Tag Archives: Research Data Managment

Cambridge Data Champions – reflections on an expanding community and strategies for 2019

The Cambridge Data Champions (DCs) advocate good Research Data Management (RDM) and Open Data practices to researchers locally in their departments, within Cambridge University in general, and sometimes further afield. They network with one another, exchange good methods of RDM, share ideas and, as a collective, reflect on current issues surrounding RDM, Open Data and researcher engagement, where a major shared goal is to establish best practices when it comes to research data. By attending bi-monthly forums facilitated by the Research Data Team, the DCs convene as a community, hear speakers presenting on relevant topics, and engage in workshops that will help them in their ‘championing’ activities. Following up from our latest blog which summarised how a workshop led to the creation of cartoon postcards as a new tool to add to the DCs’ resource kit for RDM advocacy, we are now reflecting on initiatives that sprung from workshops during the past year and are considering the challenges and opportunities that this programme brings as it approaches the end of its third year. 


The programme started in Autumn 2016, comprising researchers who volunteered to become local community experts and advocate on research data management and sharing. Our first call welcomed 43 DCs (September 2016), our second call 20 DCs (March 2018) and the third call 40 DCs (January 2019). For simplicity, this year we also added to our statistics the “affiliate” DCs, who are colleagues who contribute to the DC community in other ways (as interested members of Cambridge’s RDM Project Group) and not necessarily through channelling their RDM efforts for the benefit of a specific department.

We are now a community comprised of 87 active DCs. 

Graph showing number of Data Champions (current and alumni) per year between 2016 and 2019.
Total number of Data Champions who joined in each year (orange column indicates Champions who are still active; blue column indicates Champions who are now alumni).

Communities within a community 

Over the last year we caught ourselves using words such as the ‘old DCs’ and the ‘new DCs’ and what we really meant was ‘established DCs’ and ‘new DCs’, with the latter group being those joining the programme each year. In September we celebrate the programme’s third birthday and it is reasonable to expect that there will be more experienced DCs who have already built their networks and have, more or less, a stable offering of RDM support and an enhanced understanding of the needs of their department. On the other hand, there are those who are being welcomed into the group who seek, to differing degrees, initial support from both the RDM team and their fellow colleagues in order to become successful DCs. It is easy to imagine that different layers are being developed with different needs, both in terms of support and engagement.  

Through various activities and feedback from DCs, we now have a good quantity of raw data to analyse their needs for being, as we called it, ‘a good Data Champion’. We have brainstormed ideas which we are putting into action to respond to the challenges of an ever-growing Data Champions group. 


DC Welcome Pack 

Word cloud image of "welcome" in different languages  - front page of the Data Champion Welcome pack.

Every year we circulate the Data Champions Welcome Pack to coincide with the inductions we organise to welcome new DCs into the group. This year we included in the pack what it is expected from a DC when s/he joins the programme so that expectations are clearly communicated from the beginning and are the same for everybody. 

Document describing what Data Champions are expected to do as part of the Programme.
Page from the Cambridge Data Champions Welcome Pack

Bi-monthly forums 

Lightning talks have been introduced as a standard item in each forum. These have provided DCs with the opportunity to discuss aspects of RDM they are working on (e.g. new tools and techniques), or to feed back to the group on DC activities undertaken in their departments and data-related events they have attended so that the whole group can benefit. Importantly, the lightning talks have been used by DCs to problem solve, where the collective knowledge and experience of DCs attending a forum has been harnessed to address particular challenges faced by individual DCs. This is where the community aspect of the programme truly shines. 

