Because good research needs good data

St George’s, University of London’s DMPonline Journey

Dr Michelle Harricharan, Research Data Support Manager, St George’s, University of London | 10 November 2020

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Dr Michelle Harricharan, Research Data Support Manager, St George’s, University of London 

In light of DMPonline’s 10-year anniversary which we are celebrating this week, I thought I’d chart St George’s, University of London’s journey with DMPonline which, records show, we’ve been using since mid-2014. That’s 6 years of institutional data management plans (DMPs) with DMPpnline! We’re on quite a proud run. 

In this blogpost I’ll tell you a bit about what I dug up about our history with DMPonline – why we started using it, how we got it established in the organisation, our DMP policies over time and how we managed that ever-persisting issue of user engagement over the years. All this digging ultimately made me reflect on the last 8 months and the impact of the pandemic on our service. I’ll close with my thoughts on how I see us moving forward from here. 

About us 

In the usual spirit of putting journeys in context, I’ll start with a little background about St George’s. St George's, University of London is a specialist health university in London (UK). It is a constituent college of the University of London. We share a site with the St George's University Hospitals NHS Foundation Trust and a lot of our research and teaching happens across both organisations. 

We support about 350 researchers performing medical, (bio)medical and health research across our three research institutes. This number does not include clinical staff from the St George’s Hospital NHS Foundation Trust who perform research with us. 

We generally support DMPs for grant applications to health-focused funders such as the UK Medical Research Council and the Wellcome Trust. Over time, the team has specialised in providing guidance on managing health-related datatypes such as clinical trial data, neuroimaging data, microscopy data, omics data and epidemiological data.  

Policies 

Our earliest organisational data management plans on DMPonline date back to mid-2014 when we were exploring tools to support our researchers with writing DMPs for grant applications only. We recognise the value of producing a DMP for a greater number of our research projects, and this policy has been reviewed over the years, but supporting a more comprehensive DMP policy would require additional resources. 

Instead, we’ve opted to work more closely with our ethics team and integrate data management planning into our ethics application process. All St George’s research must receive ethical approval before the research can start, and a section of our organisational ethics application form is dedicated to data management. The requirements for this section mirror what we would expect to see in a standard DMP, and researchers are signposted to our team for advice and support in filling in this section. This approach of combining the data management plan and the ethics application also reduces duplication in our research governance processes as researchers don’t provide similar information for two different administrative processes. In addition, it allows us to use our limited resources in a smart, collaborative way. 

At this time, DMPonline is only used to support data management planning for funding applications or where a DMP is required by funders as a project deliverable. There is scope to develop an organisational template to support researchers filling in the data management section on ethics application forms, but the value this would offer our researchers first needs to be investigated. Our top priority is to put meaningful and efficient processes in place for our researchers. 

Processes 

This focus on process has been a central part of our work with DMPonline from the start. As I explored our records, I noticed that rolling out DMPonline happened gradually at St George’s. It involved a long process of: 

  1. Understanding and testing the system with researchers (2014) 

  1. Evaluating the value of the system for both administrative staff and researchers (2015)   

  1. Customising DMPonline for users (2015) 

  1. Developing step-by-step procedures for users (2015) 

  1. Training and engagement (2015 – current) 

Step 3 was particularly time consuming as we needed to understand how to create and publish DMPonline guidance and templates for our users. Our first templates and guidance were carefully drafted outside the system. Those drafts were approved by our Research Data Management Working Group before we published them on DMPonline. 

Training and engagement (Step 5) can be challenging. At first, we ran training sessions throughout the year, but uptake wasn’t very high. Later, we tried drop-ins in our research institutes. That too, did not have significant take-up. After trying out different approaches, what we’ve found works for us is integrating DMPs into existing research administration workflows as much as possible. Integrating DMPs with the research ethics process described above is one example of this, but there are other ways in which we do this. I spoke about this at a previous DMPonline user group meeting, but integrating DMPs with routine research administration processes allows us to reach researchers at the right time (when they need DMP support), when training and is likely to be most meaningful to them. It also allows us to target our messages to their specific needs at the time rather than provide generic training. 

This has been our key takeaway when it comes to engagement broadly, and it is something that we are trying to expand to all systems involving researchers: to embed the system and processes into existing processes/workflows rather than create brand-new processes. We’ve had positive feedback on this approach and will be trying to capitalise on this success going forward. 

The covid19 effect and looking forward 

The covid19 pandemic challenged us to think creatively about our approach to engagement. Inquiries into the service still relies heavily on referrals from other research support services. However, before March 2020 all DMPonline training happened in-person. We did not have any provision for online engagement, and we had no plans to move any of our training online. In-person worked so well for us and suited the way our researchers worked, so we didn’t consider any other mode of delivery. 

Then March 2020 happened. With lockdown measures in place, all of our services moved online. We found it was actually quite easy to move our usual support and training online using Microsoft Teams. Luckily, the kind of support we offer doesn’t require complex, hands-on training. Screensharing, demonstrating software and talking through issues online can work. Within a few weeks, our habits changed. Researchers and research support staff became used to online meetings. It became easy and natural for researchers to log in quickly for a brief call with us from their desks, rather than having to schedule an in-person meeting in a physical space. The latter requires significantly more co-ordination, effort and resources.  

Going forward, we would like to explore additional routes for online engagement as researchers are responding well to online training. We can have brief, targeted training set up quickly without researchers having to leave their desk. As running an online Microsoft Teams meeting it is not very resource intensive, we can run sessions with small groups and still be efficient. Online drop-ins are also working well for other teams in the library and this is something we may consider in the future. 

We would like to say thank you to Dr Michelle Harricharan for sharing with us her reflection on using DMPonline within their instituion and writing this blog post for DMPonline 10th year anniversary! 

As always, we are keen to hear from you about how you use the tool, how RDM works at your institution and fits within your workflows and also how we can improve it, so please feel free to contact us at the details below: 

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