Jill and Hannah of the Open Exeter project have not been holding back with their user requirements research – not content with attracting hundreds of responses to their survey of Exeter postgraduates, they’re also augmenting this with their own research as well as running events like Friday’s, in an admirably thorough approach to gathering information on what postgraduate students and early career researchers at their institution need, how they work and where the gaps are in the current infrastructure provision.
Twenty enthusiastic participants turned up on 22 June, happily from across the sciences and humanities, and contributed with gusto to group discussion, intensive one-to-one conversations and a panel session. The project has recruited six PhD students – Stuart from Engineering; Philip from Law; Ruth from Film Studies; Lee from Sport Sciences and Duncan from Archaeology, plus one more currently studying abroad – to help bridge the gap between project staff and their PhD peers. These six are working intensively with the project team to sort out common PhD-level data management issues and activities in the context of their own work, which allows them to not only improve their own practice but also to share their experiences and tips with other PhD students and ECRs in their own disciplines at Exeter. (You can see more about this at http://blogs.exeter.ac.uk/openexeterrdm/)
One of the most interesting aspects of working on this programme, for me, is understanding the nuts and bolts of research data management in a specific disciplinary context, in a particular institution. In other words, the same context in which each researcher is working. Although funders are increasingly calling the shots with requirements and expectations for research data management, the individual researcher still has to find a way to put these requirements into practice with the infrastructure they have to hand. That means it’s all very well for the EPSRC or AHRC or whoever to require you to do something, and you may even understand why and want to do it, but who do you ask in IT to help? Why isn’t it OK to just put data on Dropbox? What to do with data after you finish your PhD or project? And what is metadata anyway?
Despite the generally-held view by researchers that their RDM requirements are unique to their discipline, these questions – and other like them – are actually fairly consistent across institutions when researchers are sharing concerns in an open and relaxed environment. And this was one of the achievements of today’s event: by keeping things friendly, low-key and informal, the team got some very useful information about what PhDs and ECRs are currently doing with RDM, the challenges they’re encountering and what Exeter needs to provide to support well-planned and sustainable RDM.
Some additional detail from the event:
– Jill offered a working definition of ‘data’ for the purposes of the workshop: “What we mean by data is all inclusive. It could be code, recordings, images, artworks, artefacts, notebooks – whatever you feel is information that has gone into the creation of your research outputs.” This definitely seemed to aid discussion and meant we didn’t spend time in semantic debate about the nature of the term.
– Types of data used by participants:
o Paper, i.e. printouts of experiment
o Word documents
o Excel spreadsheets
o Interview transcripts
o Audio files (recordings of interviews)
o Mapping data
o Raw data in CSV form
o Post-processed data in text files
o Tables for literature review
o Search data for systematic review
o Interviews and surveys: audio files, word transcripts
o Photocopies of documents from the archives
o NVivo files
o STATA files
– Common RDM challenges included: the best way to back-up, use of central university storage, number of passwords, complexity of working online (which can make free cloud services more attractive), lack of support with queries or uncertainty about who to contact; selection and disposal, uncertainty over who owns the data.
– Sources of help identified during the event: subject librarians, departmental IT officers, and during the life of the project, Open Exeter staff, existing online resources such as guides from the Digital Curation Centre (http://www.dcc.ac.uk) and the Incremental project (http://www.gla.ac.uk/datamanagement and http://www.lib.cam.ac.uk/preservation/incremental/).