Doing More Outside the Academy

Frustrations about strategic innovation.


January 27, 2014

A report issued recently by the Chronicle of Higher Education entitled Attitudes on Innovation: How College Leaders and Faculty See the Key Issues Facing Higher Education highlights the frustration felt by college leaders and faculty alike when it comes to strategic innovation at universities.

Both groups want faster change, along with greater faculty involvement in whatever technological disruption is actually occurring on their campuses.

The survey findings in question pertain largely to innovation in online learning. After working on a variety of IT projects at Harvard over the past five years, I would argue that the same findings apply generally to innovation in research-oriented technologies.

In search of faster change, I recently left my position at Harvard to venture into commercial start-ups developing academic software.

I left a great job with fabulous colleagues at an amazing university because I came to believe that, in the current climate, I could do more outside the academy than in to help develop the solutions that administrators and faculty want in order to do their work more efficiently.

As of a few weeks ago, I now work for Digital Science, a division of Macmillan Science and Education that develops – directly and via investment – software for researchers and institutions to support the research process.

Our current portfolio ranges from academic publication and discovery tools to software applications for the lab and decision support systems for institutional and funding administrators.

In my experience, faculty and administrators are aligned in recognizing the need for better solutions in the management of research information. But the requisite developments have been slow to come about.

The tools that save faculty from having to rekey the same CV information over and over again, across numerous internal and external tracking, profiling, and submission systems, should be the same tools that help administrators track institutional research output. For university leaders that wish to leverage networked data, there is tremendous opportunity for new efficiencies in institutional analytics and academic planning.

In changing jobs, I also wanted to do more to help academics bring their own innovations into being. Some researchers are creating open source software, and others have commercial ambitions.

In the midst of a long career bridging commercial and non-commercial interests, moving between academia, non-profit, and for-profit entities in the scholarly information space (a bit more on my career path here), I no longer see black and white.

Homegrown solutions struggle for sustainability on their own campuses; open source tools are monetized by companies acting as service providers for an institutional client-base; and successful freemium models abound.

Many faculty are also irked by the disconnect between traditional models of authorship and credit and the new realities of collaborative science and scholarly communication.

The good news is there are many new and forthcoming services offering researchers more control over the presentation, curation, and attribution of their scholarship. I believe that much needed change in how research and researchers are evaluated will be driven by faculty taking more control over how their scholarship is disseminated and how their record of “impact” is curated.

Do I envision university provosts proclaiming en masse that new media can now be substituted for journal and book publications in tenure dossiers? No.

Nor do I foresee publishers ceasing to promote citation impact – not even those that have already integrated alternative metrics into their e-journal platforms.

But I do see researchers using a range of new tools to broaden the public record of their scholarship and take a more proactive role in managing their reputations as scholars.

Whether in pedagogy or research, these are indeed interesting times in higher education. Commercial entities that partner well with the academic community are bringing some of the most innovative technologies into everyday use, and I’m excited to be a part of one.

Amy Brand, Ph.D., is VP Academic and Research Relations and VP North America at Digital Science

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