What is the role of a librarian in Research Data Management?

Last week (6 December 2013), I went along to the annual workshop of the International Association of Scientific and Technological University Libraries (IATUL) at Keble College, Oxford. The title of the conference was Research Data Management: Finding our Role and the focus was not on the technical aspects of the subject, but rather on the role that librarians can and are indeed playing in this increasingly important area.

A hot topic

The whole area of data management has become a hot topic in recent times. Back in 2010 LIBER (Ligue des Bibliothèques Européennes de Recherche / Association of European Research Libraries) established an “E-Science working group” to investigate the role libraries can and should play in the field of e-science.  After three workshops, the final one taking place in Tartu, June 2012, the group proposed ten recommendations for libraries to get started with research data management. These were:

  1. Offer research data management support, including data management plans for grant applications, intellectual property rights ad-vice and information materials. Assist faculty with data management plans and the integration of data management into the curriculum.
  2. Engage in the development of metadata and data standards and provide metadata services for research data.
  3. Create Data Librarian posts and develop professional staff skills for data librarian-ship.
  4. Actively participate in institutional research data policy development, including re-source plans. Encourage and adopt open data policies where appropriate in the re-search data life cycle.
  5. Liaise and partner with researchers, re-search groups, data archives and data centers to foster an interoperable infrastructure for data access, discovery and data sharing.
  6. Support the lifecycle for research data by providing services for storage, discovery and permanent access.
  7. Promote research data citation by applying persistent identifiers to research data.
  8. Provide an institutional Data Catalogue or Data Repository, depending on available infrastructure.
  9. Get involved in subject specific data management practice.
  10. Offer or mediate secure storage for dynamic and static research data in co-operation with institutional IT units and/or seek exploitation of appropriate cloud services.

And as recently as July 2013 the European Commission held a public consultation on open research data attended by a variety of stakeholders from the research community , including libraries, publishers, infrastructure developers and others.

The digital revolution and Data Management Plans (DMPs)

It is easy to understand the increasing prominence and importance of research data management. The digital revolution has made it easier to store, share and re-use data, and scientific research data is almost universally created and collected in digital form. Data sharing increases the potential return on the large investments made into research by reducing costly data duplication. But data sharing requires data to be stored efficiently, maintained and preserved for re-use, discovered by secondary users, and used with confidence in its authenticity and integrity.

Perhaps the main impetus for developments in this area has been the recent demand from funding bodies and research councils that all grant applications should be submitted along with a data management plan or DMP. Increasingly the expectation is that the research data associated with a research project should be deposited in a data repository and be made accessible alongside the published article.

A good Data Management Plan will normally cover the following six themes:

  1. Data Types, Formats, Standards and Capture Methods
  2. Ethics and Intellectual Property
  3. Access, Data Sharing and Reuse
  4. Short-Term Storage and Data Management
  5. Deposit and Long-Term Preservation
  6. Resourcing

Librarians becoming increasingly involved

Given their long experience with information organisation and documentation, librarians are becoming more involved in the development of principles and best practices for managing digital data for long term use. Services and tools, often managed by libraries, are now becoming more widespread.

In many cases librarians are playing a critical role in the formation of local institutional DMPs. It’s not difficult to see why librarians have become natural partners in the research data management (RDM) process. They have highly relevant information standards and organisational skills, including expertise in setting up file structures, knowledge of workflows and collection management, describing data in accordance with established metadata schemes and controlled vocabulary, collection curation / preservation and service provision in form of helpdesks, training, availability of subject specialists etc.

However, the work also presents significant challenges for librarians. They need to make/find the time for these activities in otherwise full and busy schedules and heavy workloads. They need to learn new skills and establish credibility with researchers and they need to “get their hands dirty” or “go upstream in the research process” (i.e. not dealing now with published materials, but unpublished work and raw data).

The IATUL workshop provided an opportunity for libraries to share and discuss their evolving steps in the area of data management. The presentations described some RDM activities and developments at specific UK institutions (such as the British Library, the Universities of Oxford, Southampton, Edinburgh, Bath and Sheffield) and at US and European universities (Purdue, German Library of Science and Technology, University of Groningen). It’s an area where different models and approaches are still being worked out, and the speakers noted that they don’t have all the answers, and frequently spoke of the need to collaborate and share experience to try different approaches. But they emphasised also that librarians have more relevant experience than they realise and, unlike the specialist researcher, can often see across disciplines and view the bigger picture.

Training for librarians being developed

It is clear that at certain institutions librarians are playing significant and growing roles in the research data management process. And recognising the potential that librarians can offer, and the need to develop skills, there are a growing number of online training courses being developed at national and institutional levels such as Data Scientist Training for Librarians, DIY RDM Training Kit for Librarians, Data Intelligence for Librarians. It is evident also that much of the work is being done collaboratively between the library and the institutional IT departments – the latter dealing with the technical aspects of handling petabytes of data, the former developing the organisational and service aspects of data management.

Looking to the future

In INASP’s partner countries the emphasis still tends to be on the creation of repositories which are in the main, published articles, theses and dissertations. Indeed this is still the case in many institutions in the developed world. It may therefore seem somewhat premature to be thinking about the additional problems of research data storage and management. But it is important for professional librarians to be aware of developments, recognise this is a developing field of library activity, and ultimately to plan for their involvement as and when resources and technology allows. However, it is never too early to start thinking about this issue, and to consider whether this is the time for the subject of research data management to move into the educational mainstream and to figure in the curriculum of newly developing postgraduate courses in Library and Information Science.

Peter Burnett
Peter Burnett is the Programme Manager of Library Curricula/Network Management at INASP and part of the Research Access and Availability team.

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