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March 29, 2010

Virtual work space for academics promises greater access to research

Dentist examining young patient long ago
Along with providing a virtual work space for researchers, UR Research is also a digital archive. In this 1920’s photo from the Eastman Dental Center Collection, a doctor examines a child after tonsillectomy surgery at the Rochester Dental Dispensary.

The University has created a virtual work space that not only gives academics the online functions and storage they need, but by doing so, promises to make the dream of unrestricted access to scientific and scholarly discoveries a reality.

Created by a team at River Campus Libraries, UR Research, https://urresearch.rochester.edu, is a one-stop Web site for managing the academic workflow. The suite of online tools meets an array of research needs, from authoring manuscripts to showcasing work to storing digital materials securely and, when needed, permanently.

The system is designed to give researchers the incentive they need to upload their work to Web-based archives.

“It’s a win-win relationship,” says Suzanne Bell, the librarian charged with introducing the system to the University community. “Researchers get the tailor-made functions and online storage they need; Internet users get free and open access to academic research and priceless collections.” For libraries, the program was designed as open-source software available for download to other institutions at no cost.

“It’s a cyber work space that’s collaborative,” says Natalie Klein, a doctoral candidate in brain and cognitive sciences who quickly became enamored with the site after its recent relaunch. Klein particularly likes the ability to create and share documents in virtually any format. As a psycholinguist, her research data is quantitative and requires specialized text formatting, coding that is typically stripped when using popular online text sharing programs like Google Documents.

Klein also says she loves the user control built into the program, allowing her to create a customized researcher page and to easily post and update her CV and research.

Doug Guiffrida, an associate professor of counseling and human development in the Warner School of Education, uses the online archiving system to keep his work organized in one place and available for search engines and the public, who are free to download documents from the system. (Users also may have private work areas that cannot be searched or viewed by the public.) Even in his own office, Guiffrida says, “I actually use it instead of keeping hard copies around, if I need to look at something that I’ve written. I’m kind of a minimalist.” And, unlike most departmental Web sites, the system tracks how often files are downloaded. “It’s nice to see what people are reading and what they are ignoring,” says Guiffrida.

An early adopter of UR Research, Guiffrida first began using the system when it was originally introduced in 2003 as simply a digital repository, a place for scholars to preserve and make available online preprints, dissertations, working papers, photographs, research data, music scores, and other work. But five years after its launch, only 6,500 documents had been entered into UR Research, says Nathan Sarr, the library’s senior software engineer who designed the expanded system.

example web page for UR ResearchSo the development team went back to the drawing board to find out what was wrong. Under the leadership of Susan Gibbons, vice provost and Andrew H. and Janet Dayton Neilly Dean of River Campus Libraries; David Lindahl, software development director; and Nancy Fried Foster, director of anthropological research, the team conducted an anthropological study of faculty members and a second study of graduate students. What they discovered was that researchers needed software for working collaboratively with their colleagues, whether down the hall or across the globe. They needed online tools for sharing different versions of manuscripts in a safe and secure environment. And they needed a place to showcase their research. Graduate students, in particular, needed safe storage for their theses and the ever growing mounds of digital data from research. And all researchers, juggling demanding schedules, needed a system that saved time and was easy to use.

“We saw there was a disconnect between the repository and faculty needs,” says Gibbons. “Then we set out to build a system that addressed all of the misalignments we found. Every significant feature of this system can be traced back to a finding of our faculty and/or grad student research.”

“What’s novel about this system is that it has been built around user needs,” says Mike Bell, assistant dean for information technology. “Most other repositories have been focused on systems architecture and public access, not on what is most important to contributors.”

As a new user, Klein concurs that the researcher tools are what sold her on the enhanced system: “I guess when I finish my thesis, someone will archive it and that’s nice, but that always seems to me like a one-time, end-stage action, like renting a robe for graduation. This new software is a work in progress that you can use from day one.”

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