It is always a priority for us to invite speakers to forums who are external to the programme, reflecting the needs of both the new and established DCs. For example, Hannah Clements from Cambridge University’s Researcher Development Programme (RDP) spoke to the DCs at the January forum about mentoring, providing guidance on how support can be best delivered within the DC community. In the May forum, we had talks and discussions from a panel of experts working on different aspects of data archiving. The panellists came from across the University bringing a diversity of experience, grounded in clinical governance, computing, and more traditional archiving. These examples are just a couple of the themes that we have covered so far in the forums, which have been derived predominantly from information provided by (and the needs of) the DCs themselves. Additional topics that we plan to cover in future forums include issues surrounding reproducibility, IP and commercialisation, publishing and the impact of research data.  

Key aims of these forums are to not only facilitate networking between DCs but to also act as an arena for the transfer of knowledge along the ‘researcher pipeline’, from forum to DCs and from DCs to researchers in their departments.   

DC specialisation group 

As a community, we need to be able to map expertise internally and understand the make-up of such an organic group at any given moment. This makes it is easier to support each other and create collaborations, but also improves how we promote the programme externally.

Table showing specialisation categories and sub-categories for Data Champions
Areas of expertise amongst our Data Champions

This led to the formation of the DC specialisation group, consisting of one of us and six of the DCs, which determined how to categorise expertise within the group. As a result, a spreadsheet was created where all DCs can chart their specialist areas and update or amend when necessary (and at least annually). We have top level categories for simple statistical analysis and second level categories that offer more specific details for the benefit of the DC community. 

The next stage is to include the wider research community and improve how various stakeholders can reach the appropriate Data Champions for initial advice and support in RDM issues. One way to do this is by presenting more coherent and consistent specialisations on the Data Champions’ website, using the categories which we have already created for internal use within the group. This stage is due to begin this month and we hope to report on our efforts next year.  

Branding group 

A growing community is inevitably going to bring to the forefront various identity discussions. With this in mind, we formed a branding group to examine if a DC logo should be created to enhance the Data Champions’ visibility and raise their profile amongst their peers when advocating for RDM. A logo has been created and is going through various stages of approval before it will be released later this year. 

Pilot programme – Mentoring  

In February 2019, we initiated a pilot mentoring project as part of the induction process for the new DCs. The mentors are established DCs who have volunteered to support those new DCs wishing to take part in this pilot exercise. This followed on from our January forum where the benefits of mentoring for both mentees and mentors were outlined by Hannah Clements of RDP. At this forum, which preceded the University-wide call for new DCs, we also held a workshop where DCs were divided into three groups and asked three questions: what do you wish you knew when you first became a DC that you know now; what could you offer as mentors to the new DCs; how do you think the mentor-mentee system could work? The responses from DCs in the three groups informed the implementation, structure and aims of the mentoring pilot.  

Our aim is to learn from this project in close consultation with both mentors and mentees. We want to see if this process helps new DCs to establish themselves within their departments/institutes. Will it be effective? The findings will inform our steps for the following year. Watch this space! 

Fostering clusters within departments 

We have excellent examples of departments that promote their DCs within their institutions. A good example is the Chemistry department, which has a cluster of five DCs who work together in their advocacy. During this year’s call for new DCs, and with help from the Department Librarian, we used a targeted approach at advertising the DC Programme within the Department of Engineering. This was highly successful, resulting in ten new Data Champions from Engineering from various roles and Academic Divisions. They represent a hub with the local knowledge, experience and skills to assess their department’s needs and explore best approaches to support good RDM practices and Open Research, ones that are tailored to the discipline.  

Alumni community 

Heading toward the programme’s third birthday means that we are growing bigger but also that we are developing an alumni community as well. This is a different kettle of fish but it is on our radar to investigate how we can foster this distinct group and build a network that is not only Cambridge based but has a more national and even international outlook.  


Let’s not forget that the DC programme consists of volunteers. We are in the process of seeking more funds to support this ever increasing community, to run expanding bimonthly forums, and to be able to offer grants to assist DCs in their endeavours. As an example, we supported one of the DCs, James Savage, to bring the programme to the international stage in November at the SCIDataCon 2018 in Botswana. He talked about the programme as well as his experience of being a DC. This resulted in James writing a paper together with Lauren Cadwallader, to be published soon in Data Science Journal (the accepted manuscript and associated data available now in Apollo, the Cambridge University institutional repository). 

