Tag Archives: disciplinary differences

Open Research in Cambridge: 2022 in review

2022 has been another fantastic year for Open Research in Cambridge and I’m so proud of what we have achieved together as a community of researchers, library staff, technicians, administrators, publishers and more. I’d like to highlight some of the key themes in our work this year and thank all who have contributed to this work in any way throughout the year (though I have limited myself to naming chairs of workstrands below). The following video by our Pro-Vice-Chancellor (Research), Prof Anne Ferguson-Smith, gives an indication of the importance that the university places on this work.

Understanding disciplinary differences

I know that I’m not alone in hearing that researchers in Arts, Humanities & Social Sciences disciplines often feel a disconnect between the language and priorities of “Open Science” and their experiences of how research is conducted – this is one of the reasons we choose to frame it as “Open Research” here in Cambridge. I see a strong desire from many to engage with open research practices, paired with frustration with the challenges of translating the terminology of open science to other areas. In order to better understand these issues, we established two working groups (Open Research in the Humanities and Open Qualitative Research), each of which was tasked with forgetting what they think they should do due to how open science is generally described, and instead describe what they see as the opportunities for open research within their disciplines.

The Open Research in the Humanities group was chaired by Prof Emma Gilby and supported by Dr Matthias Ammon. Their excellent report is already available on Apollo and through a series of blog posts here on Unlocking Research. The Open Qualitative Research group was chaired by Dr Meg Westbury and their report is due to come to the university’s Open Research Steering Committee in January. We will be sharing this more widely in early 2023 – it’s well worth watching out for! Both reports will inform how we talk about Open Research at Cambridge and will shape the transformative programme that we are in the process of developing.

Research data management

Our small but dedicated Research Data team, led by Dr Sacha Jones, has had another impressive year. Our Data Champions Network goes from strength to strength, and has expanded into departments that have not been represented in previous years. Other key projects have included a review of our research data services with recommendations for future development, a project on electronic research notebooks, and lots of work to support open research system developments, all while continuing to support researchers with data deposits and writing data management plans. This team is expanding next year which will enable even more work to meet the needs of different disciplines.

The future of scholarly publishing

We hosted a series of three strategic workshops on the future of scholarly communication earlier this year, developed in collaboration between Cambridge University Libraries and Cambridge University Press. Led by independent facilitator Mark Allin, participants across disciplines and career stages came together to discuss the problems of scholarly communication, potential long-term solutions to these problems and a strategy to help Cambridge get us there. The proposals emerging from the meeting are currently being developed and include newly developed infrastructures for diamond open access publishing projects and a series of high-level strategic meetings aimed at strategic improvements to equity in academic publishing. There are already diamond publishing initiatives within Cambridge, and projects will start in early 2023 to understand existing initiatives in greater detail and to provide the infrastructure to establish additional diamond journals. 

The library’s annual Open Research Conference took a similar visionary approach in its focus on the future of open access. Titled Open Access: Where Next?, the conference featured expert speakers on how we can think beyond open access toward more innovative, sustainable and equitable open futures. We heard from researchers excluded by certain approaches to open access, how other researchers are addressing issues through their own scholar-led approaches, alongside how openness fits into changing research cultures and can facilitate experimental publishing projects. A full round up with videos of each session is available on the Unlocking Research blog.  My thanks to Dr Bea Gini for her leadership in planning this conference.

Open Access now

While we are actively working towards a new future for scholarly publishing, we also need to ensure that our researchers have ways to make their work open access right now. We do this in a number of ways, engaging with the academic community and contributing expert open access advice on publishing agreements that are negotiating across the sector and administering the block grants that are provided by funders and the university to cover the costs of publishing in fully open access venues. All of this requires close reading and interpretation of funder requirements to ensure that we are able to support our researchers in what they are required to as well as what they would like to do. I’d like to specifically thank Alexia Sutton, who leads our Open Access team, and Dr Samuel Moore, our Scholarly Communication Specialist, for their leadership in this area.

We are particularly pleased with the engagement from across the university with the ongoing Rights Retention Pilot, which provides a route to open access for articles that cannot be made immediately available through existing publishing deals, are not eligible for the block grants mentioned above or where the publisher simply does not provide any route to immediate open access. We are now consulting on the development of a Self-Archiving Policy which is buit on what we have learned throught he pilot and will sit within our Open Access Publications Policy Framework. Members of the university can find out more by reading this document (accessible to Raven users only). It has been an honour to lead a dedicated group of library and research staff on this project.

Open research systems

Everything we do requires that we have the right technical infrastructure in place. The Open Research Systems team is led by Dr Agustina Martinez-Garcia and based within Cambridge University Libraries’ Digital Initiatives directorate. This year has seen projects to upgrade links between Symplectic Elements and Apollo, technical changes to support the rights retention pilot, a review of the open research systems landscape, contributing to thinking around future publishing platforms, electronic research notebooks and data infrastructure, and planning ahead for the upgrade to DSpace 7, improvements in the thesis service, and building connections between DSpace repositories and Octopus. This is not a comprehensive list and we plan to showcase more of their work on the blog in 2023.

