Call for a National Digital HASS Research Framework

Strategic Priorities to effectively meet the digital needs of Australian HASS researchers

August 2019

Executive summary

Using digital tools in HASS research opens up opportunities to derive new and more significant research value. Among other benefits, digital research in HASS can:

  • Critique, analyse, and subsequently inform the digital transformation of society
  • Provide a much-needed HASS perspective on digital and technological innovation and scholarship
  • Reveal new insights and breakthroughs in traditional HASS research by using algorithmic and data-driven techniques
  • Create valuable opportunities for Australian HASS researchers to collaborate with international peers through shared digital infrastructure.

However, HASS researchers often have digital needs that are qualitatively different from those in other disciplines:

  • They carry out “long-tail” digital research that requires highly specialised and domain specific methods, tools and data sets
  • HASS represents over 40% of all Australian research, encompassing a diverse and heterogeneous multitude of disciplines
  • Although specific digital research projects are unique, there are opportunities to harmonise and share underlying digital research infrastructure.

To ensure an equitable, efficient and coordinated approach to digital HASS research that makes Australia internationally competitive, Australian researchers need:

  • Digital support services that can better respond to the specific needs of key digital HASS research communities;
  • A transparent and community-engaged process to review and fund digital HASS research infrastructure;
  • National coordination of infrastructure and support services.

The HASS DEVL calls for a National Digital HASS Research Framework that provides:

  • A system that is fair, transparent, responsive and researcher-centred;
  • A multi-stakeholder approach that includes input from emerging and established digital researchers, digital research support and infrastructure providers, as well as the GLAM sector;
  • Government-supported investment in digital HASS research that works in partnership with funding agencies and national leaders toward a national coordinated and collaborative digital HASS research infrastructure;
  • A high-level policy that reiterates the importance of and commitment to digital research in HASS disciplines as a national priority and an international competitive advantage.

HASS Data-Enhanced Virtual Laboratory

The HASS Data-Enhanced Virtual Laboratory (HASS DEVL) is an ARDC-funded project that aims to increase the capacity for innovative data-driven research in the Humanities, Arts and Social Sciences. The HASS DEVL works with research communities and digital research support providers to build skills and confidence in HASS researchers who want to use digital tools and methods.

The HASS DEVL’s vision is to provide all Australian HASS researchers with access to digital tools, reference data sets and adequate support to get started on or improve their digital scholarship and work together as a community.

HASS researchers often have digital needs that are qualitatively different from those in other disciplines:

  • They carry out “long-tail” digital research that requires highly-specialised and domain specific methods, tools and data sets
  • HASS represents over 40% of all Australian research, encompassing a diverse and heterogeneous multitude of disciplines
  • Although specific digital research projects are unique, there are opportunities to harmonise and share underlying digital research infrastructure.

The uptake of digital research in HASS also has the potential to make a significant and distinctive contribution to Australian research as a whole. Among other benefits, digital research in HASS can:

  • Critique, analyse, and subsequently inform the digital transformation of society
  • Provide a much needed HASS perspective on digital and technological innovation and scholarship
  • Reveal new insights and breakthroughs in traditional HASS research by using algorithmic and data-driven techniques
  • Create valuable opportunities for Australian HASS researchers to collaborate with international peers through shared digital infrastructure.

Many HASS researchers, especially early career and students, are interested in pursuing digital research. Unfortunately, they are often not equipped with adequate digital research literacy and are hamstrung by the limited availability of support structures (technology, training and peer support), which are overwhelmingly geared toward “big science” in STEM disciplines.

Even for established digital HASS researchers, the burden of carrying out digital research remains significant compared to researchers in other disciplines. Established digital HASS researchers often have to shoulder the ongoing costs to set up and operate their own digital research investments in an environment that lacks a reward and recognition system for digital scholarship.

This presents an opportunity for a national collaboration to improve the state of digital HASS research in Australia. Working collectively and sharing resources within a National Digital HASS Research Framework will reduce the costs of digital HASS research for established practitioners and lower the barriers to entry for emerging digital researchers. It is also an opportunity to reduce the current imbalance in Australia’s digital research infrastructure, which currently favours STEM disciplines.

