On 22nd June 2018 I attended the Higher Education Archive Programme (#HEAP) network meeting on Research Data Management (RDM) at the National Archives at Kew Gardens. This allowed me to learn about some of the current thinking in research data management from colleagues and peers currently working in this area through hearing about their own personal experiences.
The day consisted of a series of talks from presenters with a variety of backgrounds (archivists, managers, PhD students) giving their experiences of RDM from their different perspectives (design/implementation of systems, use). I will aim to briefly summarise the main message from a few of them. This was followed by a question and answers session and concluded with a workshop run by John Kaye from JISC.
Having had very little exposure to RDM in my career, it was a great way for me to understand what it is and what is being done in this sector. I have undertaken quantitative research myself during my PhD and so have an understanding of how research data is created, but until my recent move into the archival profession, I rather foolishly gave little thought as to how this data is managed. Events like this help to make people aware of the challenges archivists, information professionals and researchers face.
What is HEAP?
The Higher Education Archive Programme (#HEAP) is part of The National Archives’ continuing programme of engagement and sector support with particular archival constituencies. It is a mixture of strategic and practical work encompassing activity across The National Archives and the wider sector including guidance and training, pilot projects and advocacy. They also run network meetings for anyone involved in university archives, special collections and libraries with a variety of themes.
What is Research Data Management?
Susan Worrall, from University of Birmingham, started the day by explaining to us, what is research data management and why is it of interest to archivists? Put simply, it is the organisation, structuring, storage, care and use of data generated by research. It is important to archivists as these are all common themes of digital archiving and digital preservation, therefore, it suffers from similar issues, such as:
- Skills gap in the sector
- Fear of the unknown
- Funding issues
She presented a case study using a Brain imaging experiment, which highlighted the challenges of consent and managing huge amounts of highly specialised data. There are, however, opportunities for archivists; RDM and digital archiving are two sides of the same coin, digital archivists already do a lot of the RDM processes and so have many transferable skills. Online training is also available, University of Edinburgh and The University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill collaborated to create a course on Coursera.
A Digital Archivist’s Perspective
Jenny Mitcham, from University of York, gave us an insight into RDM from her experience as a digital archivist. She highlighted how RDM requires skills from the Library, Archival and IT sectors. Within a department, you may have all of these skills however the roles and responsibilities are not always clear, which can cause issues. She described a fantastic project called ‘Filling the Digital Preservation Gap’ which explored the potential of archivematica for RDM. It was a finalist in the 2016 Digital Preservation Awards and more information about the project can be found on the blog.
Planning, Designing and Implementing an RDM system
Laurain Williamson, from University of Leicester, spoke about how to plan and implement a research data management service. Firstly, she described the current situation within the university and what the project brief involved. Any large scale project will require a large amount of preparation and planning, however she noted that certain elements, such as considering all viable technical solutions was incredibly time consuming, however, it was essential to get the best fit for the institution. Through interviews and case study’s they analysed the thoughts and wants from a variety of stakeholders.
Their research community wanted:
- Knowledge about copyright/publishing
- Bespoke advice and a flexible service.
Challenges faced by the RDM team were:
- To manage expectations (they will never be able to do everything, so they must collaborate and prioritise their resources)
- Last minute requests from researchers
- Liaising with researchers at an early stage of the project is vital (helping researchers think about file formats early on to aid the preservation process).
Whilst RDM to a layperson may seem simple at first (save it on the cloud or a hard drive) when you delve into the archival theories of correct digital preservation, this becomes an absurdly simplified view. Managing large amounts of data from such specialised experiments (producing niche file formats) requires a huge amount of knowledge, collaboration and expertise.
Data produced by universities can be seen as a commodity. The increase in the scholarly norms for open science and sharing data puts higher emphasis on RDM. It is important for the institutions/individuals creating the data (if there is any potential future scholarly or financial gain) and also for scientific integrity (allowing others in the community to review and confirm the results). But not everyone will want to make it open and actually not all of it has or should be open; creating a system and workflow that accounts for both is vital.
An OCLC research report recently stated ‘It would be a mistake to imagine that there is a single, best model of RDM service capacity, or a simple roadmap to acquiring it’. As with most things in the digital sector, this is a fast moving area and new technologies and theories are continually being developed. It will be exciting to see how these will be implemented in the future.