If data is loved so much, why is so much of it running around loose, dirty and in no fit state to get a job?

Guest post by Angus Whyte, co-author of Delivering Research Data Management Services

Librarians have grown to love research data so much they can’t get enough of it! Well some at least have, and Love Your Data Week will help spread the love. Of course nobody loves data more than the researchers who produce it. Funders love it too; after all they pay for it to come into the world. If data is loved so much, why is so much of it running around loose, dirty and in no fit state to get a job? Is all that is needed a little more discipline?

data-lrgo

Image source: data (lego) by Flickr user justgrimes

Three years ago when Delivering Research Data Management Services was first published, my co-authors Graham Pryor and Sarah Jones were working with colleagues in the Digital Curation Centre and in universities across the UK to help them get support for research data off the ground and into the roster of institutional service development. At the time, as Graham said in his introduction, institution-wide RDM services had “at last begun to gain a foothold”.

The (now open access) chapter titled “a pathway to sustainable research data services: from scoping to sustainability”described six phases, from envisioning and initiating, through discovering requirements, to design, implementation and evaluation.  Across the UK sector as a whole, few institutions had got beyond the discovery phase. Some of the early adopters in the UK, US and Australia have case studies featured in the book, providing more fully-fledged examples of the mix of soft and hard service components that a ‘research data management service’ typically comprises. Broadly these include support for researchers to produce Data Management Plans, tools and storage infrastructure for managing active data, support for selection and handover to a suitable repository for long-term preservation, and support for others to discover what data the institution has produced.

So what has changed? The last three years have seen evolution, consolidation and growth. According to one recent survey of European academic research libraries almost all will be offering institutional RDM services within two years.[1] The mantra of FAIR data (findable, accessible, interoperable and reusable) has spurred a flurry of data policy-making by funders, journals and institutions.[2] Many organisations have yet to adopt one,but policy harmonisation is now a more pressing need than formulation. Data repositories have mushroomed, with re3data.org now listing about three times the number it did three years ago. Training materials and courses are becoming pervasive, and data stewardship is increasingly recognised as essential to data science.

The burgeoning development in each of these aspects of RDM does not hide the immaturity of the field; each aspects is the subject of international effort by groups like COAR (Confederation of Open Access Repositories), and the Research Data Alliance, to consolidate and codify the organisational and technical knowledge needed to further join up services. European initiatives to establish ‘Research Infrastructures’ have demonstrated how this can be done, at least for some disciplines.

Over the same period, many institutions have learned to love ‘the cloud’; gaining scalability and flexibility by integrating cloud storage and computation services with their IT infrastructure.  The same is not yet true of the higher-level RDM services that require academic libraries to collaborate with their IT and research office colleagues. Shared services are a trend that has seen some domain-focused data centres spread their disciplinary wings. Ambitious initiatives like the European Open Science Cloud pilot, will tell us how far ‘up the stack’ cloud services to support open science can go to offer better value to science and society.[3]

cloud

Image source: 3D Cloud Computing by ccPix.com

The biggest challenges in 2013 are still big challenges now. Political and cultural change is messy, for a number of reasons.There is high-level political will to fund data infrastructure as it’s seen as essential for innovation, as well as for research integrity. But the economic understanding to direct resources to where they are most needed, to ensure data is not only loved but properly cared for? That requires better understanding of what kinds of care produce good outcomes, like citation and reuse. Evaluation studies have been thin on the ground and, perhaps as a result, funding for data infrastructure still tends to be short-term and piecemeal.

The book offers a comprehensive grounding in the issues and sources to follow up. Its basic premise is as true now as when it was published: keeping data requires a mix of generic and domain-specific stewardship competencies, together with organisational commitments and basic infrastructure.  The basic challenge is as true now as then; research domains are fluid and tribal, crossing national and international boundaries and operating to norms that tend to resist institutional containers.  But that has always been the case, and yet institutions and their libraries continue to adapt and survive.

By happy coincidence the International Digital Curation Conference (IDCC17) is happening the week after Love Your Data Week. You can follow it as it happens on twitter at #idcc17

Dr Angus Whyte is a Senior Institutional Support Officer at the Digital Curation Centre, University of Edinburgh. He is responsible for developing online guidance and consultancy to research organisations, to support their development of research data services.  This is informed by studies of research data practices and stakeholder engagement in research institutions.

[1] Research Data Services in Europe’s Academic Research Libraries by Liber Europe

[2] Wilkinson, M. D., Dumontier, M., Aalbersberg, Ij. J., Appleton, G., Axton, M., Baak, A., … others. (2016). The FAIR Guiding Principles for scientific data management and stewardship

[3] European Open Science Cloud pilot

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One comment

  1. Pingback: Love Your Data Week Roundup | Facet Publishing

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