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Wednesday, February 18, 2015

Research Data Management (RDM) in the UK, factors affecting development of a coherent national strategy.

Research Data Management (RDM) should be a topic of discussion for all academic and government labs. How can data be coherently protected, archived, searched and made available in ways that further national and institutional research goals? How can (and should?) organizations co-operate to achieve these goals in a consistent way? Frankly, the US lags in this area because to some extent, most of the big academic research institutes see themselves as partial competitors and also because so many of the faculty tend to see themselves as independent agents rather than members of a national team striving towards some common goal for the greater good. In the UK, there tends to be more government sponsored co-ordination of national research goals, so the discussion of a national co-operative research policy appears to be more advanced, although not without its challenges. The article below appears with kind permission from my colleagues at Research Space, makers of the RSpace ELN, a solution that is focussed on the needs of institutional ELN deployments at large academic and government research organizations.
The original appears at:
The Digital Curation Centre (DCC) website at is a great place to visit regularly for anyone with an interest in scientific data management strategies at the institutional and national levels.
The three fundamental factors influencing RDM take up
The ‘Why is it taking so long panel’ discussion touched on two themes that are crucial in understanding the kind of environment that is conducive to take up of RDM. Geoff Bilder repeatedly, and correctly in my view, hammered home the point that until the right infrastructure is in place you can’t expect researchers to be enthusiastic about engaging with RDM, in fact you can’t expect them to do it at all. 
Geoff pointed to a second, and in his view underlying, issue, namely funding -- without an appropriate funding model infrastructure will develop too slowly to support, and stimulate, take up of RDM. Geoff sees the problem as originating in the current funding model, which tries to squeeze infrastructure development out from grant funding.
Up to a point I also agree with this second strand of Geoff’s argument. But I would suggest that it’s possible to dig down and identify a third, even more fundamental, factor which lies beneath the funding conundrum. This is what could be termed ‘culture’, specifically researchers’ attitudes to RDM infrastructure and tools, and their views on RDM’s priority or lack of priority in the context of their broader need for support.
If researchers don’t view RDM as a priority they are not going to pressure funders or their host institutions to provide the necessary infrastructure and tools to make it possible. No amount of cajoling or encouraging is going to change that, and until recently the RDM community has mostly been in the position of fighting that uphill battle.
So by culture I mean an understanding on the part of researchers’ of the usefulness of a particular bit of infrastructure or tool, and a desire on their part to adopt or use it because they think it will benefit their research. I would argue that when the culture and the infrastructure or tool are there, funding will follow. Depending on the circumstances – the cost of the bit of infrastructure or tool, the institutional set up, budget, funding cycles, etc. -- this may take longer or happen more quickly, but it will happen. My amended picture of the three key factors driving RDM uptake is displayed in the following diagram.
Factors influencing RDM take up

Figure 1 Factors influencing RDM take up
The three constituencies in action:  ELNs at the Universities of Manchester and Edinburgh
A second point to understanding the critical minimum circumstances for RDM to be taken up, and to take off, is that RDM happens in particular institutions. We saw this point illustrated in the many presentations at #IDCC15 where people from a wide variety of institutions talked about RDM at their institution – how it is developing, challenges, progress, issues, etc. In each case the status and prospect of RDM is inseparable from the institutional environment.
Let me here make a second assertion  -- a culture conducive to RDM take up requires buy-in or actually enthusiastic support from three key constituencies in research institutions: researchers, IT managers and administrators – data librarians and research data administrators. Absent support from all three constituencies the culture will not develop, and without that the requisite pressure to find funding for RDM will not happen.

Key constituencies in research institutions influencing RDM take up
Figure 2 Three key constituencies in research institutions influencing RDM take up
To bring this point home I’ll end by recounting a recent personal experience. In January my colleague Richard Adams and I gave a talk at the University of Manchester about our RSpace ELN and in particular how it had been integrated into the RDM infrastructure at the University of Edinburgh. Our host Mary Mcderby had advertised the session in advance and, to our amazement, more than 60 people showed up: an equal mix of researchers, IT managers and research administrators. Even more amazingly, we were greeted like rock stars (ok, not quite like rock stars), and peppered by a volley of interested questions and comments from all three sections of the audience.
What became clear as the discussion progressed was not only that all three constituencies had an active interest in adopting an ELN, but that they were aware of each other’s interests and by and large seemed supportive of each other and happy to work together. That is what I mean by a culture conducive to RDM take up. I’m confident that Manchester will find a way, sooner rather than later, to adopt an institutional ELN, because (a) the will is there across all three constituencies, and, crucially (b) this is a tool that all three constituencies can see will bring benefits.
The road to a broadly dispersed RDM culture and sustainable funding models is opening up
Pioneering institutions like Manchester and Edinburgh may have to be a bit creative, and come up with innovative and ad hoc solutions, to fund take up of RDM infrastructure. But, as they are now beginning to show the way, pressure will grow on funders to put forward sustainable and well considered funding solutions that are replicable more broadly as the culture at other institutions develops to the point where the majority of research institutions find themselves in a position to follow in the footsteps of the pioneers.
Rory Macneil
Research Space

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