The crossing point

August 20, 2010

I’ve been looking at existing online provision of research data management guidance at leading UK universities and, yes, I’ve found something of a trend.  There may be some useful guidance on each website, but it’s anyone’s guess where it is, and it’s certainly not all in one, easy-to-find place.

Many – if not all – UK universities have some webpages aimed at researchers.  These are usually called ‘Research Support’, ‘Our Research Environment’, ‘Research Services’ or something scary relating to commercialisation and knowledge transfer.  Anyway, they’re usually pretty obvious when you find them because they’re full of photos of attractive people wearing safety specs and looking intently at things in test-tubes.  The text is reassuring, generally promising to hold the hands of researchers through all aspects of finding, bidding for and managing funding for research.  Oddly, though, they don’t often say anything about looking after that valuable information which people are going to the lengths of giving you money to gather in the first place.

Then, in another place on the website entirely, usually in the ‘Staff’ webpages, we find information on training and development.  Elsewhere again for the usually-bewildering IT support department website and the services and tools they provide.

And then we must look elsewhere for the information – if it’s online at all – about records management or information management.  If you’re lucky enough to actually locate these pages, you’ve often followed a trail – entirely by chance, I should imagine – that goes something like, ‘Home > About the university > Governance and administration > University directorates > Records management and information access > Legal compliance > Records management’.  I wish I was making this up.  Alternatively, you could try the free text Google search box and hope that your choice from ‘records management’, ‘information management’, ‘data management’, ‘research data management’, ‘managing research data’ or ‘research information’ comes up trumps.

Elsewhere, we find some webpages aimed at library users.  These pages, naturally, take the reader through using the library, how to find things, how to get hold of your subject librarian, should you still be lucky enough to have one, and any special collections or galleries the library may be attached to.  This is often – but not always – where you find any mention of the institutional repository.

Yes, the institutional repository, or ‘IR’: often as not, it’s not linked from anywhere except maybe an obscure corner of the IT services website, or maybe a dusty by-way on the library webpages.  Sometimes we only know it exists because the SHERPA list tells us so.  Sometimes even then, it doesn’t turn up online.  When this is the case, you could be forgiven for resorting to your university website’s ‘A-Z’ index – but wait!   It turns out that the IR is very, very unlikely to be listed there under ‘institutional’ or ‘repository’ or ‘archive’ or even ‘research’.  Most university IRs seem to be called something cute, often a name from classical mythology which nobody can remember the relevance of, or a witty acronym from which a highly unlikely title has been tortuously back-formed.  Sometimes they’re just plain baffling and you may as well just search the whole site for ‘EPrints’ and hope for the best.

My point is this – if you are a researcher in need of data management guidance (in the widest, ‘lifecycle’, understanding of the term), you need a little bit of input from each of these places, throughout the life of your project.

  • You need to know from the library where to find the resources you need for your work, if don’t want to trust your review of literature to the likes of Google.
  • You need the staff training or development service to provide you with training on the research software or methods you want to use, and which will allow you to preserve your data in a meaningful way.
  • You need the records management people to let you know what the university thinks you should be keeping, what you should be getting rid of and what the best ways to do these things are.
  • You need to know from the institutional repository how you can submit your work, what format it should be in, what your rights are if you do submit a piece of research to them, and how other people are going to find your work.
  • You need the research support people for funder-specific data management requirements, and to let you know if there’s a research-specific data management policy that differs from the general, institutional records management and/or retention policy.
  • You need to know from IT support what your IT people are prepared to offer you in terms of access to specialist software, equipment, data storage, back-up services and the rest of it.
  • And – crucially – when you’re writing that last-minute bid for funding, you need smooth interaction between these departments to answer questions like, ‘What’s the best way to record my findings during the project and share them with the rest of the team?’, ‘Where and how should I store my data?, ‘Are IT services responsible for backing-up my research data?’, ‘Will my funder pay for the cost of a new server and staff time to administer it?’, ‘Will my funder let me publish my findings in the institutional repository?’, ‘Should I keep my research data once I’ve published or submitted my findings, and if so, where?’ and probably ‘What is a technical appendix anyway?’