Research enquiries, briefings and training

I want to end with huge thanks to the library staff based both in the Office of Scholarly Communication and in the Faculty & Department Libraries who do so much throughout the year, answering frontline research support queries, signposting as required, providing tailored briefings and training on highly complex and constantly changing topics. We especially value the disciplinary insights we get through working closely with the Research Support Librarians that are based within the Schools.

Join our team!

Open Research is an incredibly rewarding area to work in and the scale of what we’re trying to achieve is really ambitious. I’m delighted that the importance of what we are doing is recognised by both Cambridge University Libraries and the wider university and as a result we are expanding our team!

We are currently recruiting for an Open Research Community Manager to establish and develop a Cambridge Open Research Community, bringing researchers across the university community together through regular online and in person events to enable exchange of expertise in open and rigorous research practices. In January, we plan to advertise for two Research Data Coordinators and an Open Research Administrator, with a Research Services Manager post following later in the year. All of these roles will be listed on the university’s jobs site as well as on LinkedIn, mailing lists etc. If you’re interested in our work and would like to find out more about these opportunities please get in touch at info@osc.cam.ac.uk!

What does a researcher do all day?

Recently, Paul Jervis-Heath* came to speak to Cambridge Libraries staff about work he had done as part of the Cambridge Libraries user centred design programme during the previous academic year.

This project was trying to establish how Cambridge University administrative services would manage the RCUK block grant provided to the University to support the RCUK Open Access policy. The end goal of the project was to design products and services, so the team of six working on the programme needed to start by trying to understand what academics did and what services they needed.

Information gathering process

During the project the team worked with 56 academics including contextual interviews with 34 academics. Paul noted however that it was also important to see the environments they were working in to ‘get into the headspaces’ of who they were designing for.

To this end the team shadowed 10 academics over a 48-hour period. They followed them through their day, literally sitting next to them. They watched lectures, sat in supervisions and took notes. As researchers did tasks the team asked questions about how they felt about the task – whether it was worth their time for example. The number was small because of the time intensity of this approach, however the process revealed good insights. Paul mentioned that they looked at the workarounds academics have for tasks and were able to determine how academics know what is succeeding and what ought they be doing.

The information gathering phase also included 12 co-design sessions looking at research and publishing tools, where they invited a group of participants to act as a designer. These were one on one co-design sessions. The academics were asked to design the journal they would like to publish in. As part of the process they took notes about how the participants talked about the publishing process.

This process is referred to as ‘bootstrapping’. The project was not pretending to have the full picture of what academic life is like. However the findings are robust enough to form an idea of what academics are doing to then create something and take it back to the participants to be refined  based on feedback.

Wearing lots of hats

Academics have lots of roles and they get split both between the University and their College and between their teaching and research roles. Paul noted that being an academic is really three or four jobs – each person needs to decide what they will be very good at. He observed that academics have to discover things that are new to the world as well as all of their other administration and work.

Many of the academics observed had between six and eight, sometimes 10 different roles. Some of these come with a job title, and others are unofficial because the academic wants to be a good supervisor, tutor, or a good colleague. The longer someone is around, the more roles they collect. The team started trying to graph people’s job titles as part of the project but this proved challenging because academia is not like a company where people have a fixed job title. Paul described it as more like a series of badges where an academic gets new things ‘pinned on’.

Academics are both teachers and researchers. Paul noted it is always interesting to see which one the participants mentioned first, their teaching role or their research role.


Teaching takes up most of the term time and there is no time for research other than, say, putting together reading lists. For most researchers, about 20 minutes is the time length they have available for anything. This is how they carve up their day.

Everybody teaching at Cambridge is a University Teaching Officer – which has four levels. People start off as a Lecturer, then Senior Lecturer, then Reader, the Professor. There are additional roles like the Head of Department, which typically rotates as a two year position. Then there are people who are Director of Studies both within a department and in the Colleges. Tutors look after the pastoral element of life in the College. And that’s just teaching roles.


The other side of the coin is the research roles. People start as Research Associates where they are hired for a specific research project which means there is nothing to move onto, so the person might have to move to a new university. Postdocs often don’t have anywhere to go they tend to use libraries, coffee shops and working from home. For many people the College is their office.

Gaining a Junior Research Fellowship is an important step because the University is funding the research in some way, however most positions are a fixed length. Having your JRF means they know where they are going to be. The next step is a Senior Research Fellow, then Principal Investigator. In science research happens in groups and the Principal Investigator leads the project.

Many people likened running a research group as running a small company while remaining research active. The Principal Investigator is similar to managing director of a small company. Some of these activities they don’t have any real training for. No-one has told them how to manage expenditure of a research project, or how to interview people. Several people noted that the hardest thing is recruitment not least because often candidates are abroad and interviews happen over Skype and Google Hangout. There is a big element of doubt about who they have employed.

