RLP Research Data Management Interest Group: Understanding Institutional RDM Services

A few months ago, the OCLC Research Library Partnership launched a community exploration of research data management (RDM) services, featuring a three-part webinar series, an Interest Group, a set of learning guides, and a listserv. The foundation for this effort is our recently completed Realities of Research Data Management project, which examined some of the ways research universities have acquired RDM capacity. We recently held our first webinar, “Understanding Institutional RDM Services”, and subsequently held the first set of Interest Group discussions. In this post, we offer a brief recap and synthesis of the lively and informative conversation that took place.

First, a little more about the Interest Group. The group includes more than 80 individuals, representing nearly 50 Research Library Partnership member institutions in nine countries. Participants are distributed across a range of institutional RDM roles, including strategic and practitioner perspectives. The group is an opportunity for participants to interact with OCLC Research staff and each other, sharing experiences about RDM services and practices, and providing context for understanding the current state – and future evolution – of RDM services. Interest Group discussions are catalyzed by the topics covered in the accompanying webinar series, but are free-ranging and flexible to accommodate participants’ interests.

Our first Interest Group discussion consisted of three group calls held in three time zones, drawing participants from North America, Europe, and the Asia-Pacific region. The starting point for the discussion was the first offering in our three-part Realities of RDM webinar series, in which we reviewed an RDM service framework consisting of three major service categories – Education, Expertise, and Curation – and showed how four research universities in four different national contexts developed RDM service bundles in that space.

Each of our calls began with an Interest Group member talking about the RDM service bundle deployed at their institution – many thanks to Laure Perrier, Chris Kollen, and Andrew Harrison for their synopses of RDM services at the University of Toronto, the University of Arizona, and Monash University, respectively. Laure described a variety of Education services offered at Toronto, including a partnership with the Graduate School through which the Library offers an RDM course as part of a research skills program. Toronto utilizes DataVerse as its institutional data repository, in addition to providing researchers with space on Toronto’s instance of Microsoft OneDrive. Chris noted Arizona’s strength in Education and Expertise services: for example, weekly Research Data Drop-in sessions, in which researchers can receive consultation on RDM needs. Arizona is evaluating options for a future campus data repository. Andrew described the efforts of a small team within the Library at Monash to engage and train researchers in RDM, while at the same time supporting various RDM technical tools. Monash operates an instance of figshare, a cloud-based service through which data sets are loaded into Monash’s local storage resources.

While some of the participants in the discussion represented universities with relatively mature RDM services, others worked at institutions that are in the early stages of planning and/or deploying an RDM service bundle. For example, one university is planning for a future RDM service bundle, located in the Library, with an emphasis on training in data management planning, and metadata creation support; long-term plans include a campus data repository. Another university is in the process of building their own data repository, while still another institution is assembling new staff to support future data management services. These examples underscore the point that even though RDM has been a topic of interest for some time now, it is by no means a “solved problem” throughout the higher education community. Institutions at all stages of RDM service bundle development find that developing an appropriate RDM strategy and services to support emerging RDM needs is very much a work in progress.

One potential drag on the development of RDM service bundles is the ongoing uncertainty surrounding data management policy, and the availability of externally-provided RDM services. Consider, for example, the draft federal data management policy in Canada that has yet to be finalized, leading some Canadian universities to adopt a “wait and see” approach to decision-making around issues such as investment in consortial-scale RDM services. Similarly, future development of UK university RDM service bundles may be impacted by the deployment of a planned national-scale Research Data Shared Service through Jisc. These examples are a helpful reminder that the RDM service space is still developing and quite dynamic, making planning for future RDM services a challenge.

Group-scale activities are an important feature of many universities’ RDM service bundles, and a number of interesting examples were mentioned in the course of our Interest Group discussions. Monash University utilizes VicNode, a joint venture between Monash and the University of Melbourne that provides data storage solutions on behalf of all universities in the state of Victoria. The University of Nevada, Las Vegas is partnering with fellow members of the Greater Western Library Alliance to conduct an environmental scan of RDM services as a means of identifying opportunities to deploy consortial solutions. The University of Toronto is collaborating with other Ontario-based universities on a provincial instance of DataVerse, which is managed by the Ontario Council of University Libraries’ Scholars Portal service. As these examples suggest, partnering with other institutions in meeting collective data management needs is a key element in shaping the RDM service bundles of many universities.