The information needed to reliably answer such questions often falls between the realms of IT services and research support services, or research support and the institutional repository, or research support and the training people, or – well, you get the idea.

Help with managing research data is provided by many institutions, but delivery is fragmented and inconsistent.  In many institutions, these resources or pieces of guidance are separate islands, with no crossing points between them. This is no good to researchers – it makes finding guidance much more difficult and time-consuming than it needs to be. You may have found contacts through your personal network or the protocol of your department to help you with this stuff but if you’re new, out of the loop or just not so lucky, bids can be faulty or delayed, funding missed out on and, as a result, research careers damaged.

I say all this based, as mentioned at the start, on a survey I recently undertook of the websites of twenty leading UK universities whose websites I, as a random visitor, studied.  I found evidence of just under a third offering any kind of researcher-specific data management advice online (although it should be noted that I didn’t have access to staff-only intranets).  The other two-thirds of university websites apparently provided only records management advice for either unspecified types of records or specifically for administrative records only (although of course a lot of the practice outlined was still highly relevant to research data).

I gave myself five minutes on each site to get to the research data management advice, if it existed, by navigation of likely-looking links.  After that time, I resorted to the free text search box.   In ninety percent of cases, I had to use the all-site search in order to find any records management or information management guidance at all.   Only one of the twenty university websites appeared to offer any link between the data management advice pages and the IR.  (I’d be interested to know what percentage of university research staff at each institution know a) what an institutional repository is; b) whether they have one; c) what it’s called and d) where it is online. Hey, I think I’ll find that out …)

Only fifteen percent of websites visited listed their IR in the website A-Z index in a way that you’d be able to find it without knowing its cute, in-house name, and a quarter of institutions listed it only under this name.

So, in short, to improve matters, universities need to consider the pieces of guidance they already supply their research staff about data management, and draw them together to form comprehensive, simple resources that will make sense from the working researcher, with little time and no data-management specialist knowledge.  These resources should act as crossing points between previously-separate realms.  And this is where the opportunity is for Incremental to make things better for researchers.

If we can find good practice in UK university research data management guidance, whether that’s in a well-written list of FAQs, or a well-organised website pulling together guidance from across a university website into one accessible, obvious place, then all to the good.  If we can’t find this, or find enough of it, we need to start making it and positioning it on our respective university websites in a way that is prominent and intuitive for research staff of that university. These connections can be the crossing points to help researchers get to the guidance they need, when they need it, and if we manage that, I think Incremental’s job is done!

Does your university offer meaningful help with data management?  Or are you struggling to find the assistance you need to look after your data?  Are you responsible for promoting one of these services at your institution?  Let us know in the comments.


Scoping study and implementation plan released

July 2, 2010

We are pleased to announce that the Incremental project Scoping study and implementation plan is now available. This report describes our findings from interviews and informal conversations with dozens of researchers and technical support staff across the Universities of Cambridge and Glasgow and outlines our implementation plan for the coming months of the project.

Some highlights from the report:

Simple issues cause serious risks and irritation

Many researchers, across disciplines, are unaware of the best formats and storage media to preserve or share files, and many have no clear naming or file structure conventions. These kinds of relatively simple issues pose the risk of serious data losses in the short and long term, and frequently cost researchers’ time and frustration searching for data or trying to revive old files.

Resources must be simple, engaging and easy to access

Researchers were interested in guidance, simple tools, and support for data management, but this came with several caveats. Information needs to be clear, quick to understand, engaging, and relevant to their circumstances. They are often unaware of existing resources and training and don’t know where to look for support. Many complained that training is often inconveniently timed and not well-tailored to their needs, suggesting online resources, ‘a really smart little leaflet’ or someone to talk to face-to-face would be more helpful.