To ensure an equitable, efficient and coordinated approach to digital HASS research that makes Australia internationally competitive, we need a National Digital HASS Research Framework that provides:

  • A system that is fair, transparent, responsive and researcher-centred;
  • A multi-stakeholder approach that includes input from emerging and established digital researchers, digital research support and infrastructure providers as well as the GLAM sector;
  • Government-supported investment in digital HASS research that works in partnership with funding agencies and national leaders toward a national coordinated and collaborative digital HASS research infrastructure;
  • A high-level policy that reiterates the importance of and commitment to digital research in HASS disciplines as a national priority and an international competitive advantage.

Without a national digital HASS framework, Australia risks falling further behind in internationally competitive HASS research and research training.

The HASS DEVL calls for a National Digital HASS Research Framework with four strategic priorities:

  1. Regular review of the digital needs of Australian HASS researchers
  2. Access to easy to use and reliable digital HASS infrastructure
  3. Access to digital research support services
  4. National coordination of infrastructure and support service providers

A staged implementation approach would ensure greater sustainability and still enable immediate policy changes that will address critical needs. The following sections outline a proposal to implement the framework along the abovementioned strategic priorities.

Proposal – establish a multi stakeholder working party to:

  • Map the gaps, opportunities and challenges in digital HASS research policy;
  • Identify system-level issues in adequately addressing these;
  • Develop a road map of actions that can be taken by government-funded agencies, learned academies, research institutions, digital HASS infrastructure providers and digital HASS research communities; and
  • Develop an implementation timeline.

Regular review of the digital needs of HASS researchers

A current and complete understanding of the digital needs of HASS researchers is necessary to ensure optimal research outcomes and the long-term usefulness of digital HASS research infrastructure. Regular review of digital needs and the application of digital methods in HASS disciplines enables support services to respond knowledgeably and quickly, offer best-fit technology and training solutions and instill confidence in and encourages uptake of digital research tools.

Regular review of the emerging digital needs of HASS researchers is important and valuable even when the technology infrastructure is absent or lagging. It helps service providers plan and prioritise the development of future digital HASS research infrastructure.

Regular review of digital HASS researchers’ needs allows for:

  • Better understanding of how digital tools can be used in HASS research and how to derive internationally-competitive research value out of them;
  • Planning future developments that encompass emerging needs;

Some of the challenges in regular review of digital HASS research needs:

  • The pace of change in digital technology and how it is being used in HASS research means that information can become out-dated quickly;
  • Digital research support staff cannot be experts in all digital technology and across all HASS disciplines;
  • The needs of smaller digital research communities can be easily overlooked and their research delayed if inadequately serviced.

The HASS DEVL calls for a National Digital HASS Research Framework that supports:

  • A focus on review of digital technologies used in HASS, ensuring that HASS researchers without adequate digital research support services are identified;
  • The development of advisory and peer-support suite of services for key digital scholarship areas to support digital HASS researchers who do not have access to adequate local support services;
  • A professional development program and incentives to continually to train, recruit and retain local digital research support staff.

Access to easy to use and reliable digital HASS infrastructure

HASS researchers need digital research infrastructure that they can depend on throughout the entire research lifecycle. For many HASS researchers, options to access and use digital infrastructure are limited. Some tools and services that are freely available in other locations or to other disciplines are not available to HASS researchers or are only available for a fee.

Digital HASS practitioners should have equitable and easy access to the best available and current digital HASS research infrastructure.

Access to easy to use and reliable digital HASS infrastructure allows:

  • More HASS practitioners to use digital HASS research infrastructure for medium and long-term research projects.
  • The bringing together of practitioners in digital HASS research disciplines and facilitate collaborations, shared knowledge and best practice.