While many of the RDM service bundles we heard about were located in the university library, a number of participants noted important relationships with other campus units such as the Research Office and campus IT services. At the University of Arizona, for example, the data management sub-committee of the Research Computing Governance Committee includes representatives from the Library, the Office of Research, IT services, and colleges and departments. Several participants noted that cooperation at their institutions was aided by the fact that the Library and campus IT services were united within a single administrative unit. Interestingly, although intra-campus cooperation is a critical feature of delivering a campus RDM service bundle, many participants indicated that the service bundle itself was branded at the level of the library, rather than at the institutional level – although several participants indicated that this can be problematic, because some researchers do not think to seek out RDM support from the library. Nevertheless, participants repeatedly underscored that in addition to cooperating with other universities, cooperation across campus units is a common feature of university RDM service bundles.

An informal poll of participants revealed a range of responses in regard to the number of full-time employees (FTEs) assigned to support the RDM service bundle. No one quoted a figure higher than 5 FTEs, while some universities made do with one or two staff members. Another interesting aspect of RDM staffing is the diversity of backgrounds and training encountered – participants in the discussion indicated backgrounds across a range of specialisms, such as libraries, archives, research, and computer science. RDM personnel also frequently include a mixture of existing staff transferred into RDM roles who must acquire data management skills in the form of on-the-job training, along with staff hired into RDM-related positions who bring with them specific forms of data management expertise. Overall, a clear theme emerged in this part of the discussion: many universities have deployed deep RDM service bundles – often including a wide spectrum of Education, Expertise, and Curation services – that are managed by disproportionately small teams of dedicated RDM personnel. 

In addition to the discussion that coalesced around these topics, the Interest Group members made many interesting and wide-ranging observations about the RDM landscape at their home institutions. For example, one participant shared that an information-gathering effort at their university to know more about the external RDM services their researchers are using will consult, among other sources, colleagues in Finance, given their knowledge of the services paid for by various colleges and institutes. Another participant observed that in talking to administrators about RDM services, it is useful to focus on benefits framed in terms of avoiding undesirable consequences – and potential monetary implications – of poor data management, such as reputational damage or legal problems. And yet another participant noted that given the limited number of RDM staff at their university, the focus of RDM training is on general RDM skills, rather than specialized, discipline-specific training. All of these observations – and many more made during the course of the discussion – constitute an invaluable repository of practical experience to inform any institution developing their own RDM service bundle.

These are just some of the highlights from a rich and thought-provoking conversation with RDM practitioners, managers, and policy-makers within the Research Library Partnership. We thank all of the individuals who participated in the discussion!

If your institution is an OCLC Research Library Partnership member, don’t forget to register for the next webinar in our Realities of RDM series, “Identifying and Acting on Incentives when Planning RDM Services”, November 13, 2018, 11:00 am EST (UTC -5) – and if you haven’t already, please consider joining the Partnership RDM Interest Group to participate in future discussions. If you are not affiliated with a Partnership member institution, webinar recordings are made public after the event, along with the accompanying learning guides.

Thanks to my colleague Rebecca Bryant for comments on an earlier draft of this post!

Brian Lavoie is a Research Scientist in OCLC Research. He has worked on projects in many areas, such as digital preservation, cooperative print management, and data-mining of bibliographic resources. He was a co-founder of the working group that developed the PREMIS Data Dictionary for preservation metadata, and served as co-chair of a US National Science Foundation blue-ribbon task force on economically sustainable digital preservation. Brian’s academic background is in economics; he has a Ph.D. in agricultural economics. Brian’s current research interests include stewardship of the evolving scholarly record, analysis of collective collections, and the system-wide organization of library resources.

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