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Research shows universities are struggling to get value from data


Universities are literally inundated with data. This data can be an invaluable resource.

But a new study by researchers at UCLA and MIT Press, published Dec. 23 in the journal Science, finds that universities face significant challenges in obtaining such data and that they lag severely behind the private sector and government organizations in using data to solve problems and inform strategic planning.

“This new research shines a bright light on how data-rich and data-poor universities are, and sometimes willfully withholding data,” said Christine L. Borgman, Distinguished Research Professor UCLA School of Education and Information Studies and one of the authors of the study. “They struggle to capture and exploit the true value of their data assets and are reluctant to start the conversations needed to build consensus for data governance.”

The study, co-authored by Amy Brand, director and publisher of MIT Press, is based on a dozen interviews with provosts, vice provosts, university librarians and other senior officials involved in university data management. The researchers found that while universities are making sporadic initiatives to integrate systems and reduce redundancies in academic data management, most still lack the necessary coordination and expertise.

Respondents expressed concern about commercial control of their internal systems and continued tension over the ability to do data-driven planning at the local level. Many also said they felt limited by the lack of databases—centralized data repositories—and the lack of coordinated information management strategies and administrators with data science training and skills.

The study also claims that universities are slower than other sectors of the economy to create leadership positions, such as chief data officers, to coordinate data quality, strategy, governance and privacy issues.

“Our study sought to identify the sources of these tensions along with the innovative solutions adopted or under development in the academy,” Brand said. “We unexpectedly found a pervasive void in infrastructure thinking and a relatively limited set of successes in data-driven planning.”

Almost all respondents said they want to be able to better integrate data between departments and schools within their institutions, and for data from different sources to work better when integrated with other data systems. For example, in order to best serve students and faculty researchers, university libraries may need to collect information about academic courses from the institution’s internal systems and use or combine it with data from external parties, such as publishers or public or private sector organizations.

University leaders said they could make better strategic decisions about hiring and academic programs if they had more complete data on faculty research, prospective students, research funding, higher education policy trends and competitive information about other universities . But data that could aid decision-making is often not available because of data management practices or conflicts between divisions, departments, or schools within a university. And such data may be available but not used due to lack of staff experience.

The findings highlight the need for systemic and institutional leadership that encourages a broad view of data infrastructure and policy, senior staff with the authority and budget to help universities collect and use their data more effectively, and greater involvement of faculty and others involved in defining what , how the data is used.

To address the issues raised in the study, the authors suggest that universities could increase investment in infrastructure that would improve access, integration and intelligence – the ability to collect, analyze and retrieve information. Institutions could also strengthen their data management capacity—for example, staff training and career development. This, the authors write, would improve universities’ abilities to manage a range of data and mine data for strategic, political, social, cultural and technical knowledge.

“Data-based decision-making provides opportunities to promote transparent governance; promote fairness and equity for faculty, students, and staff; and save,” the authors write. “We urge university leaders to use more objective and transparent decision-making models based on data.”

Editor’s Note: To access the link to the full text of the study, visit Borgman’s website for a list of recent publications. (The link to the journal abstract is in the second paragraph above.)

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This post originally appeared on UCLA website and reprinted here with permission.

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