Exploring the challenges and opportunities of research data management (RDM)

The following post is part of an ongoing series about the OCLC-LIBER “Building for the future” program.

The OCLC Research Library Partnership (RLP) and LIBER (Association of European Research Libraries) hosted a facilitated discussion on the topic of research data management (RDM) on 15 November 2023. This event was offered as a component of the ongoing Building for the future series being jointly sponsored by our organizations where this year we are exploring the topic of how libraries are working to provide state-of-the-art services, as described in LIBER’s 2023-2027 strategy. RDM support is a core part of that vision.

OCLC RLP team members worked with members of the LIBER Research Data Management Working Group to develop the discussion questions, and we chose to explore one of the topics that came up during our planning: the challenges and tensions that RDM service providers face in their current work environments. We followed that with prompts about strategies, best practices, and what the ideal RDM landscape might look like.

The virtual event was attended by participants from eight countries and 25 institutions, offering a transnational view of RDM growth and challenges. Small group discussions were facilitated by volunteers from LIBER working groups and OCLC Research.

RDM professionals face plenty of challenges

Despite many institutional, regional, and national differences, I heard far more similarities than differences emerge in this discussion. RDM practitioners reported shared challenges, including:

Low awareness by researchers about available RDM services in the library. While many participants reported an increase in data management planning (DMP) mandates and services, many researchers were still unaware that RDM support services were available to support them. One person said, “People don’t think of the library,” and another voiced concerns that the library wasn’t [yet] seen as a competent partner in RDM. Several participants expressed frustration that when researchers did seek library support, they often came late in the research process, after key decisions and actions had already taken place.

Understaffing. There were near universal concerns about capacity, across many national environments in Europe and North America. In most cases, participants were “one-person operations” and “often isolated somewhat from the rest of the library.” RDM staff members typically had a broad portfolio of responsibilities that extended beyond RDM support, making it difficult to carve out time for strategic planning and relationship building with other campus stakeholders. Concerns about scalability of RDM services were ubiquitous.

Disciplinary differences (and needed expertise) create challenges. It’s impossible for a single RDM curator to be skillful in a wide array of disciplinary norms. One discussion group talked about how this presented a need for the RDM professional to be both expert and learner while working with researchers.

Many RDM professionals have a non-library background. Instead of library science degrees, many RDM professionals hold a PhD, often in a scientific discipline, which offers much relevant data management experience. But a challenge for these workers is that others in the library may not understand their work, creating the potential for tension and misunderstandings. One participant described feeling “not fully a part of any group.” This is consistent with scholar Celia Whitchurch’s description of “Third Space professionals” who are working in emerging areas situated within traditional organizational structures, a situation that can offer both security and constraints.[1]

RDM engagement is driven almost exclusively by mandates, rather than researcher interest. In other words, researchers may not be seeking input on that DMP because they want to improve their processes, but because they are required to have one. As a result, researchers frequently push back on these requirements, which can create a challenging environment for RDM professions. And these aren’t just STEM challenges. Humanist scholars also push back on requirements, in part because they may not perceive the content they have collected as “data,” and open science/reproducibility narratives don’t resonate with them.

Cross-campus collaboration is essential. There are many campus stakeholders with an interest in RDM, including researcher administrators and information technology (IT) professionals, and RDM service provision requires significant coordination or social interoperability. As we describe in our OCLC Research report on Social Interoperability in Research Support, this can be a challenging and time-intensive process, which many discussion group participants expressed frustration with.

When prompted to describe their experiences, participants shared the following, captured in this word cloud:

Word cloud summarizing participants’ feelings about the challenges of working in RDM

But there are strategies to make it work

Sure, that’s a long list of challenges. But participants shared numerous examples of how they were tackling these difficulties. These include:

Focus on working with early career researchers (ECRs). Postgraduate students and postdoctoral researchers are frequently more receptive to RDM support than later career researchers. Participants described working with ECRs as both an investment in the future as well as a bottom-up approach to influence the behavior of more senior researchers.

Invest time in collaborating with other campus units. One specific tactic mentioned was identifying human connectors who can help facilitate introductions and cross-campus relationship building. Another tactic was co-sponsoring events, which builds trust and can potentially also boost impact for both sponsoring units. This was echoed by a participant whose organization has seen the benefits of investing in a staff position focused on community engagement, trust building, and informal learning around RDM activities.

