Lessons learned from Jisc Research Data Champions

In 2017 four Cambridge researchers received grants from Jisc to develop and share their research data management practices. In this blog, the four awardees each highlight one aspect of their work as a Jisc Data Champion.

The project

All four Champions embarked on a range of activities throughout the year including creating local communities interested in RDM practices, delivering training, running surveys to understand their department better, creating ‘how-to’ guides for would-be RDM mentors and testing Samvera as part of RDSS. They were excited by the freedom that the grant gave them to try out whatever RDM related activities they wanted, which meant they could develop their skills and see ideas come to fruition and make them reusable for others. For example, Annemarie Eckes developed a questionnaire on RDM practices for PhD students and Sergio Martínez Cuesta has posted his training courses on GitHub.  

However, throughout the duration of the award they also found some aspects of championing good RDM disconcerting. Whilst some sessions proved popular, others had very low attendee figures, even when a previous iteration of the session was well attended. They all shared the sense of frustration often felt by central RDM services that it is getting people to initially engage and turn up to a session that is the hard part. However, when people did come they found the sessions very useful, particularly because the Champions were able to tailor it specifically to the audience and discipline and the similar background of all the attendees provided an extra opportunity for exchanging advice and ideas that were most relevant.

The Champions tried out many different things. The Jisc Research Data Champions were expected to document and publicise their research data management (RDM) experiences and practices and contribute to the Jisc Research Data Shared Service (RDSS) development. Here the Champions each highlight one thing they tried out, which we hope will help others with their RDM engagement.

BYOD (Bring your own data)

Champion: Annemarie Eckes, PhD student, Department of Geography

The “Bring your own data” workshop was intended for anyone who thought their project data needed sorting, they needed better documentation, or even they needed to find out who is in charge or the owner of certain data. I set it up to give attendees time and space to do any kind of data-management related tasks: clean up their data, tidy up their computer/ email inbox, etc. The workshop was, really, for everyone whether at the start of their project and at the planning stage or in the middle of a project and had neglected their data management to some extent.

For the workshop the participants needed a laptop or login for the local computers to access their data and a project to tidy up or prepare, that can be done within two hours. I provided examples of file naming conventions and folder structures as well as instructions on how to write good READMEs (messages to your future self) and a data audit framework to give participants some structure to their organisation. After a brief introductory presentation about the aims and the example materials I provided, people would spend the rest of the time tidying up their data or in discussions with the other participants.

While this was an opportunity for the participants to sit down and sort out their digital files, I also wanted participants to talk to each other about their data organisation issues and data exchange solutions. Once I got everyone talking, we soon discovered that we have similar issues and were able to exchange information on very specific solutions.

1-on-1 RDM Mentoring

Champion: Andrew Thwaites, postdoc, Department of Psychology

I decided to trial 1-on-1 RDM mentoring as a way to customise RDM support for individual researchers in my department. The aim was that by the end of the 1-on-1 session, the mentee should understand how to a) share their data appropriately at the end of their project, and b) improve on their day-to-day research data management practice.

Before the meeting, I encouraged the mentee to compile a list of funders, and their funder’s data sharing requirements. During the meeting, the mentee and I would make a list of the data in the mentees project that they are aiming to share, and then I would then help them to choose a repository (or multiple repositories) to share this data on, and I’d also assist in designing the supporting documentation to accompany it. During the sessions I also had conversations about about GDPR, anonymising data, internal documentation and day-to-day practices (file naming conventions, file backups etc.) with the mentee.

As far as possible, I provided non-prescriptive advice, with the aim being to help the mentee make an informed decision, rather than forcing them into doing what I thought was best.

Embedding RDM  

Champion: Sergio Martinez Cuesta, research associate, CRUK-CI and Department of Chemistry

I came to realise early in the Jisc project that stand-alone training sessions focused exclusively on RDM concepts were not successful as students and researchers found them too abstract, uninteresting or detached from their day-to-day research or learning activities. I think the aerial view of the concept of 1-on-1 mentoring and BYOD sessions is beautiful. However, in my opinion, both strategies may face challenges with necessary numbers of mentors/trainers increasing unsustainably as the amount of researchers needing assistance grows and the research background of the audience becomes more diverse.

To facilitate take-up, I tapped into the University’s lists of oversubscribed computational courses and found that many researchers and students already shared interests in learning programming languages, data analysis skills and visualisation in Python and R. I explored how best to modify some of the already-available courses with an aim of extending the offer after having added some RDM concepts to them. The new courses were prepared and delivered during 2017-2018. Some of the observations I made were:

  • Learning programming naturally begs for proper data management as research datasets and tables need to be constantly accessed and newly created. It was helpful to embed RDM concepts (e.g. appropriate file naming and directory structure) just before showing students how to open files within a programming language.
  • The training of version control using git required separate sessions. Here students and researchers also discover how to use GitHub, which later helps them to make their code and analyses more reproducible, create their own personal research websites …
  • Gaining confidence in programming, structuring data / directories and version control in general helps students to acknowledge that research is more robust when open and contrasted by other researchers. Learning how researchers can identify themselves in a connected world with initiatives such as ORCID was also useful.

Brown Bag Lunch Seminar Series: The Productive Researcher

Champion: Melissa Scarpate, postdoc, Faculty of Education

I created the Productive Researcher seminar series to provide data management and Open Access information and resources to researchers at the Faculty of Education (FoE). The aim of the brown bag lunch format was to create an informal session where questions, answers and time for discussion could be incorporated. I structured the seminars so they covered 1) a presentation and discussion of data management and storage; 2) a presentation about Open Access journals and writing publications; 3) a presentation on grant writing where Open Access was highlighted.

While the format of the series was designed to increase attendance, the average was four attendees per session. The majority of attendees were doctoral students and postdocs who had a keen interest in properly managing their data for their theses or projects. However, I suspect it may be the case that those attending already understood data management processes and resources.

In conclusion, I think that whilst the individuals that attended these seminars found the content helpful (per their feedback) the impact of the seminars was extremely limited. Therefore, my recommendation would be to have all doctoral students take a mandatory training class on data management and Open Access topics as part of their methodological training. Furthermore, I think it may be most helpful in reaching postdocs and more senior researchers to have a mandated data management meetings with a data manager to discuss their data management and Open Access plans prior to submitting any grant proposals. Due to new laws and policies on data (GDPR) this seems a necessary step to ensure compliance and excellence in research.

Published 2 October 2018
Compiled and edited by Dr Lauren Cadwallader from contributions by Annemarie Eckes, Dr Andrew Thwaites, Dr Sergio Martinez Cuesta, Dr Melissa Scarpate
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