The future of the past: closing workshop for the Data Management Planning projects

It always provokes mixed feelings to attend a closing event marking the end of a project or raft of projects.  On the one hand, it’s melancholy to say goodbye to people, or to know that there will be no more interesting outputs coming from a particular project.  On the other, there is (hopefully) the sense of achievement that comes with having finished a piece of work.  Having something finished, ready to show, then getting ready for the next activity, preparing for the future.  It was useful and thought-provoking to see the findings and outputs of the ‘strand B’ or data management planning projects of the MRD02 programme at the Meeting Challenges in Research Data Planning workshop in London on 23 March.  This event marked the closing of these projects, and gave them an opportunity to share what they’d been doing.  Data management planning by definition is about considering the future, and there was a sense of energy and enthusiasm from the projects on the day which suggested we could easily have met for longer and talked more.  And yet, some elements of the discussion made me think about the past.

Back in MRD01 (2009-11), there were a few projects such as Oxford’s Sudamih and Glasgow-Cambridge’s Incremental project which performed institution-specific scoping work about what researchers need to improve both their understanding and practice of RDM.  As one of the Incremental team, I felt at the time that, to be honest, a lot of it seemed to be stating the blooming obvious, but we recognised the value of gathering original data on these issues in order (1) to check that our suspicions were correct; and (2) to wave in front of those making decisions about whether and how to fund RDM infrastructure.

You can read the full report of Sudamih here and Incremental here, but the main ideas we found evidence for were things like: researchers are almost always more interested in doing their research than spending time on data management, so engagement relies on guidance being short and situated in one obvious, easy-to-navigate place; there are lots of guidance resources at institutions already but they’re scattered and not well advertised; lots of researchers in the arts and humanities don’t consider their material as ‘data’ and so the terminology of RDM doesn’t engage them or may actively alienate them; researchers may be party to multiple data expectations from their institution and / or their funder, but a lot of them are not aware of that fact, never mind what these are and where to find them in writing.  Also, different disciplines have different data sharing conventions and protocols, which affect researcher behaviour; some researchers can be quite willing to practice good data management, but they need to know who to call or email about it at their own place; guidance written by digital curation specialists is great and fine, but often needs translating into non-specialist language, and there are lots of researchers who are just not going to engage with a policy document.  All that kind of thing.  Readers of this blog will possibly be amazed that such fundamental ideas are not more widely understood out there in the wider research community, but that in itself probably just confirms the knowledge gap between RDM people and the general researcher population.

So back at the event on 23 March, we heard from, amongst others, Richard Plant of the DMSPpsych project explaining the importance of local guidance for the institution’s researchers, and Norman Gray of MaRDI-Gross explaining the influence of the data sharing culture in big science on its researchers (although I never did get around to asking him if the project did indeed reach ‘the broad sunlit uplands of magnificently-managed big-science data’, as promised in the project blog).

History DMP from Hull charmed with an appearance by one of their tame researchers, who came along to give a brief account of his experience with the project.  He was happy not being familar with RDM terminology or principles or, as he put it,

‘This process has been very straightforward for me.  I don’t understand the technical elements but I don’t need to.’

The benefits of easier remote access to and confidence in the security of his data storage were the pay-off for him, and left everyone feeling optimistic.

Reward at UCL/Ubiquity Press did many interesting things whilst aiming to lower the barriers to good RDM and shared a deluge of findings echoing those of Incremental / Sudamih, including the value of drawing together institutional RDM-related resources to provide a single point of access; the effect of discipline-specific protocols on researcher behaviour (specifically data sharing); the value of clarifying benefits of good RDM to motivate researchers; the lack of current awareness about IPR, licensing and data protection; the reluctance to discard data; the need for training about RDM and particularly long term preservation of data; and many other points.

So what occured to me on 23 March was that it felt good to hear several of the MRD02 strand B projects reiterating our findings from their own experiences at their own institutions.  It reminded me of Heather Piwowar’s notion of ‘broad shoulders’.  It wasn’t that they were agreeing with us – I’m more than happy for my research to be challenged constructively.  It was that what we’d done in MRD01 seemed to be useful to some extent, allowing the MRD02 projects to extend and refine user requirements in RDM, and share what they found, which benefits us all.