Research data management is now an essential part of the research ecosystem, it not only helps maximise the impact of research but is also increasingly a necessity for compliance with funder data policies. City, University of London, are a university that wants to become more research intensive and provide a more proactive research data service to their researchers.
City was already a user of Figshare for institutions, an institutional repository for their non-traditional research outputs, but the uptake of the repository had not been as high as they had wanted. Typically they found that data management was not a priority for researchers because, unlike traditional forms of publication, such as articles and book chapters, research data doesn’t count in the UK’s Research Excellence Framework (REF). As most of the researchers had not shared data before, they could perceive little immediate benefit, and it was harder to convince them to do it.
Even when researchers see the importance of making their data discoverable, there are significant practical challenges to overcome for researchers who are increasingly time-poor. They must identify an appropriate repository, organize and describe the data in a useful way, and then must ensure adherence to copyright and licensing restrictions.*
Such practical challenges may be overcome with the help of specialised research data support staff, but like many universities, City didn’t have the expertise in-house. Responsibility for the institutional repository had fallen to Szabi Steiner, Research & Enterprise Operations and Programme Manager at City, who describes himself as an ‘accidental data manager’ rather than a data specialist.
The low uptake of the data repository was expected to continue without specialist data staff, but without a higher uptake of the data repository it was difficult to demonstrate the need for those specialist data staff.
To overcome this stalemate, City have partnered with Springer Nature to provide all City researchers and doctoral students with access to Research Data Support services. Researchers are provided with one-to-one expert research data support to ease the process of sharing data: creating detailed metadata records, ensuring the accessibility and discoverability of the data, and its adherence to funder policy requirements.
The repository manager at City is now just required to carry out a preliminary check on the suitability of the data before assigning it to the Springer Nature Research Data team with the click of a button within Figshare, at which point a research data expert from Springer Nature will liaise with the researcher directly.
On receiving notification of the data submission, the Springer Nature Research Data team will perform more detailed checks: data sensitivity, data type, related manuscripts and metadata, file size and licence. If more information is required, it will be requested from the researcher; if the data is out of the scope of the repository because it contains mandated specialist data, guidance about specialist repositories will be given to the researcher; if the submission contains sensitive data it will either be de-identified (a process the Research Data team guides the researcher on) or restricted to controlled access.
When data is within the scope of the repository, a metadata record is created, and a feedback report generated. The feedback report is sent to the researcher identifying enhancements that have been made to the data record, and the areas that could still be improved.
The process is interactive; data specialists work with the researcher to describe and present their data. By the end of the process, researchers can be assured that the data and metadata are published (or stored privately) with adherence to best practices and standards, and that they are as discoverable and accessible as possible.
Partnering with Springer Nature’s Research Data Support team has enabled City to provide specialist data services to staff without first requiring a large number of submissions to the repository. This means that City staff can now focus on their primary duties, City researchers have access the data management support they need, and City has the potential to scale-up the provision of its data services.
Szabi Steiner has many other responsibilities at the university. Partnering with Springer Nature has enabled him to focus on these other responsibilities while giving him the confidence that City’s researchers are provided with the specialist skills, knowledge and expertise they require.
Researchers now have specialist data support to help overcome the practical challenges of ensuring data is accessible, discoverable and policy compliant. As Steiner relates, the metadata at the end of the support process is often very different from what was initially submitted:
“There was one data set that came through as a single Excel file, and the metadata was just saying ‘this is the data’. The metadata, the keywords, the categories, even the title, of the final record all came from the Springer Nature Research Data team.”
Equally importantly for Steiner, partnering with Springer Nature enables the scaling-up of data services:
“There's a movement towards open scholarship, open access, and open data, so by the next REF they might actually want to see the open data behind the open publications. Partnering with Springer Nature has enabled us to scale-up the support we provide City researchers today, and prepared us for future open data developments.”
*Stuart, D. et al. (2018). Practical Challenges for Researchers in Data Sharing. Springer Nature, https://doi.org/10.6084/m9.figshare.5975011