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The University of York - Case Study

Common European Research Information Format-Based Proprietary Systems


The University of York's Invitation to Tender

The University of York was created on a greenfield site in the 1960s and rapidly established itself as a leading UK university. It is ranked in the top ten of UK universities and in the top one hundred worldwide.1


Although it is located on one principal campus, the University is divided into eight individual colleges to which students are assigned. Academic departments are often located in colleges but there is no formal subject specialisation based on the colleges.


Although it is located on one principal campus, the University is divided into eight individual colleges to which students are assigned. Academic departments are often located in colleges but there is no formal subject specialisation based on the colleges.


The University is relatively unusual in that more than 50% of its income is generated by research and therefore research administration and maintaining a positive impression of research at the University is important.


Historical Context


For the Research Assessment Exercise (RAE) in 2008, the Research Office had data on students, research projects and staffing but it was all held separately and could not be put together easily. To address this, a simple Microsoft Access database was built to hold the data. The system had a user interface built using Cold Fusion, a technology that is popular and well understood in the institution.


Most academics in the University are returnable for the RAE and the system allowed Heads of Department (HoDs) to profile their staff at the individual academic level. The HoDs found the system very usable but the structure and design of the system meant that maintaining the information took a lot of effort and the functionality it offered was limited.


After the RAE 2008, there was widespread agreement within the University that the issue of research information management needed to be addressed. Consequently the Research Office started to investigate whether the system used for the RAE could be developed to provide the additional functionality required for an ongoing Research Information Management system. Colleagues in the University's Computing Services (CS) advised that the system would need a lot of work in order to develop maintainable data structures and functionality. CS staff availability for this project was limited so it was therefore decided to abandon the system and look for another solution and the 'Research and Innovation Information System' project was launched.


The project was led by the Research and Enterprise Office. A project team was formed initially to evaluate the options available for getting a system for the University. Four options were evaluated:


  1. Do nothing
  2. 50:50 buy/build
  3. In-house development
  4. Complete system purchase


Each option was costed using the Full Economic Costing (FEC) model. There was nervousness about the in-house development resource and the possible consequences if a developer left the University at a critical time. The University, through its Computing Services, has a policy of providing the best fit solution rather than a rigid buy/build strategy so the project was not constrained to go down either the buy or build route.


All the requirements of the system were listed against the develop/purchase options.


While the Research Excellence Framework (REF) was a major driver for the project, the internal need for management information (MI) was also of considerable importance. For example HoDs need to know which academics have the best grant success rate, etc.


The chosen solution would need to interface with the University's Content Management System (CMS) and additionally feed both personal and departmental web pages. The University has a directory of expertise which was in need of redevelopment; once this was done it would also automatically need updating from the system.



After considering all the options the team recommended that the University opted for a complete system purchase.


System Overview


There was a full Official Journal of the European Union (OJEU) tender process. The tender was deliberately left as an open tender document and did not restrict itself to the University of York. Consequently other institutions could use it for their own acquisition process if they so wished.


All tenders were very carefully reviewed and checked against the list of essentials. Any bidder that could not meet all 'essential' items was excluded. Also the tender had stipulated that the system had to be 'off-the-shelf', ie not a bespoke development, which ruled out a significant number of the tenders.


The final short list was:


  • Agresso
  • Avedas/Converis
  • Atira/Pure


The project team made sure that the costing models were transparent and that the price comparisons were exactly like-for-like in order to determine which system offered the best value.


Cost was an important but not overriding consideration. The University was very keen to have a partnership with the supplier and to have a product from an organisation which would be responsive to the University's needs.




All three potential suppliers were invited to two days of on-site demonstrations. At this stage Agresso withdrew, as its solution was not market-ready at that point.


The project team found it very difficult to ensure the participation of everyone they wanted to attend the demos, mainly because of diary pressures for senior managers but, as this was a major system for the University, they felt that senior management buy-in was important and allowed a long planning window in order to get everyone present.


As part of the demonstrations the team insisted on a 'hands-on' session so they could get a feel for the usability of each system. This was not only to increase the confidence in the system but to inform the selection process as the business processes and data structures underlying research administration were a key selection criterion.


Both suppliers gave good presentations. The project team found that Atira was very straightforward and 'upfront' about its product and its current state of development and this weighed in its favour.


The University uses the Research Councils UK's Joint Electronic Submission (Je-S) system and took the Research Excellence Framework and the Research Outcomes collection into account when making its selection. After the complete process the decision was made to select the Pure product from Atira.


Usage Model


The University is now in the process of rolling the system out to the end users. Data entry will be at the departmental level and the method of usage will be decided by individual departments (data entry could be by individual academics or support staff). If historic data is held in an electronic database it will be imported into the Pure system; if the records are held on paper, etc, it will be the responsibility of the departments to enter the information.


Data entered into Pure will be fed into both White Rose (the University's institutional repository) and the Digital Library. The metadata associated with any entry will be quality assured within Pure before being fed into White Rose.


It is intended that Pure will become the single place of truth for internal processes such as annual performance reviews.


As a result of the University's 'Better Management Project' Heads of Departments want much better management information about research. Reports showing grant success rates, academic output and publication history, etc, are all required and will be supplied from the new system.




The project team was made up of:


  • Three members of the Research and Enterprise Office
  • Two members of Computing Services
  • One member of the Web Office
  • One member of Library and Archives
  • One member of the Planning Office


The project team reported to an advisory group which was chaired by the Pro Vice-Chancellor (PVC) Research and was made up of:


  • PVC Research (Chair)
  • Director Research and Enterprise Office
  • Director of Information
  • Three Heads of Department, representing all major subject areas
  • Research Support Office Manager
  • The University Records Manager
  • A member of the Web Services Group
  • A Departmental Research Administrator
  • The incoming PVC Research
  • A member of Human Resources staff
  • A member of the Communications Office staff
  • An academic user representative
  • A member of the Planning Office
  • The Research Policy Office Manager
  • The Research Policy Officer


The project group also reported to some of the University's standing committees such as the Research Committee and the Strategic Information Projects Implementation Group.


As the project was being funded from the Registrar's departmental reserves some of the more complex procedures to obtain funding were not required.


1 The University of York is number 81 in the Times Higher Education World University Rankings 2010 and as a result is in the top 10 of UK universities in that list. It is also in The Guardian's Top Ten of UK Universities for 2011.