Find ways to proactively communicate with researchers early in the research process. For example, by working with the proposal/research development office on campus, it’s possible to identify researchers who have applied for grants requiring DMPs and to contact them at that stage, to offer support at the beginning of the project. Another participant described an intake/ticketing process that informed distributed RDM team members of a new request, to support transparency and triage.

Collect metrics and demonstrate impact. In order to advocate for more resources, RDM practitioners must demonstrate the usage and value of existing services. This requires developing a system for tracking consulting interactions and curation work and possibly creating a short annual report. I have found the annual reports by the Research Data Service at the University of Illinois a good example of this type of effort.

Imagining an ideal future

We concluded the event by asking participants to envision an ideal RDM ecosystem. Participants responded with these thoughts:

Improved structures to support cross-campus collaboration. The library is one of many RDM stakeholders on campus, and it must develop strong, trusting relationships with a new group of stakeholders to support researchers. Moving forward, institutions may need to develop new standing committees, task forces, and/or new operational configurations to provide greater stability. One recent example is the cross-unit RDM institutional strategy working group at the University of Waterloo (Canada), working in response to funder policies. LIBER, in collaboration with ADBU (the association of directors of university libraries in France), recently released a toolkit offering guidance to research libraries on the development of RDM support services. The toolkit recognizes the challenges of working in a multi-stakeholder environment.

Greater interoperability and FAIRness. Participants want greater ability to aggregate repository content at scale, made possible through greater interoperability and machine readability. This is consistent with LIBER goals, including its joint strategy with OpenAIRE and SPARC Europe to strengthen the European repository network. SPARC US is similarly leading efforts to create a U.S. Repository Network (USRN).

Leveraging multi-institutional collaboration to scale. Working with practitioners at other institutions is seen as highly desirable for many reasons: to scale capacity and expertise, to share experiences and best practices, for mutual support, and to provide greater equity and access to researchers at smaller institutions. This is the topic of a forthcoming OCLC Research report entitled Building Research Data Management Capacity: Case Studies in Strategic Library Collaboration, which provides actionable recommendations based upon real-world examples of multi-institutional collaborations, including the US-based Data Curation Network.

Increased researcher buy-in. Participants would like to work with researchers who have embraced datasets as a first-class research object and don’t see RDM management as a mandated chore. Participants envisioned ways to incentivize data sharing research behaviors, such as the incorporation of RDM training in the postgraduate student curriculum. Another suggestion was the revision of institutional policies to reward data sharing, similar to journal publishing.

More resources, please. In an ideal environment, participants imagined more staff, unlimited IT support, and much more funding. One participant said, “If they [agencies] want open data, they need to pay for it.”

Finding your people

Word cloud summary from event polling

Working in an emerging area of practice can feel lonely, particularly when there aren’t others doing similar work at your own institution. This event brought together RDM professionals from across Europe and North America, and it was gratifying to hear that participants valued their time together and felt validated, encouraged, and connected by the event.

Join us for the upcoming facilitated discussion on data-driven decision making

This RDM session was the first of three facilitated discussions on state-of-the-art services that we are hosting in 2023-2024. The next event takes place on 7 February, when we will collectively dive into the topic of data-driven decision making. In this 90-minute session, we will explore how libraries are using data and analytics to inform library decision making in areas such as shared print and collective collections, contract management and publisher negotiations, and research impact and visualizations. Register today to save your spot; virtual spots are limited.

Read a related OCLC Research report

A new OCLC Research report entitled Building Research Data Management Capacity: Case Studies in Strategic Library Collaboration is also highly relevant to this conversation. It provides actionable recommendations based on real-world case studies that libraries can apply to help make their own collaborations successful and sustainable. The report shares experiences from the Texas Data Repository, Portage Network, and Data Curation Network to illuminate the challenges, opportunities, and considerations of building RDM service capacity through collaboration.

[1] Whitchurch, Celia. 2015. “The Rise of Third Space Professionals: Paradoxes and Dilemmas.” In: Forming, Recruiting and Managing the Academic Profession, edited by U. Teichler and W. Cummings, vol. 14. The Changing Academy – The Changing Academic Profession in International Comparative Perspective. Switzerland: Springer, Cham. https://doi.org/10.1007/978-3-319-16080-1_5.