Monthly Archives: May 2013

For which RDM activities will UK research funders pay?

Much RDM activity has been stimulated by requirements and expectations emerging from the main UK research funders, as usefully described in the DCC’s funder policy table.  But do funders understand what they are really asking researchers and institutions to do with their data, and how much sustainable research data management activities actually cost?  The April 2013 DCC Research Data Management Forum was a free and timely opportunity for Jisc MRD projects, DCC Institutional Engagement partners and other interested people to directly quiz representatives of some of the main UK research funders.  Graham Pryor of the DCC has written a blogpost over at the DCC website, which lays out the day’s discussion and provides funders’ responses to queries about RDM costs.

For me, some of the main take-home messages included:

–          More cooperation and standardisation across research funder guidance to bidders, policy and guidance to peer review panel members would be sensible and useful for the sector as a whole.  That is to say, harmonisation of language, approach and policy would benefit bidding researchers and their institutions but would also help funders work in a more effective and interoperable way, which has to be advantageous to them too.

–          Collaborative measures by HEIs and researchers should be considered.  Who else in your area would be a good partner?  Not just for a research bid, but for shared services such as storage?  Can you achieve an economy of scale by partnering with another institution in your geographical or research area?

–          Use of existing tools and services should be considered as a priority: HEI doing their own development should be a last resort.  Anthony Beitz, amongst others, has argued this persuasively before.  Initiatives like the DCC can help with suggestions and descriptions of tools.

–          We need to move forward with pragmatic measures for what researchers need right now, whilst not losing sight of modelling longer-term sustainable strategies.

So far, so sensible.  But a take-home worry for me was the importance placed again and again by funders on the key role of the peer review panel.  We don’t know how AHRC or ESRC deal with this because neither of them were present, but the funders who were there rely on their peer review panels to make decisions about ‘the science’ (for which I mentally substitute ‘the research’) and also, in the case of most of the funders present, the data management plan or statement.

Given that we who work solely and only on research data management, digital curation and digital preservation as our fields of interest are still in the process of working this stuff out, how do we know whether the peer review panel members have sufficient and appropriate knowledge of these fields to responsibly discharge their duty when judging the RDM plans of other researchers?  One funder explained that they expect a DMP to be in place at the point of bidding but that these are not peer reviewed “because peer reviewers are unlikely to have the knowledge required.”  What of the other funders?  It strikes me that knowing the limits of panel expertise – the ‘known unknowns’ – is by far the most responsible approach to any type of peer review process.

In addition to quality or level of knowledge, I’m also interested in consistency of standards applied.  One funder openly admitted on the day that he is aware that there is a troubling amount of variability in the approach to both the creation and assessment of data management plans in bids.  Other comments indicated that some bids have their data management plans or statements specifically reviewed and some don’t.

Peer review panels are largely comprised of senior researchers (by which I mean time in the field as opposed to age).  The Jisc MRD programme, like many other initiatives, often focuses training and awareness-raising efforts on early career researchers and postgraduate students, with the idea being that they will take their good practice up with them through their academic careers.  But what do we do until then?  Even if we can rely on current ECRs and PGs to be well and consistently trained, we’re still in a situation where all bidding, for the next twenty-odd years is being reviewed by senior researchers who have not been specifically targetted by RDM training and awareness-raising efforts.

A solution?  As fellow evidence gatherer Jonathan Tedds suggested in the discussion, we can learn from areas such as bidding for telescope time in astronomy, where peer review necessarily includes someone who is specifically there to provide their technical knowledge.  For consistency, research funders seem to need the presence of or input from an appropriate external body.  So this seems to be an area where the DCC and research funders can work together, for example, to produce consistent and approachable, up-to-date guidance for peer review panel members, and to ensure someone who specialises in digital curation as applied to research data management is included in their peer review panels.

Just my suggestions.  Your comments are, as always, welcome below.

Laura Molloy

e: laura.molloy AT glasgow.ac.uk

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