Language matters

Our study underscored the need to provide jargon-free guidance – most researchers don’t know what ‘digital curation’ is and humanities researchers don’t think of their manuscripts as ‘data’. Researchers and support staff tended to be suspicious of ‘policies,’ which sound like hollow mandates, but were sometimes receptive to ‘procedures’ or ‘advice’ which may be essentially the same thing, but convey a sense of purpose and assistance rather than requirement.

And so, here are our plans:

1. Produce simple, accessible, visual guidance on creating, storing, and managing data

This will include producing easy-to-navigate centralised webpages at each institution, pointing researchers to existing support and new resources created by the project. We’ll consider the format of guidance and move towards more engaging formats such as illustrated fact sheets, flow diagrams, checklists, and FAQs.

2. Offer practical data training with discipline-specific examples and local champions

We will work with enthusiasts within departments to embed slides and resources within existing training and inductions (i.e. train the trainer). We will also create brief online tutorials and/or screen-casts, and include case-studies from within disciplines wherever possible.

3. Connect researchers with support staff who offer one-to-one advice, guidance, and partnering

We will work with departments and the research office within each institution to make sure that researchers are referred to existing support staff for one-to-one advice during the proposal-writing stage of projects and beyond.

4. Work towards the development of a comprehensive data management infrastructure

This project is part of an overall effort to support data management and preservation activities at both institutions, and will be continued through the broader research data infrastructure and policy development at Cambridge and Glasgow.

Very exciting! For more information, have a look at the report.  As ever, we welcome your thoughts and suggestions.


Sharing Ideas (and sandwiches) in Manchester: the JISC Managing Research Data Workshop

April 6, 2010

We had an exciting and productive day in Manchester on 12th March, when we got to meet people from other JISC MRD projects and learn about the diverse approaches that they are taking.

The challenge of building researchers interest and enthusiasm for data management seemed a near-universal issue among projects, though the solutions for addressing this problem varied.  For example, the fine folks at ADMIRAL try to grab people briefly and repeatedly first thing in the morning to avoid disrupting their days. Some programmes are creating a discipline-specific infrastructure, incentivising researchers with honorariums for workshop participation, or are leveraging institutional support to encourage local participation. (The latter probably isn’t an option in the somewhat decentralised environs of Cambridge, but it has definitely been helpful for Glasgow’s scoping). For the most part, we are finding that in most others programmes, as in ours, there are very few sticks available, but plenty of carrots if you know how to spot them in the garden patch.

Some of the ideas that came out of the user requirements session were intriguing, while others seem a bit beyond our reach. One participant suggested that departments/universities use automatic classification systems to determine the relative value of data that users are holding. A nice idea, but we can’t see it working with our multi-disciplinary aims or the diverse and metadata-free systems of some researchers.

One idea that has potential is to gather anonymous anecdotes about risky behaviour and what can-and-has gone wrong. This could be separated by categories like storage, metadata, funding, roles and responsibilities, etc. We have definitely encountered those horror stories where a year of data is lost or half a lifetime of data is uninterpretable — but it’s more often a story about a colleague than about the researcher speaking to us personally.

In another session, Tom Howard of the ERIM Project produced some beautiful slides to get us thinking about modelling research workflows. This is something that we haven’t explored much yet here at Incremental, so it was exciting to see emerging approaches. If we do this, we’ll probably use fairly free-form and high-level boxes and arrows to help researchers visualise their processes and locate the intervention points with the most gain for the least pain. Crayons might be involved (just kidding).

In another session, we discussed data management plans. While we have made one of our own and will revisit it as the project progresses (hooray!), we find that this is atypical for the average researcher on the move. So far, we have found that it is a rare PI who shares this plan with team members (e.g. post-docs) or checks to see that it’s being followed. Other projects have had similar experiences. The key seems to be (a) to get university research offices on-board, and, even more importantly (b) connect the data management plans to the project outputs and anticipated uses of the research data in the near future.

Overall: a great day of meeting, greeting, and learning about each others’ projects. We’re excited to share progress in May and see how everyone’s next steps are going.