, thus preventing those involved from getting academic credit. How this classification is made varies from HEI to HEI. In some cases, an email from the PI or Co-I confirming that the project is ‘research’ will suffice, in others there is a questionnaire or some other pro forma. However they classify activities, most Higher Education Institutions adopt the principles of the Frascati Manual’s definition of research, or something very similar to them. These break research down into three headings:

  • Basic research is experimental or theoretical work undertaken primarily to acquire new knowledge of the underlying foundation of phenomena and observable facts, without any particular application or use in view.
  • Applied research is also original investigation undertaken in order to acquire new knowledge. It is, however, directed primarily towards a specific practical aim or objective.
  • Experimental development is systematic work, drawing on existing knowledge gained from research and/or practical experience, which is directed to producing new materials, products or devices, to installing new processes, systems and services, or to improving substantially those already produced or installed

Most academic digitisation work is likely to fall into the third category, provided that making available of digital resources is accompanied by some form of enhancement, such as machine-readable mark-up or a crowd-sourcing platform. This is especially so if it can be shown that the enhancement is drawn directly from the project team’s experience and expertise. Certainly in the context of the DEEP project, there are complicated questions of data structure, interpretation and mark-up, the exploration of which would appear as research questions to most scholars and deserving of recognition as such. Undoubtedly they require the extremely interdisciplinary skill set of all the partners.

Projects needing to make this argument may wish to consider the following suggestions:

1. Ensure the research question or questions that your resource will be addressing is clearly articulated, and that you have to hand a clear statement describing the unique knowledge needed to make it digitally available in the way you have chosen.

2. Refer to the Frascati guidelines, and any relevant institutional definitions of research and related activities.

3. Ensure you are talking to the right person. It may be the case that staff charged with classifying activities are not familiar with digitisation. This is especially so in departments or schools with little experience of such projects. In such cases, the decision on whether to classify the project as research may well need to be taken at a higher level than normal.

Both the Centre for Data Digitisation and Research at QUB and the Centre for e-Research in the Dept. of Digital Humanities at KCL have extensive experience in dealing with such projects, and would be happy to offer discussion and advice to any project which needs to make the argument that their work constitutes research.