Because good research needs good data

To the 17th century, and beyond!

Report from the closing session of the Jisc Managing Research Data Programme Workshop: Achievements, Challenges and Recommendations, 25-26 March 2013, Aston Business School.

Angus Whyte | 28 March 2013

The final session of the closing workshop for the JISC Managing Research Data ought to be a time for reflection on the whole programme, and of course it was. Programme Manager Simon Hodson introduced a six-strong panel to answer two questions, first “what were the biggest successes and areas of progress in the last few years”, and two “what recommendations would you make for the next steps to develop a coherent research data management infrastructure and support service?”

The panel included keynote speaker Professor Geoffrey Boulton, Vice Principal at Uiversity of Edinburgh and leader of the Royal Society’s policy study on 'Science as a Public Enterprise'. DCC’s own Sarah Jones also contributed, as did Joss Winn of University of Lincoln’s Orbital Project, Wendy White, from Southampton’s Datapool project, Louise Corti of the renamed UK Data Service (ex UKDA) and Lee Ann Coleman, Head of Science at the British Library.

My favourite remark came from Wendy White from Southampton’s Datapool project, who spoke last. Wouldn’t it have been great to have been around in the 17th century, she mused, when coffee houses were breeding grounds for innovation in publishing and “penny universities” (not to mention ballot boxes and stock exchanges). But “is this a 17th century coffee house moment?” she asked. This seemed to sum up a common view of the programme as a sizeable ripple in a broader wave; towards wider collaboration and more open scholarly communication, including data publication.

The programme has engendered a significant body of expertise, and a shift in awareness among the participating institutions. As Sarah Jones pointed out, there have been exchanges of knowledge with ‘fellow traveller” institutions in the DCC’s engagement programme and elsewhere. Louise Corti highlighted benefits to data centres as well; in terms of cross-disciplinary understanding of metadata standards and formats and avoidance of silo approaches. The additional opportunities to interact with international parters for example in ANDS were welcomed.

Workshops like the Aston one helped towards the programme successes. Probably similar kinds of caffeine-enriched conversation fuelled the MRD programme as our 17th century counterparts. Wendy and others identified a sense of community that had been bolstered through the requirement on projects to blog regularly, and the ongoing support of a team of evidence-gatherers to help identify benefits.

But what of specific recommendations?  Joss Winn highlighted the need to better connect JISC programmes; “when I talk RDM to researchers they talk back in VREs” as he put it, adding that he expected the most rapid change to come in the areas of active data management rather than at the more stable end of repository platforms, and Virtual Research Environments ought to have a contribution. 

Louise Corti identified data archiving, preservation and curation as ongoing challenges. Not everyone can afford to do everything as she remarked. Data appraisal was one area in which she foresaw institutions wanting to make more use of subject specialists. But we should also expect support to develop more specialisation across institutions in terms of shared services for storage and collaboration.

Lee Ann Coleman talked of the need to demonstrate value to researchers, to show that RDM makes research better. She reflected on the growing acceptance of the role of libraries, and appreciation of their contribution to the infrastructure for data discovery and citation. She also reminded us that there are a 100-plus UK institutions yet to be engaged with. There is a need to build on the work of data centres. "What are local, national and regional services to come out of this?” she asked “…it’s all up for grabs at the moment.”

Partnership was a theme singled out by several people; the need to work with bodies such as the Universities and Colleges Information Systems Association (UCISA), Association of Research Managers and Administrators (ARMA) and Research Councils UK (RCUK). A priority issue to address with RCUK is the need to clarify what can and cannot be costed into grant applications, and how that’s best dealt with, the subject as it happens of the forthcoming meeting of the Research Data Management Forum (RDMF).

Geoffrey Boulton and Sarah Jones both stressed the need for more communication and advocacy. Geoffrey Boulton pointed out how much the environment in which we all work has changed; the government see open data as a key issue with economic benefits. The EU is taking it up with a vengeance, and commissioners have RDM at the top of their agenda. Internationally he also growing resonance between National Academies, for example in the US and China.

This external environment is waiting to be levered – and Geoffrey saw Jisc as a success in that respect – but the real problem is with institutions. He saw RDM projects having to act in a passive role, with compliance as the key driver. There is no doubt, he said, that we have to move into an active phase, so that researchers see this issue as so important to them that they want to exploit the resources available.

To get the necessary mindset changes we need leadership at the top, Boulton pointed out. This will need universities to see the opportunities to extract value from ‘data as the new oil’. Journals are the other big target now; “if they start to demand that data must be submitted this will have enormous impact.” A pertinent question on this came later from the floor; Gregor McDonagh from NERC pointed out that while we have a single measure of citation currently used in measuring science excellence, there is a need for more debate about how data metrics can be applied.

We also need leadership from the bottom, Geoffrey Boulton continued. This is potentially more powerful, and it should come from researchers in fields that are already using the large repositories. He reflected on the recent development of computational science at the University of Edinburgh, and the crucial role of Alan Bundy’s initiation of ‘computational thinking’ seminars in getting a change of thinking across disciplines at the departmental level.  Internal advocacy needs champions in each university.

The final remarks went to Jisc’s Rachel Bruce and Simon Hodson; “this is not an end but a beginning” she said, highlighting the need to synthesise the programme’s results and sustain the community of expertise built up. Much appreciation was shown for Simon’s leadership and contribution to the programme’s vitality and accomplishments, which have already surpassed many expectations.