Managing APC payments for Wellcome Trust and particularly RCUK requires the collection of a lot of data for each payment. Finding a way to record all the necessary information in an efficient way is a significant challenge.
The most common method for collecting this data is an Excel spreadsheet, with a few institutions opting for an Access database. Two of the GW4 Pathfinder institutions, Bristol and Exeter, have just transferred their data between these two systems in opposite directions. The following details their reasons and experiences.
Excel to Access
At Bristol we have been grappling with a large and unwieldy spreadsheet of APC data. This happened gradually as new demands were made on the data for reporting internally and externally, and over time, more and more columns were added to the spreadsheet. By the time the number of columns had gone round to the beginning of the alphabet again, it seemed like time to change the system.
Although unwieldy, the spreadsheet was functioning adequately but was dependent on a number of formula and data validation methods to automate the data entry as much as possible. This was not too much of a problem until the expanding team meant that the fragility of the system was revealed. The formulas were easy to override by simply accidentally typing in the wrong cell and not all members of the team had the Excel knowledge to fix problems that occurred. The spreadsheet had simply become too complex and was leading to mistakes that were time consuming to fix. Add to that the inefficiency of simply scrolling through the many columns and the problems caused by the fact that only one member of the team could use the spreadsheet at the same time, and it meant that the spreadsheet was becoming extremely problematic.
The solution was an Access database. This was not a quick fix, it involved considerable preparatory work to clean up the Excel data, plan the structure of the tables and determine the relationships between them. We decided to put in the time in this preparatory phase in order to maximise the benefits of transferring to Access.
We have now transferred from Access to Excel, but we are still learning. We have not yet determined how to do all of the tasks that we could previously do in Excel. Monitoring the spending, particularly the totals for individual prepayment accounts, has still not been completely resolved. Despite this, we are already seeing the benefits in the data entry. The ability to use queries and forms means that it is easier to concentrate on the required part of the workflow, and data entry is quicker and more accurate.
We are really pleased we made the change; getting data in is already significantly improved, and we’re confident that this will be true for getting data out soon.
Access to Excel
The change from Access to Excel was largely prompted by staff turnover. Both members of the OA team who had been involved with setting up the Access database, as well as two other Access experienced members of staff within the library, left the University.
Inputting data into Access was extremely easy. All the required fields were displayed on one form, which was completely visible on one screen. This meant all data for each request was immediately visible on one screen, and made searching for data easy. However, a lot of the data generation for reporting was not entirely straightforward and we also felt that we did not use Access as expansively as we could have.
We used Access as it had been left for several months, before a change in our OA payment practice prompted the change to Excel: We needed to edit the data input form on Access but no one within the library had the expertise to do so.
When we first made the change we spent some time ensuring the fields were correct for both our data input and reporting needs, and working on pivot tables for reporting. This has now made it simpler to get quick snapshots of where we are with our spending. It also gave us a good opportunity to liaise with our colleagues from Research Accounting, who were using Excel to gather data for the Wellcome Trust reports. Now we have a unified spreadsheet which both departments use, which has reduced duplication in the University, as there is no need for us to pass information back and forth.
The fact the RCUK recommended JISC APC data template that has come from the JISC Monitor project is an Excel spreadsheet also means we can now integrate the institutional specific data gathering with the data for the RCUK report. The nature of formulas and tables within this template means that the additional fields we needed to add to the spreadsheet had to be added to the end otherwise they corrupt the formulas present on the template and the auto-complete fields are not filled in. While this causes the order of some of the data fields to be slightly illogical, it does not create huge problems. All the extra fields we need to fill in are together, but simply at the end of the spreadsheet instead of at the beginning. The size of the spreadsheet also introduces some risk of error as you scroll across the numerous columns.
It is hard to answer whether or not it would have been preferable to stay on Access, if staff expertise were different. Data input is easier in Access, but we believe that Excel is overall easier to use and more accessible for new staff. It also helps us be more efficient and work more closely with our colleagues, as well as tying in directly with RCUK’s recommended data collection template.
Kathryn Smith University of Bristol
Finlay Jones University of Exeter