Digital research technologists are a growing community within universities. They are an integral part of health data science teams, providing digital or data expertise. They fall somewhere between traditional academics and traditional professional services – often called non-traditional academics. They break the long cast mould, that academics in Universities do research and others provide supporting services. This piece explores challenges this group faces. It is also a call to action for those in HDR UK who identify as digital research technologists, to join the community and put themselves forward to have case studies written up about them to recognise and raise the profile of this role, which is integral to the achievement of HDR UK’s mission and vision.

Universities have decades of legacy in defining roles and these hold prestige in the scientific and wider communities. The challenge is that historically, and still today, the prestige is still based on traditional academic roles, such as the Professor. This very traditional role comes with a set of expectations around publications, teaching and research income and the mutual recognition of a Professor is world-wide. For someone that strives for standardisation of data, the standardised recognition of a Professor is impressive.

There is a growing community of teams in Universities that provide digital or data expertise that struggle for recognition in the context of the traditional academic roles, as their role is different, but no less important. The best definition to date of this community is to class them as “non-traditional academics” – I am one them. Of course, the negated definition is not a definition but simply a recognition that this group is different in some way.

There are many discussions about this community and various groups that have emerged to make this group visible and to demonstrate worth. My view would be that it would be a mistake to try and re-define what is a Professor and to somehow make this “non-traditional” group adhere to the traditional roles. The inherent problem that Universities must now tackle is the emergence of digital research technologists within Universities that are not traditional academics and neither are they traditional professional services.

The often-made mistake in Universities is this division between academic and non-academic. Roles, job families, and even national reporting is undertaken on such a narrow definition, whether someone is or is not an academic. In isolation that is not necessarily a bad thing, but the inbuilt assumptions surrounding that definition is problematic.

Whilst this community is undoubtedly a non-traditional academic, that does not mean they do not undertake research. This breaks the long cast mould, that academics in Universities do research and others provide supporting services. Such an attitude has also defined the job families, which whilst are different across the UK can loosely be placed into Academic roles (Research and Teaching) and non-academic (e.g. support services, libraries, IT, finances, legal).  This definition is compounded by the associated rules that are applied to each job family. The opportunities for: progression, pay awards, undertaking research, leading research, driving strategic change and prestigious titles are usually dictated by this academic/non-academic classification. We need to break this mould. We do not need to redefine a Professor or the traditional academic path, let the traditionalists live long in these roles. But what we do need is to break down some of the barriers that prevents research, that prevents progression and prevents the recognition of people who undertake world leading research but from a non-traditional perspective.

There is no simple solution and there is no solution that we can borrow from other locations. But we are calling for digital research technologists within the HDR UK community to join the new #digital-research-technologists Slack channel, to begin to build a community, and put themselves forward to have a case study written up on their work. The intention of this new case study series is to highlight those that fit the definition of a non-traditional academic and to highlight the direct impact they bring to HDR UK and the research they undertake to make this visible.

There is the Technician Commitment that, whilst is a different community to the one described in the health data science space, does touch on the same issues of recognition and career development.

What we really need to do though is escape from binary definitions. Academic vs non-academic is a definition that is no longer valid. This team space is a spectrum of people and roles and there should be complete freedom to move between these roles as the skills, achievements and experience of individuals dictate. There are other more important reasons for this to be the case, not least because of the equality, diversity and inclusion challenge faced in both academia and medicine whereby senior academics and senior clinical colleagues tend to be white males; whereas if you are classed as a non-academic you are more likely to be a woman.  Surely it would be a good thing for the whole workforce of a research organisation to empower that workforce to undertake research?

Finally, we need to find a way that we can have some level of equivalence to the highly regarded and desired title of a Professor. The international recognition of a Professor makes it so desirable, but equally causes problems. If we do want our digital colleagues to engage in research, how do we give them the recognition that their efforts have reached a similar level of seniority to be recognised by peers as a Professor. That to me is the challenge. Yes, some will want to go the traditional route and get the recognition from being a Professor, but how do we recognise those that can lead world leading research, but do this from a digital and technology backing rather than academic.

One argument would be to simply ‘help’ those who are not from an academic background to become more academic. But in such an approach we lose the diversity and we lose something very unique that a non-traditional academic can bring – a view of the solution that is not constrained by the need to publish, to have developed something unique and that is “theirs” but focused on the technical solution to drive and enhance research.

I say all of this as a ‘non-traditional academic’. To most the following might sound like a contradiction and it is a credit to the University of Nottingham to have such a strong programme of work on Digital Research that makes this possible:

  • I am on a Professional Services contract
  • I report into Information Services
  • I do not teach
  • I have no publication target
  • I am a Principle Investigator
  • I have an active portfolio of research

I am not an academic – but what am I?

We are inviting digital research technologists from across the HDR UK community to join the #digital-research-technologists Slack channel (click here to join channel) to help bring this community together. We plan to develop case studies on a number of this community, to raise the profile of the role of digital research technologists. Please nominate yourself for this and play a part in increasing the recognition of this vital group.