RDMF11: overview report and link to slides

16 July, 2014

The eleventh DCC-organised Research Data Management Forum event was held in London on June 20th, taking the theme of “Workflows and Lifecycle Models for Research Data Management”. Keynote speaker, the University of Manchester’s Professor Carole Goble gave a typically sparkling and wide-ranging opening to the event, addressing “The Beauty of Models… and Workflows” as well as the importance of recording and sharing methods. Carole touched on topics as diverse as software to model and predict the migration of crabs (which can be repurposed to handle other species, ideally opening it up to reuse by hiding some of the complexities inherent in such specialised work), to human morphology, to galaxy luminosity profiling. Carole’s major message was twofold: that designing stuff to be reusable is difficult because people like to be assured around quality and tend to want to invent their own solutions, and that – from a curatorial standpoint, at least – it is better for data ‘monks’ to be charged with the responsibility for managing data and workflows for the long term, rather than the data creators themselves who tend not to view it as a high priority. But the preservation and availability of these materials is important in order to enable repetition, replication, reproduction, and – ideally – reuse. The aim is neatly encapsulated in the acronym FAIR: encouraging and supporting the development of methods that are Findable, Accessible, Interoperable and Reusable.

Next up was Oxford’s Dr James Wilson who gave us the research support view from a high-calibre research institution that is home to exacting researchers. Titled “Mapping Lifecycle Models to the University – in Theory and in Practice”, James’s presentation gave us a whirlwind tour through a number of lifecycle models, before delving into the ‘why’ behind them. Lifecycle models, or good ones at least, provide a simple, concept-driven approach, mapping data management to the standard funded project timeline, and mirroring the emphasis on reuse which comes from the funders. There is, however, something of a disconnect between the ideal and the reality. Research doesn’t always progress in a linear, step-by-step fashion, but researchers do generally accept the concept of attempting to model the process. There are also particular challenges introduced by different disciplines and domains, and the questions which the RDM support staff are frequently asked tend to be quite general – and not associated with lifecycle steps. Oxford are therefore moving away from an exclusive focus on the lifecycle-driven approach, and towards the development of a kind of knowledge base, recording the questions asked and their responses, and deriving from this a directory of expertise. James’s caveat was to beware the one-size-fits-all approach, which runs the risk of oversimplification and may be a turn off to the researchers, without whose buy-in the process is on shaky ground. It is a customer-centred approach, not a top-down one. This approach attracted positive comment from the floor, with representatives of other universities briefly drawing parallels between Oxford’s approach and their own, and the benefits of a deeper understanding of disciplinary needs via closer liaison with departments and the production of accessible case studies.

Southampton’s Head of Scholarly Communications, Wendy White, then discussed the interrelation of the research and publications workflows. Wendy also spoke of the need for greater understanding of researcher requirements – a common theme which united all of the speakers – and about her role at Southampton as nurturing an environment that supports innovation, sympathetically, via a case study approach. The aim is to create a culture of publication and deposit, which is a long journey, but progress is being made. Southampton have trialled the LabTrove electronic notebook system, and link research publications to the underlying data via DOIs; the data is then navigable by third parties. Support-wise, the most common enquiries she and her colleagues receive are about data management plans: once word gets out that important funders are starting to reject funding applications based on inadequate data management plans, researchers start to take a bit more notice!

The final presentation of the morning came from Hervé L’Hours, Preservation Planning Manager at the UK Data Archive, who gave “The Long-Term View from a National Data Centre”. After describing the activities of the UK Data Archive and the recently-founded Administrative Data Research Network (ADRN), Hervé gave us a tour of a large number of different shapes and sizes of lifecycle model, underlining along the way what James Wilson had said earlier, after Korzybski: the model is not the process, and the map is not the territory. (Which also evokes George Box’s saying that all models are wrong [or at least unsatisfactory], but that some are useful.) Hervé went on to describe the various roles which come into play at different stages of the research workflow(s), and ended with some useful advice: to seek to achieve balance between detail and usability, and to gain stakeholder buy-in via conversation and liaison with the various actors and agents involved.

The day continued with a choice of two breakout groups, and concluded with a shared reporting session. The breakout discussions are going to be covered in a couple of follow-up blog posts, so keep your eyes peeled for those. Slides from all four speakers are available here.

(Many thanks to Angus Whyte, who generously shared his notes from the event for this overview.)

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