Research intelligence: Proof is in the numbers

The co-founder of Evidence is continuing his work to improve research-data analysis. Zoë Corbyn reports

April 8, 2010

Jonathan Adams cuts a rather dashing figure in his multicoloured designer silk scarf as he hurries to catch the train home from London to Leeds.

The 56-year-old co-founder of Evidence treated himself to the Paul Smith accessory after he and his business partner Karen Gurney sold the firm to multinational data provider Thomson Reuters in January 2009.

Evidence, which specialises in analysing research performance using citations, has grown from scratch in 2001 to become a common name in university management circles. Dr Adams would not divulge how much the University of Leeds spin-off company was sold for, but said that the deal struck with Thomson Reuters "wasn't bad".

One year on, Dr Adams, who was director of research strategy at Leeds before he chose to take an entrepreneurial path by setting up Evidence, remains closely involved.

He is still cultivating the same strong relationships with his university clients and is as busy as ever doing consultancy work for everyone from Research Councils UK to the Australian Research Council and the Sao Paulo Research Foundation.

He also sits on a number of advisory groups and regularly addresses conferences.

The big change is that Evidence is now a "business unit" within Thomson Reuters, and Dr Adams is director of research evaluation within the multinational company.

His staff has doubled in number from eight to 16 and he is closely involved in collecting the data and developing the methodology for the revamped and improved Times Higher Education World University Rankings under Thomson Reuters' Global Institutional Profiles scheme.

The plan is to expand Evidence's horizons beyond the UK, turning it into a global business. One of the ways it hopes to do this is by expanding the focus of its UK Higher Education Research Yearbook, a respected annual comparison of university performance.

Evidence and Thomson Reuters are also combining expertise to develop tools to help research managers make decisions, and Evidence is developing a series of bespoke research-performance and collaboration reports for universities.

The research-performance reports, targeted at UK institutions, will give them the chance to specify the research area they are interested in and identify five competitors. Evidence will then conduct a series of analyses to show where they stand in relation to their rivals.

The collaboration reports, which will be marketed across Europe, will allow universities to identify a subject in which they want to build worldwide collaborations. Evidence will then identify the top five institutions to collaborate with, as well as their strengths and existing partners.

At a time when internationalisation and collaboration are watchwords in higher education, the service is likely to be in high demand. Dr Adams said he was even tempted by the idea of an Evidence iPhone application.

The secrets of success

Dr Adams, who studied the ecology of freshwater flatworms as an academic, credited the success of Evidence to two things. The first, as the name suggests, is the use of evidence.

"What we were doing that people hadn't really done before was putting a strong quantitative element into research-policy analysis," he said. In the early days, he noted, this led to some large assumptions - including the notion that bigger departments always performed better - being overturned.

However, he was quick to point out that data alone are not enough.

He said: "Even the most able, quantitative people cannot just absorb a whole load of numbers, however competent they are. People need interpretation."

The second key to Evidence's success is that the company sprang from the research base.

Dr Adams said: "We did not start as a business that saw an opportunity; we started as a business that was trying to solve a problem. I was a research manager and I needed something that supplied me with answers and made my job easier."

He added: "We are part of our community, which is why I go to a lot of conferences. That's where I talk to the people who use what we produce."

Dr Adams concluded by pointing out that Evidence came not from an academic department but from the administration. He said this was extremely rare for a university spin-off.

Research management, he said, "is an unduly discounted intellectual strength of UK universities".

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