An exchange of experience on managing research data

9 December, 2013
Victoria Cranna and Gareth Knight

Sharing expertise and lessons learned is vital when addressing shared challenges such as Research Data Management. The LSHTM organised a networking seminar over one lunchtime in November to bring representatives from different universities together to do just that. Victoria Cranna and Gareth Knight have kindly written a guest blog post to report on the event for the DCC.

On 18 November 2013, the London School of Hygiene & Tropical Medicine organised a two hour seminar for support staff interested or involved in RDM developments. The seminar kick-started a week of events being organised at the School to celebrate Explore Your Archives week, examining the emerging role that digital collections have within libraries and archives.

The seminar format was intentionally unstructured – there would be no presentations, just a set of broad topics to encourage discussion. The informal nature of the discussion created a relaxed atmosphere, which was encouraging for those who were new to the topic. The shortness of the seminar – just two hours over lunchtime – was also seen as a benefit. Participants could simply take an extended lunch break and go back to work, rather than spending half or a whole day out of the office.

In total, fifteen people attended - librarians, archivists, digital curators and policy makers – from several institutions, including Birkbeck, Royal Veterinary College, Royal College of Paediatrics and Child Health, University College London, University of East London and the University of Westminster.

The session began with an introduction from Victoria Cranna, LSHTM Archivist & Records Manager, who explained the motivation for establishing a Research Data Management Service at LSHTM and the importance of sharing knowledge and experience across the sector. It was recognised that RDM was a big topic that had developed significantly over the past few years. To ensure that the academic sector can adapt to evolving requirements, there was a need for mutual support, sharing knowledge and expertise in order to address researchers’ evolving needs.

Following introductions, each participant provided an overview of current work taking place in their institutions surrounding RDM. There was a varying level of experience around the table from those who were actively working on RDM projects, to those that had been tasked with finding out more information. For the most part, participants indicated that RDM work was being led by the library or archives service. An exception to this is UCL, which has RDM components being developed across the institution.

The drive to develop RDM services was motivated by several factors, including a desire to improve the likelihood that projects will be funded, comply with funder expectations for short and long-term data management (particularly EPSRC), support REF activities, provide join-up between disparate components, and address researcher needs for storage and retention of data.

The availability of funds was recognised as a key factor in the development of RDM services. While UCL, UEL and LSHTM had benefited from dedicated funding (from JISC in the first two instances, Wellcome Trust in the latter case) other institutional representatives were developing RDM expertise using institutional funds, as a component of their existing role. As a result, work sometimes took place at a slower rate.

This led to a discussion on the relationship between institutional and national data archives, such as the UK Data Service. Although national services were considered to provide cross-sector support, they were not considered to be an appropriate replacement for local knowledge and expertise. Additionally, it was recognised that a significant percentage of research data in academia covers subject areas that are beyond the subject or geographic domain of these data repositories. Alternatives such as Dryad and Figshare are less restrictive, in terms of the content they will accept, but considered to be less prestigious for some researchers.

The role of universities in ensuring long-term preservation of research data was raised. Although, in principle, many types of data can be deleted after 10 years, the complexity of international and national regulations and contractual obligations result in many institutions taking a risk adverse approach, storing data for longer than is potentially necessary. In many research communities, such as clinical trials, there is a desire to keep data forever. Although there is a desire in academic libraries and archives to curate and preserve research data, many are unsure how they will fund such activities in the long-term.

Participants were asked if they were taking a proactive or reactive approach to RDM support. Most admitted that they were reactive, responding to issues as they emerged. However, there was a desire to provide institution-specific training workshops and web-based courses, in order to promote good practice. Although a number of sector-wide resources are available in this area, they were considered too long, cumbersome and dry. To ensure RDM materials are suitable, academics need to take a leading role in their development, working in collaboration with support staff, rather than relying upon them to perform work.

Finally, it was asked how RDM issues could be forced on to the research agenda - should horror stories be promoted? Participants believed that this would attract attention, but may cause researchers to panic and refuse to engage. Instead, case studies that promoted a positive message, explaining how RDM practices have helped researchers to perform their work was seen as more effective.

Concluding thoughts

Events such as the RDM Expertise Exchange are increasingly important for sharing knowledge and experience between institutions. For several years, we’ve been fortunate to receive support from Jisc in establishing the RDM agenda, through coordination of cross-institution activities. A grassroots approach is needed to ensure that knowledge and experience continue to be shared.

The lunchtime seminar fulfils a need that cannot be addressed by formal workshops. Participants could fit the session into their working day, without having to spend a significant amount of time out of the office. The informal nature of the session created a relaxed atmosphere, which was encouraging for those who were new to the subject, and allowed participants to have greater control over the topics being discussed. Feedback on the session was positive, with all indicating that they’d be interested in similar events being organised during 2014.