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Meeting the research data management challenge

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Jisc’s Rachel Bruce describes the changes required to ensure managing data is a high priority for research institutions

With the drive for open data and the expansion in terms of the size, variety and complexity of data that researchers and institutions are handling, the need to manage these datasets effectively has never been more pertinent.

Managing research data is not simply a concern for higher-education research managers or information professionals, but is a cross-institutional issue. It is an area that institutions are increasingly taking the lead in when it comes to establishing research data policies. However, there is, of course, still room for improvement.  Many factors are driving this improvement and bringing about a cultural change when it comes to curating, retaining and storing vital research data.

EPSRC (the UK’s Engineering and Physical Sciences Research Council) sent a clear message on compliance by stating that institutions that receive their funding for research must have developed a roadmap in 2011 outlining support for researchers in implementing responsible and sustainable reuse of their data. Furthermore they stated that institutions must be compliant with these roadmaps by 2015. Arguably, this has been a key driver for institutions, but there are many other factors influencing the development of research data management.

Why is data management crucial for the research community?

In addition to compliance obligations, institutions want and need to demonstrate research excellence. By making their studies and data discoverable, the hope is that it will drive new and exciting research efforts. If an academic from one university has created useful datasets on a particular area, it would be much more efficient for other researchers working on that or similar areas to access these findings and build on the study rather than starting from scratch. Having robust policies and infrastructures in place to organise data will improve efficiencies by reducing duplication and pushing research to the next level.

Research funders including research councils now expect institutions to have procedures and resources in place to ensure the accurate and efficient collection of data. This is largely to improve transparency so they also guarantee that there will be a wider impact and development to the research they are financing.

This trend has been spurred on by a growing understanding that the research paper or journal is not the only output of research; the findings, survey and experimental data are arguably more important in developing a body of knowledge around subjects and supporting verification of findings. Data therefore needs to be managed effectively and made available to relevant parties. Accessible data can drive more creative collaborations with other researchers nationally and internationally.

What are the key challenges?

While effective data management will ultimately reduce the administrative burden and improve research, institutions inevitably experience some difficulties in putting a policy in place.

Understandably, there also still exists some resistance from researchers. While some researchers may be proprietary over their work, many might find sharing the various outcomes from an experimental study intimating as perhaps it leaves them open to criticism. Others believe it is only a small group of experts that will need access to their data and that will understand it.

For other researchers, there is perhaps a lack of understanding about which data to share and at what point. Researchers and information professionals don’t always have the necessary skills to curate data effectively. It can be hard enough to define data; it could be a collection of images, digitised notebooks, a collection of environmental temperatures or observations. Curating this plethora of diverse material and making it discoverable is another mountain to climb.

Another challenge that has to be overcome to ensure research data management runs smoothly is making it a cross-institutional and departmental concern. Libraries, researchers, senior leadership and IT teams will need to work together in order to achieve a coordinated approach to gathering and maintaining the integrity of data. The University of Bristol is a great example of a university that overcame that barrier in order to really improve research data management across the institution. It was one of the first universities in the UK to put together a university-wide policy on managing research data and, as a result, it has managed to make a business case to put in place for a long-term commitment from the university to support research data management.

What support is available?

The number of resources and tools available to support data management has steadily increased around the compliance agenda.

The Digital Curation Centre created the first online data-management planning tool, which is used by the researcher at the point of application and throughout the research project. The checklist asks questions such as ‘what type of data will you be producing?’ and ‘when do you expect to publish findings?’. In addition, there are tools such as Figshare, which enables researchers to share their data in the cloud but retain control over who has access to it. Software such as CKAN, an open-source data portal platform, can be used to make data accessible as well as streamlined to the processes of publishing, sharing and finding data. To help researchers when it comes to citing data and being credited, DataCite is a useful standard as it ensures that data sets have a digital object identifier, which increases the ability to track data and reuse it.

Another exciting development which will help to realise the benefits of research data management is the fact that Jisc has received funding to develop a UK-wide service which will pull together local data catalogues and data registries. This will be the first shared resource of this kind for all the universities in the country and it aims to help make data discoverable and therefore more easily re-used.

This is a global challenge and there is still room for further advances in university policy and support services, and of course in shared services. Indeed, managing research data is a crucial contributor to fulfilling research funder requirements, which will ultimately help achieve research excellence.

Rachel Bruce is director of technology innovation at Jisc. To join the debate around research data management log on to Jisc Digital Festival or follow #digifest14