Openness and security

For the International Network of Research Management Societies (INORMS) 2018 conference, Ipshita Ghose asked Adam Golberg, Bo Alroe and I to help out with a workshop about how technology changes the research development role. I’d just like to thank them for the chance to reflect on how our processes may change in the future.  


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Page 1 of a US Department of Defence document with heavy redactions.

Redacted document, via Wikimedia Commons

This statement is standard boilerplate at a lot of universities (and other organisations). It is designed to demonstrate due diligence in reducing risk, I think.

For me, this statement encapsulates the disjunction between where our researchers are going, and where the university administration stands. Research is becoming more and more open. Open journals, open data, open everything.

As administrators, we remain steadfastly closed. Grant applications are confidential. Research contracts are confidential. Even our emails are confidential. There are good reasons for this confidentiality, in some instances. A lot of the time, though, confidentiality in administration is business-as-usual atrophy. An all-pervasive attitude that we don’t even think about anymore.

This blog is a good example of that. For the last seven years, we’ve published an article every week (almost) about doing research in academia. All the articles are available for everybody to read. When we first proposed this idea, our manager was quite suspicious. Why would we want to give away the university’s “secret sauce”? Wouldn’t that make us less competitive? Actually, when it comes to constructing a good budget, or a Gantt chart, or most anything else about what we do, there is no secret sauce. It is all standard stuff. But thinking about our professional practice every week, and publishing it openly for others, has been enormously beneficial. Read more of this post

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Why are grant applications confidential?

Photo of a large bag labeled 'Confidential Paper for shredding & recycling'.

Confidential Paper for shredding & recycling, by Dan Brickley on Flickr.

One of the first rules that I learnt when I started as a research whisperer was that grant applications are confidential documents. We should never talk about an application, other than with the applicants.

I’ve seen that rule applied with different levels of stringency at different times.

Think about these questions for a moment:

  • Should the very fact that someone is drafting an application be treated as confidential information?
  • Should you be able to talk to other people in the research office about a draft application? How widely?
  • Should you be able to send an application for internal review? Do you need to check with the applicant first?
  • Is an application still confidential after the grants have been announced? Can we put successful grant applications into a library, so that others can learn from great examples?
  • If two applicants are working on similar topics, and would gain from working together, can I introduce them to one another? How?

These questions define the borders of confidentiality. Most research offices would have different answers to some or all of these questions.

Lately, I’ve been wondering if confidentiality is the best way to go. Perhaps we have more to gain from broadcasting research ideas widely, than from keeping them close. Read more of this post