For many years, St Petersburg University has been developing its own system of electronic services that facilitate research for the University academics and students. The COVID-19 pandemic has shown that a set of interconnected information systems not only helps employees to request and receive all the necessary information promptly while performing daily tasks, but it also enables the organisation to operate under adverse conditions or stress.

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Vice-Rector for Research Sergey Mikushev talked about how St Petersburg University organises remote research during lockdown.

Tell us about how the University was able to shift to remote operation at short notice.

St Petersburg University has been actively developing and implementing information and communication technology systems for organising, managing and carrying out scientific research. This approach allows reducing the risks while continuing to conduct research remotely in the situation of lockdown and other restrictive measures.

The St Petersburg University centralised information systems include: e-mail; SPbU Pure portal; Electronic Document Management System (EDMS) ‘Delo’; and other licensed electronic resources. To access any of these systems a single account is used, while the user does not have to be physically present in the workplace. Most resources can be accessed from anywhere in the city, only an Internet connection is required.

What opportunities does SPbU Pure portal provide for the University students and staff?

The Pure research information management system enables: keeping the track of submitted grant applications, ongoing internal and external national and international projects, and signed contracts and cooperation agreements; registering reports on grant implementation or contract reports; consolidating data about publications cited by various scientific databases; as well as keeping records of scholarly achievements such as prizes, awards, and academic degrees and titles.

Since 1 October 2017, all applications for research funding have been received and processed in the St Petersburg University’s Pure portal. To ensure the correct transition from the University Research Analysis and Information System into SPbU Pure, more than 120,000 records were transferred, including projects and publications. Since late 2018, all science competitions funded by St Petersburg University have been held through Pure. Due to the integration with other centralised accounting systems (for example, those used by the University HR and Academic Affairs departments), some information does not have to be entered into Pure manually. Information about students and academics, for instance, their field of study, researcher identifiers and the current position is automatically retrieved from other databases. In addition to interacting with internal systems, Pure is also connected to external academic research databases – Web of Science, Scopus and others.

Based on the data in the project profiles or contracts, Pure registers projects in the Unified State Information System (Centre of Information Technologies and Systems of the Executive State Authorities of the Ministry of Science and Higher Education of the Russian Federation, CITiS). Importantly, full-time participation of the academic staff is not required as abstract and bibliographic information is recorded on information cards by the employees of the University Research Support Service. They retrieve the necessary data from the project profiles. At the moment, due to the current restrictive measures, scanned copies of the required cards, signed by the research project leader, suffice to register a project in the system.

Besides, Pure enables meeting open access requirements by uploading information about the University’s ongoing research. It raises the visibility of a researcher’s profile by giving a complete and up-to-date picture of their expertise through SPbU Pure portal. This facilitates building stronger collaborative networks and draws interest from businesses.

How can the University staff access scientific journals or archives from home?

Access to various electronic resources is available through a single account on the website of the M Gorky Scientific Library of St Petersburg University. These are resources on: patents, dissertations, reference publications, catalogues, electronic journals, books, Russian and foreign bibliographic databases, etc. Furthermore, the St Petersburg University Research Repository is available not only to employees or students of the University – it is open to the general public.

For more information on how to get access to licensed electronic and information resources, see ‘How to go to the library during the lockdown.’

Tell us how the University handles the document management after moving to remote work.

The EDMS ‘Delo’ and corporate e-mail enable remote approval of draft letters, contracts, as well as reports on grants and contracts.

Is it possible to continue research work during lockdown?

An application system developed by the St Petersburg University Research Park allows users to submit applications for research at the University’s Resource Centres remotely. Through the notification system, researchers are promptly informed of all actions on the projects under implementation. So, they can track measurements, monitor project implementation, and so on. They can also receive the results of their work online.

During the COVID-19 pandemic, discussions with the Research Park tenants and users about the research tasks are held remotely via e-mail, phone, Zoom and other communication channels. The samples transfer is made in a non-contact manner. The premises of the Resource Centres are well ventilated and regularly disinfected. All employees use personal protective equipment.

How is access to the University buildings currently provided?

R&D workers, who carry out research on grants and contracts using equipment that is not part of the University Research Park, have access to the University premises, consistent with local acts on prevention of COVID-19 transmission. At present, no more than 300 faculty and academic research staff members can be present at the University at any given time. Work on research equipment is organised into shifts, with only two people allowed in the room. It is recommended that private transport is used to travel to work at the University.

How do research group leaders at the University interact with researchers and submit applications for procurement?

In 2019, by order No 3979/1, dated 17 April 2019, a regulation was approved and adopted to guide interactions among the University staff with regard to research, development and technological work and the provision of services related to research activities. This enables us to optimise our work and improve efficiency of remote research project support.

The research project leaders do not need to contact the HR Department for the employment of R&D performers, nor the Procurement Department to acquire goods and services for the project. They are to prepare and send by corporate e-mail a submission addressed to the head of the Research Support section for their research area. The document should indicate their proposals for formalising labour relations with members of the research group, for outsourcing part of the operations, a preliminary procurement plan for materials, equipment and services with specification and justification for the purchases. Further interaction with structural subdivisions – the HR Department, the Financial Planning Department, the Procurement Department and others – will be carried out by the employees of the Research Support Service remotely via the EDMS Delo.

Participation in international conferences and symposia is extremely important for academic researchers, as at such events they can present their research findings and receive the feedback. How do researchers share their experiences during the pandemic?

During the period of coronavirus-related restrictions, St Petersburg University has been holding conferences online. Thus, the LI International Scientific Conference on Control Processes and Stability (CPS’20) was held on the StreamYard platform.

St Petersburg University developed and implemented remote assessment procedures (Minutes of the Rector’s Meeting No 429 dated 8 June 2020 and No 433 dated 6 July 2020). Are there any benefits of holding theses defences online? What are the positive aspects that are important to note?

The best experts from universities in Russia and abroad have been able to participate in the discussions of the doctoral dissertations as members of dissertation councils. There has been an opportunity to replace business trips, jet lag, and hotel reservations with scholarly discussions without having to leave one’s familiar surroundings, while teleconferencing has enabled full interaction with degree-seeking applicants and other members of the dissertation council. Live streaming online allows everyone with an Internet connection to attend the dissertation defence and ask the applicant questions directly via electronic communication channels.

Since the beginning of the pandemic, 38 doctoral theses have been defended online. Degree-seeking applicants from different parts of the world (China, Sweden, Italy, Iran and other countries) have been able to defend their dissertations remotely without crossing international borders.

The measures taken in the context of COVID-19, particularly the shift to remote-work mode, enabled us to retain consistency with the state attestation process. We were able to increase the level of administrative and informational support for research activities, while reducing the risk of infection among older experts. The latter is of significant practical importance, since the dissertation councils in most cases are composed of older adults.