What is the Deal with Research Data?

Research Data Management (RDM) is a hot topic in many institutions, with many conflicting opinions and suggestions. Current thinking puts libraries at the heart of the solution, with many arguing that librarians may hold the key to unlocking its true potential.

Research data management has been hotly debated in recent years, yet it is a concept with a remarkable simple premise: the organization and storage of data. However, a critically important facet of this is future-proofing data collation systems so that material remains useable for as long as possible, and as such RDM requires planning both for current needs, and those of an unknown future.1-3 Most funders require researchers to submit a data management plan with their grant applications, and many Research Councils have their own policies and principles that must be adhered to. On top of this, there are legal requirements to consider, such as freedom of information legislation and individual rights to privacy and confidentiality. Data management has therefore become a complicated issue, and with data outputs growing at an exponential rate, it is one that needs to be addressed by anyone involved in generating, using and sharing research information.

Current thinking is pointing to one key truth at the heart of RDM: libraries and librarians play a central role, and can bring enormous value and insight to the process – particularly around the use of data repositories, as well as in defining standards for data description, accuracy, and accessibility. Several sources have pointed to research and academic libraries as the bodies best suited to lead the way for data curation and preservation.4-8  Many libraries we spoke to told us that they have already implemented innovative programs around data management, with some hiring dedicated Data Management Librarians, or committing to helping faculty members and postgraduates researchers save and prepare for data sharing. Others have hosted regular talks and workshops on campus or built the topic into the curriculum to make sure that everybody has the right information they need to ensure consistent best practice across the institution. Some libraries have agreed to be the central body for minting DOIs (digital object identifiers) across scholarly outputs. There are also plenty of proprietary tools and software platforms available to support data management, and libraries and institutions are appraising these and finding the ones that best suit their needs.
Almost 80% of researchers are in support of having an RDM policy in their institution,9 yet issues still persist. One key drawback to RDM is sensitivity around ownership of data, particularly in the chemical sciences, and overcoming this is critical to sustaining communication between collaborators in a global research community, and to fulfilling the requirements for data generated by publicly funded research, which may need to be made openly accessible with few restrictions.

RDM may appear to some to be a chore or an insurmountable challenge that draws time and resources away from the real thrust of scientific endeavor, but there are myriad benefits to ensuring that robust and long-term data storage and sharing plans are in place at every place of research. These plans mitigate against lost data, prevent duplication, enable wider conversations and collaboration, and ultimately foster new research and ideas. After all the debate, many commentators are reaching a consensus on RDM, and well-planned and executed policies on data management and sharing are becoming the norm.

1. University of Oxford. Available at: http://researchdata.ox.ac.uk/home/introduction-to-rdm/
2. London School of Economics. Available at:http://www.lse.ac.uk/library/usingTheLibrary/academicSupport/ManagingResearchData.aspx
3. Whyte & Tedds. Making the Case for Research Data Management. DCC Briefing Papers. Edinburgh: Digital Curation Centre, 2011. Available at: http://www.dcc.ac.uk/resources/briefing-papers
4. Schlembach M & Brach C. Research Data Management and the Role of Libraries. In Special Issues in Data Management; Xiao N, et al; ACS Symposium Series; American Chemical Society: Washington, DC, 2012.
5. Walters T & Skinner K. New Roles for New Times: Digital Curation for Preservation. Association of Research Libraries Report, March, 2011.
6. Committee on Ensuring the Utility and Integrity of Research Data in a Digital Age; National Academy of Sciences In Ensuring the Integrity, Accessibility, and Stewardship of Research Data in the Digital Age; National Academies Press: Washington, DC, 2009.
7. Heidorn PB. The Emerging Role of Libraries in Data Curation and E-science. Journal of Library Administration 2011;51:662–672.
8. Newton MR et al. Librarian roles in institutional repository data set collecting: Outcomes of a research library task force. Collection Manage. 2011;36(1):53–67.
9. Keralis et al. Research Data Management in Policy and Practice: The DataRes Project. Research Data Management, 2013. Available at: http://digital.library.unt.edu/ark:/67531/metadc234915/m1/3/