Some of the challenges in accessing easy to use and reliable digital HASS research infrastructure:

  • Support for digital HASS research infrastructure needs to be assessed under criteria appropriate for HASS research, characterised by “long-tail” small digital research communities, exploratory research and limited availability of research data sets;
  • Funding pathways for digital HASS research infrastructure need to be equitable, consistent, transparent and timely. Currently, pathways that specifically fund continued operation and maintenance of existing digital HASS research infrastructure are very few or non-existent;
  • Users and operators of digital HASS research infrastructure are increasingly required to advocate or pay for continued access while also expected to continue to produce high quality research.

The HASS DEVL calls for a National Digital HASS Research Framework that supports:

  • A transparent and community-engaged process to review and fund digital HASS research infrastructure;
  • Improved access to digital HASS research infrastructure that adequately and fairly cover key areas of digital scholarship;
  • A fit-for-purpose investment plan for national digital HASS research infrastructure that encourages the adoption of new and ensures the continuity of existing digital HASS research infrastructure. The investment plan would use a range of criteria tailored to HASS research, including: the size of the target research community; the nature of the community’s digital needs; existing digital infrastructure options; and the impact of digital infrastructure on the quantity and quality of the community’s research output.

Access to digital research support services

HASS researchers have the right to equitable access to high quality digital research support services irrespective of being on the “long tail” of digital research. Digital HASS researchers are likely to require sophisticated and tailored support services and access a range of specialised resources provided by technical and information literacy staff.

Equitable access to these services ensures optimal research outcomes for digital HASS researchers and ensures that they learn independently and become self-sufficient in the future.

Accessing digital research support services allows for:

  • Informed advice to digital HASS researchers and the development of tutorials, lessons-learnt and other learning resources;
  • The creation of peer support networks that link digital HASS researchers with other experts and practitioners for knowledge and information sharing;

Some of the challenges in accessing digital research support services:

  • HASS researchers are often unaware of digital research support services available to them;
  • Digital research support staff are scarce and time-poor. They possess a mix of skills that are hard to find, especially in regional and remote areas;
  • Digital research support carried out by professional and academic staff is often unrecognised or unaccounted for as a valuable and integral part of the digital research process.

The HASS DEVL calls for a National Digital HASS Research Framework that supports:

  • Digital support services that can better respond to the specific needs of key digital HASS research communities;
  • Increased consultation with digital HASS research communities to identify service gaps and improve or design new service offerings;
  • Provide national direction on digital support service that is aligned with a national investment plan for digital HASS research infrastructure.

National coordination of infrastructure and support service providers

Providing a coordinated approach to digital HASS infrastructure and support services will contribute to an equitable system and better outcomes for HASS researchers. A coordinated system will guarantee continued access to infrastructure and support services throughout the digital research lifecycle. This coordinated approach already exists in STEM disciplines and is underpinned by a national investment plan in research infrastructure.

Delivery of nationally coordinated digital HASS research infrastructure and support services has significant potential to save costs and improve researcher and research outcomes.

National coordination of infrastructure and support service providers allows:

  • Digital support services that are customised and highly relevant to key digital HASS research communities;
  • Reduction in the number of platforms and experts needed to provide digital advisory and support services.

Some of the challenges in national coordination of infrastructure and support service providers:

  • Lack of data with no central registry to identify available digital research infrastructure and support services for “long-tail” domains such as HASS.
  • Digital HASS researchers need access to a range of technical and disciplinary specialists and services that are fragmented or unaware of the researchers’ context.
  • Many infrastructure and support providers do not provide adequate transition services for medium- and long-term research projects.

The HASS DEVL calls for a National Digital HASS Research Framework that:

  • Establishes a national registry of digital HASS research infrastructure and support services that showcases how they have helped current and past digital research projects and is easily discoverable by HASS researchers;
  • Promotes standards that encourage interoperability and cohesion between infrastructure providers and guidelines and referral pathways for support services;
  • Develops strategies for sustainability and transition services to maximise the utility of existing infrastructure and support services and support the development of new ones.
  • Delivers incentives for cross-institutional cooperation and sharing of data, tools, and support.