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Forms and Approvals Challenges for Research Administrators

August 27, 2021

Research administration is complex and challenging. Administrators are responsible for helping their institutions obtain millions in funding for academic research as well as use and document that money correctly, all while complying with hundreds of regulations from the institution, federal government, or other funding party. 

Forms play a key role in research administration, helping administrators to collect and process data and approvals. However, forms can introduce many unique challenges. 

In 2019, the Society of Research Administrators International published a study on the use of forms in research administration. The study covered why research departments use forms, how they are developed and distributed, and how research departments can improve.

In this article, we’ll dig into the form and approval challenges research administrators face, backed by data from this study, and discuss how you can address those challenges at your institution. 

Research Administration Form and Approval Challenges

First, let’s discuss form usage. Forms are used across research for all kinds of purposes, from federal regulations to simple internal approvals like getting keycard access to an animal care facility. In fact, 56% of forms are used for federal or internal compliance and 42% of forms are used for internal approvals.

Let’s explore the challenges of those forms.

Lack of clarity

Some forms are harder to fill than others, and research administration is not short on complex processes. Research administrators indicate that form instructions can be difficult to navigate because they were too complicated or used inaccessible language. Additionally, when form fillers must indicate who will be approving the form, the approval workflow can be complicated. Sometimes users don’t know who will approve their form, don’t have their email address, or make spelling mistakes.

Minimal collaboration

Involving users in every stage of the form development process is critical. Survey respondents indicated  one third of forms are developed using a top down approach in which users and key stakeholders are not consulted in form development. 

forms collaboration pie chart

The other two thirds of respondents indicated users and stakeholders are consulted at various stages in the development process. Still, only 28% of form creation is considered collaborative. 

  • 28% of respondents indicated the form creation process is collaborative. 
  • 21% indicated form testing takes place before implementation. 
  • 10% indicated forms must be approved by upper management. 

Poor form and approval distribution methods

There are typically many different methods to design and distribute forms on every campus. Common mediums range from Google forms to the more powerful electronic research administration system. The survey asked respondents to indicate what medium was used in their form interactions from the following choices: eRA system, hardcopy, website or webform, Adobe PDFs, email, or other. 

41% of forms are completed through email or Adobe PDFs. The only thing less efficient than email and PDF is paper—and 33% of signatures are collected using paper. 

Generally inefficient

Frankly, forms can be a frustrating part of the job. Respondents were asked to rank forms on a scale from 0-100 with 0 being Necessary and 100 being Burdensome. Respondents indicated that the necessity of forms outweighs how burdensome they are. 

Wondering about the most frustrating aspects of forms? 43% of respondents cited:

  • Information required is duplicated on other forms
  • Routing workflow is too time consuming
  • Poor formatting

How to Improve Research Administration Forms and Approvals

There are many opportunities to improve research administration forms. This isn’t an exhaustive list, but here’s a good start. 

Clarify form instructions 

Ensure form instructions are clear to your end user. Make sure to use accessible language with minimal jargon and acronyms. 


Any decent process improvement training will tell you that when end users and key stakeholders are involved, the success of the process goes up. These individuals can provide insights that will make the form or process significantly more successful. 

After all, a form is a way to communicate large amounts of information, and collaborating with end users and stakeholders is a great first step to improving your research administration forms.

Use modern software

Using paper forms to collect signatures is slow and outdated. Even so, many institutions have a hard time convincing their institution to move to a digital format. 

Western University was one of those institutions. IT folks pushed for an alternative to paper, particularly for non-legally binding internal approvals. Faculty and staff were hesitant to switch to a new system, but slowly accepted the move to a modern forms and workflow automation platform. Now, processes are moving so much faster that staff members across campus are queuing up to digitize and automate their processes. 

If this sounds like something you hope to see at your institution, take a closer look at how Western University moved to an automated forms and workflow platform

Research Administration Software For Forms

Using software for forms and approval can significantly improve the user experience for users and administrators. With a digital form, collect data faster and more accurately. In a tool like Kuali Build, automated approvals help you obtain approvals faster, send automatic notifications, and record the approval process, giving you an auditable approval process.

Find out what you can do for research administration with an automated forms and workflow platform today.

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