An exciting year so far! 

During this third year of the DC programme the number of active DCs across the University of Cambridge has doubled. We can only anticipate it growing further each year, yet balanced by an expanding community of alumni DCs as, for example, DCs leave Cambridge. The DC community is inherently dynamic, as is the programme. Because of this, we always seek to respond and adapt to changing conditions in novel and beneficial ways while maintaining the programme’s core structure to provide strong foundations. This has been a period of reflection, organisation and anticipation, all required to drive the Data Champion programme forward and tackle current challenges effectively, as well as those that lie ahead – more on this to come soon!  

Written by Maria Angelaki and Dr Sacha Jones

Published 20 June 2019

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In conversation with Ben Ryan from EPSRC

Cambridge University hosted Ben Ryan and Amanda Chmura from the Engineering and Physical Sciences Research Council (EPSRC) on Friday 15 May for a discussion about how the University is meeting the EPSRC expectations for sharing research data.

We started the conversation with a demonstration of the services we offer our researchers including our Research Data Management website, and talked about the open data sessions and other training events we have been holding. So far we have managed to speak to 764 researchers about data sharing requirements (the numbers continue to grow).

Managing expectations

In 2011 EPSRC published nine key expectations on research data management. The expectations are directed principally at research organisations and highlight their role in supporting researchers to ensure research data is properly managed. EPSRC set a deadline, 1 May 2015, for research organisation compliance with their expectations.

One of the expectations is that data supporting publications arising from funded research is openly available – this reflects the Common Principles on Data Policy published by RCUK (2011) and in the Royal Society’s subsequent (2012) report ‘Science as a Public Enterprise’. To monitor compliance with this expectation EPSRC have said that this autumn they will conduct checks of papers published after 1 May 2015 to ensure these provide appropriate directions to the supporting data.

Ben clarified that the checks will help to determine the level of awareness of the policy and expectations. He noted that there is a balance in what the EPSRC is trying to do. They are trying to create a new research culture, and they are primarily focused on what the institution should be doing to support that.

According to the EPSRC policy, in situations where research arises from collaborations, or from work partially funded by commercial partners, any potential problems with research data sharing should be addressed before the start of the project, in a data management plan. We therefore asked Ben why the EPSRC – of all the RCUK funding bodies– don’t require researchers to create a data management plan. Ben indicated that the main value in data management planning is to the researcher and the research organisation – adding them to EPSRC’s funding submission process would simply add to the admin and peer review burden without it being clear how peer reviewers could properly judge them because they don’t know the infrastructure available where the research is being conducted.

The question arose of whether a single RCUK policy on research data might be possible. Ben noted that the different councils fund different types of work, which informs their individual policies, and explained that although a single policy might be achievable it would require every council to change their existing policy and would be very disruptive of current processes across the whole system. As such he felt it would need a ‘very strong steer externally’ to drive such a change.

However, the research councils recognise the need for more guidance and are about to publish cross-council guidelines presenting a collective position on what should be done with particular types of data.


A question that often arises from researchers is ‘what data are we expected to keep and make available’? We were able to get confirmation that it is:

  • the data that underpins publications
  • the data that validates research findings
  • the data that is worth keeping

All questions should be answered by considering the principles behind the policy. The default position is data should be open – in a way that does not damage the research process. The important thing is that the validity of the published research findings is testable.

An example of the way this principle can be used is when considering another common question – what to do in the situation where several papers are expected to come out of the one set of data. Researchers are concerned that if they release the data on the first publication it jeopardises their subsequent publications as they may be scooped. Ben acknowledged this is a concern but asked is it reasonable to sit on data for, say, five years so that other people end up being funded to generate the same data again?