Often collaborations are across time zones so researchers are fitting in calls in the early morning and evening to allow for time zones.

Academic roles in detail

The academic roles tended to fall into the following areas:

  • College role – Supporting students, Public relations administration, research, consultancy teaching
  • Personal administration – Travel arrangements, updating diary, updating CV and publication lists
  • College administration – committee meetings and reading papers, reviewing and interviewing candidates for the college, selecting the admissions.
  • Supporting students – both academic and pastorally, for example providing information about the college or problems with students not coping with work or taking students to hospital.
  • Teaching
    • Lectures (including preparation and planning curriculum, getting lecture rooms, sorting out timetables.
    • Putting slides and demos and reading list up in the course Moodle.
    • Writing the exam papers, preparing materials they will need.
    • Final issues like meeting the lab technicians, marking the exams.
  • Research
    • Applying for grant funding involves obtaining quotes from suppliers and partners to go into applications, creating budgets meeting funders, writing applications, research project management.
    • Setting up experiments, and gathering data and analysing results.
    • A large amount of writing to tell people about it and published – it doesn’t count unless it is published in a good journal. Lots of work in formatting and editing and the reviewing.
    • There is informal work – peer reviews. For journals official peer review is usually predicated by informal peer review – people will review each other’s papers to increase chances of getting accepted.
    • Managing research groups – running meetings setting goals, managing expenditure, writing job descriptions, recruitment, approving leave
    • Once published all the outreach – including listing the work in Symplectic, seminars, going to conferences and doing speaking engagements. Going to London to be interviewed.
  • Consultancy – meeting collaborators

Disciplinary differences in research

Disciplines differ immensely from one another but not necessarily in the ways traditionally thought of. Rather than there being a Science versus Humanities divide, a more accurate way of thinking about types of research relate to whether the work is being done in a group or by a solo researcher.

The size of the research group is partly determined by the expense of the equipment. Research such as that done by CERN is very expensive and requires grants. In AHSS there is less of a need for external funding (or possibly less money available funding). Note that Junior or Senior Research Fellows tend to be funded by the University but Principal Investigators are often funded through grants.

The pace of the discipline changes how people publish – in fast disciplines there are shorter units of publication, and slower disciplines have longer ones. Physics is very fast discipline so they upload pre-prints to arXiv.org. For example the role of journals in physics is not as important as biology.

Transparency changes across disciplines as well. For example physics is very open and biology is secretive – even colleagues often don’t know what others are working on. Transparency can be measured by the competitiveness of the discipline. It can affect the discipline of the research groups – some are open, others are secretive.

The structure of research groups

Research groups were a surprise to Paul. Members do not work together like you do on a project team. Research groups manifest as a set of researchers following their own interests but generally working in the same area. The researchers share methods and equipment but otherwise they are doing their own thing.

Some groups are supportive with mentoring but others are really competitive. Sometimes this comes from the research group and other times it comes from the people in the group. This appears to be led by the discipline culture of where they come from. It is worth noting that while anecdotally Cambridge people have more freedom, in Cambridge there is a cultural tendency not to show any weakness.

Day in the life graphics

Paul then took the group through the ‘day in the life’ diagrams created out of the shadowing done in Michaelmas Term 2013 (October to December). The graphics he discussed included:

The vertical axis reflects how happy the academic was over the day. High points tend to coincide with having contact with people and talking about their discipline such as discussions with PhD students, or with a research group. However lecturing is not a high point because there is no two-way communication – all the students sit at the back, the lecturer only gets feedback get at the end.

What causes one of the greatest emotional lows for a researcher is being rejected for a paper. They have often put all of their effort and knowledge into a journal paper. If it is rejected after peer review they are being told they have wasted two years of their life. Paul noted that some reviewing boards are brutal and the feedback given is, frankly, rude.

There is a similar low point if an application for grant funding is unsuccessful – it is similar to a rejection. Grant funding applications are worse than a paper as the researcher has to argue why the work is important and why the funder should fund it. Generally funding bodies are not as brutal but they are awarding funding to competitors – so it is a double blow.

Research and publishing experience map

Paul also talked the group through the Research and Publishing Experience Map. As part of the project the team was looking to see if the University was involved in the publishing process in terms of helping it. However the team found that there is no contact with the University during the process of research and publishing. There was no official checkpoint where academics had to tell the University about what they were doing. While there might be a discussion between the person and their supervisor, it is not recorded anywhere.

The research group will know where articles have been submitted, but the information is not captured anywhere – except in their inbox. But in research groups people move on so even a shared memory is lost. So there is no way to collect data, and no place to archive the administration for researchers. While the Research Office knows about the research grant, what a researcher does with the money is up to them. There are not many official touch points with the University.

The result of this work was a need to artificially engineer a touch point with the academics to ensure that they are able to meet their compliance requirements. The www.openaccess.cam.ac.uk upload system is the result.

* Paul now works for a consulting company Modern Human

Published 1 February 2016
Written by Dr Danny Kingsley
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