Research data magic, anyone?

Earlier this month we ran the second Research Data Network and Research Data Shared Service Pilots meeting. It was kindly hosted by the University of Cambridge at Corpus Christi. In this guest blog post, Alice Motes, the research data and preservation manager at the University of Surrey shares her thoughts and experience of the two days.


Being a relative newcomer to the U.K.’s research data management world from a U.S. context, I am continually struck by the commonalities of experiences that span the geographic divide. Academics the world over (well, the western world) seem to have relatively similar needs and challenges when it comes to managing, sharing, and preserving research data and consequently we in the RDM world face similar challenges in supporting them. Ranging from the practical challenges of providing and funding training and guidance on best practices to the loftier pursuit of encouraging a cultural shift in how research data is valued. This was recently underscored when I attended Jisc’s Research Data Shared Service Pilot meeting and Research Data Network (RDN) Workshop held in Corpus Christi College at Cambridge early this month. Coming from America where we are pretty light on very old buildings, the historic beauty of Corpus Christi felt like we were discussing RDM at Hogwarts! (Research Data Magic, anyone?)

The RDN day was a nice mix of sessions touching on most of the major themes in research data management as well as reporting out on the progress of the pilot. There were software demos, updates on journal and metadata policies, and a very interesting discussion on how RDM is being costed across attendees’ institutions. (Spoiler alert: libraries tend to be bearing the cost of RDM activities at universities as opposed to for example costs coming out of grants.) What struck me as one of the most prominent (and perennial) themes was that of researcher engagement. How do we get researchers interested in research data management beyond seeing it just as a box ticking exercise? How do we get researchers to embrace our services as a vital aspect of the research process within our own institutions and across the sector?

In part, this is a question of fostering cultural change among academics to view data as an important research output in its own right as opposed to just a means to an end (i.e. a publication). At the RDN workshop, we heard about how University of Cambridge is exploring the idea of recruiting local RDM experts within departments to be what they are calling Data Champions. This helps ease the burden on Cambridge’s data services by providing a close to home expert who will be an enthusiastic and informed resource for their colleagues. It also serves to provide an important role model of home grown enthusiasm for those departments. A local data champion could play an important role in shifting the culture within these departments in ways that could ripple out into the broader sector. Indeed, there is some talk about a national network of data champions to try to influence senior level decisions.

While these champions may have an immediate impact on their local department’s culture, the sociologist in me says it’s not just a cultural issue, but also a structural issue. Danny Kingsley, the Head of Scholarly Communications at Cambridge and who delivered the keynote, did an excellent job of laying out exactly how academics are deeply entrenched in a system that is designed to produce high impact research articles, but not necessarily high quality research. Funders may care about transparency and re-use, but the much closer to home pressures of getting publications out the door present a much more salient and immediate motivator for some researchers.

This may be changing as funders begin to follow up more closely on how well their projects are conforming to new research data policies. Many researchers I’ve spoken to are aware of these new requirements and eager to meet or exceed them, but are uncertain how best to do it.  Other researchers’ interest extend only as far as what is required of them. The RDM community has something to offer both these groups and we can get their buy in by meeting them where they are with something to make their lives easier and to make the effort we ask them to put in worth their while. (Ideally, winning them over in the process!)

For me, this is what makes the Jisc Research Data Shared Service Pilot so exciting.  It’s addressing important technological gaps and offering practical and useful solutions to researchers and the wider sector. It’s a platform that potentially reduces the amount of leg work academics have to do throughout the research lifecycle as well as reducing the duplication of efforts across institutions.

Shifting the rewards systems of academia is something that won’t happen overnight, but the RDM community has an important role to play in that movement. And Jisc has its sights set not just providing a sector wide solution, but also in helping to shape policy makers decisions. The RDN workshop closed out with a preview of several sleek videos aimed at policy makers about the value of research data management. This actually picked up on a central theme from Kingsley’s keynote: open data is vital to the future of high quality research. Something that we in the RDM community are best equipped to facilitate.

Alice MotesAbout the author: Alice Motes is the Research Data and Preservation Manager at the University of Surrey. Embedded within the Open Research team, she is leading the development of Surrey’s research data services and participation in Jisc’s Research Data Shared Service Pilot. Alice earned her PhD in 2014 from University of California, Irvine in Sociology.