He pointed out that the RCUK Common Principles state that those who undertake Research Council funded work may be entitled to a limited period of privileged use of the data they have collected to enable them to publish the results of their research. However, the length of this period varies by research discipline.

There is also the consideration of the way another user can access the data and reproduce results. The question is – how far do we go to enable a user to reproduce the work? The minimum is that we should provide the information that someone would need to be able to validate published work – this is also critical to maximise the impact of publicly funded research and to maintain public trust in science and research.

The software situation

We had representatives from Cambridge Enterprise and from the School of Technology at the meeting who had specific questions about sharing software. While Ben indicated he might need to reflect on some of the questions, we did come to some clarification on others.

Although software is different from other forms of intellectual property the same basic question arises: “is the institution best served by making it freely available or by commercialising it?” Both approaches can lead to the creation of jobs and economic impact. EPSRC is clear that the choice of exploitation strategy rests with the research organisation.

The EPSRC does not have an expectation about the licence under which software should be released.

It was agreed that if there is material that is potentially commercial, then we should take the steps to make it available and commercialise the software. It was confirmed we are able to make software arising from a research project available free for non-commercial re-use by other researchers (within the academic community) while at the same time making it available to others under a commercial licence

One can argue that since the taxpayer funded the work in the first place the taxpayer should not have to pay for it again, but this position, taken to its natural conclusion, of course would mean that no commercialisation of funded research should ever occur.

There is also the situation where a researcher has put their ‘life and soul’ into generating outputs and naturally feels they have some ownership of the work. Ben agreed that many of these questions are ‘very challenging’, but noted that researchers seldom ‘own’ their outputs – under RCUK grant conditions the research organisation owns all the intellectual assets arising from the funded research and is responsible for seeing that they are used to the benefit of society and the economy. Some of these questions stem from a mindset that insufficiently recognises the importance of ensuring that the economy and society as a whole benefits from publicly funded research, and a culture change is needed in addition to new processes.

The EPSRC do wish to avoid people sitting on data indefinitely because they don’t want to release their software. Ben said that in principle it is permissible for people to make software available through GitHub, but he would need to investigate how sustainable it is and how it is governed before being able to say whether GitHub is a reasonable option in terms of meeting EPSRC expectations..

Addressing (some) concerns

Time prevented us covering all of the topics we wished to raise. Many Cambridge researchers have raised questions about sharing data from collaborations – with concern that non-UK partners who do not have a data sharing requirement may find the UK requirements onerous and that this could decrease the amount of international collaborations in which UK institutions are involved.

There was also no magic bullet for the challenge of paying the not insignificant cost of storing research data safely for 10 years+. The problem is that where researchers were unaware of this expectation at the time they applied for their grant there is no allowance for it in their budget. This will not be an issue in the future as current grants are approved, but we are in a transition period now as the research from existing grants is published and the supporting data is being made available and stored. When we discussed this, Ben explained that the EPSRC does not have any additional funds to support this transition period, and that the costs need to be found within existing resources.

There have been some challenges with communication of the EPSRC policy. Many researchers at the University of Cambridge have said they would have liked to be informed about it directly by EPSRC (as, for example, they would expect to have been by e.g. the Wellcome Trust). Ben explained that the approach had deliberately been to communicate the policy through research organisation senior managers (e.g. ProVCs Research), and that this was because the expectations are addressed principally to research institutions, which have primary responsibility for ensuring that researchers manage their data effectively and have access to appropriate facilities to do so. However, he acknowledged that EPSRC could have communicated more with researchers and undertook to explore how more information could be made available directly to researchers.

Therefore it was helpful to be able to express some of the concerns and fears amongst the research community. We have been collating the questions that people have asked during our sessions and will compile a FAQ from this that will appear on our Research Data Management website. Ben indicated that there might be a possibility of a selection of these FAQs also appearing on the RCUK website to help address the universal questions about sharing research data. This step would be welcomed by the University.

Published 21 May 2015
Written by Dr Danny Kingsley
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