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Going paperless is STILL a hot topic in research administration. I emphasize STILL because we’re well into the 21st century now, people! This is the digital age! It pains me to see the amount of reservation that exists throughout the research space when it comes to going digital. It’s time to rid yourself of that unnecessary hesitation. As they say, money doesn’t grow on trees, so let’s take a look at the numerous ways that going paperless saves, well, money and trees.

For starters, I’ll give you a bit of my history. I started in research administration as an admin and worked my way up through finance, pre- and post-award, etc. Not to toot my own horn, but some of the most intelligent people in research administration work in positions similar to where I started. This is because they are excellent multitaskers, time managers and they tend to know all of the people in the office. A real issue is that the value of these personnel is diminished when supporting antiquated paper processes. The time that could be spent bringing added value to the institution is often spent ordering supplies, filling printers, and stocking the back room. This is certainly not the best use of the institution’s valuable funds, and we’ll touch on the costs of supporting paper processes as you read on.

The obvious waste of paper and funds

One of the biggest issues I’ve seen is the paper approval process. This is touched on briefly in the first blog of this series, “Data Here, Documents There – What if Everything Wasn’t Everywhere?” Carrie Yakura gives the example of taking planes, trains and automobiles to go retrieve a signature. Is driving across town for a signature or stamp (yikes!) really worth your valuable time and the institution’s money?

And don’t forget the paper waste. Sure, those documents may have been created in Adobe Forms (hint: just because you use Adobe Forms doesn’t make your office paperless), and you may have even emailed them to the PI or department chair, but you still need to print those forms eventually! Possibly twice if they happen to fly out the window of your car as you drive across town.

Wait, it gets better, er, worse. Maybe your institution pays a courier service to deliver those documents across town. Yes, people still do this, even with all of the amazing technology available today.

Speaking of amazing technology, there are solutions out there that take the cross-town drives, couriers and wet signatures out of the equation completely. Yes, you read that right. This can all be taken care of by going paperless with automatic notifications and electronic routing. Yep, Cayuse has a solution.

The less-than-obvious waste of paper and funds

The price tag of an eRA system is often one of the major deterrents in moving forward with making the purchase. Adversely, research offices are so set in their ways the outrageous costs of running an organization with paper processes often gets overlooked.

While I don’t have exact numbers for you, I can tell you that ink and toner run at about $2,700/gallon today and a box of paper costs $25-$50. Now compare those numbers with how much ink and paper your institution goes through each year. I’m sure it hurts to think about it.

So, what happens to all that paper after it’s printed all over? It gets stuffed away in an accordion file, only to be found 10 years later by someone trying to find room for, guess what, more paper. That accordion file, when discovered, will only account for a loss of knowledge. It’s lined with an orange sticky note system with hieroglyphs that could only be deciphered by someone who is no longer with the institution.

What happens to the paper with sensitive information? Well, it’s supposed to be shredded, and you have to pay for that service, too.

Don’t forget those pens, pencils, sharpeners, staples, scanners, copiers, etc. Yes, most of these are still necessary, even for a paperless institution, the removal of paper processes results in a decreased need for all of them.

That amazing technology I mentioned earlier, yeah, it helps you cut back on all of this. With all that in mind, the eRA price tag might not sound so bad anymore.

What happens to me when the paper is gone?

So, if you’re the person who orders the supplies, or stocks the printers, or makes the regular cross-town trek for a signature, you’re probably a bit worried and yelling “PAPER IS LIFE!!!!” Take a deep breath, it’s ok. With eRA in place, you just became even more valuable to your institution.

As an implementation consultant, I’ve had provosts tell me they are setting goals of doubling research. This wouldn’t be possible if administrators were still in the business of pushing paper or stocking supply rooms for the institution. No, eRA doesn’t create more hours in the day, but it does help repurpose time. Administrators can now bring additional value through duties like staying in contact with PIs, supporting key stakeholders and finding additional funding opportunities that may have otherwise been overlooked.

Breathing easier now? Paper is not life. Let the technology take care of the mundane, so you can do intelligent things and make your institution a lean, mean research machine.