Tag Archives: funders

What I wish I’d known at the start – setting up an RDM service

In August, Dr Marta Teperek began her new role at Delft University in the Netherlands. In her usual style of doing things properly and thoroughly, she has contributed this blog reflecting on the lessons learned in the process of setting up Cambridge University’s highly successful Research Data Facility.

On 27-28 June 2017 I attended the Jisc’s Research Data Network meeting at the University of York. I was one of several people invited to talk about experiences of setting up RDM services in a workshop organised by Stephen Grace from London South Bank University and Sarah Jones from the Digital Curation Centre. The purpose of the workshop was to share lessons learned and help those that were just starting to set up research data services within their institutions. Each of the presenters prepared three slides: 1. What went well, 2. What didn’t go so well, 3. What they would do differently. All slides from the session are now publicly available.

For me the session was extremely useful not only because of the exchange of practices and learning opportunity, but also because the whole exercise prompted me to critically reflect on Cambridge Research Data Management (RDM) services. This blog post is a recollection of my thoughts on what went well, what didn’t go so well and what could have been done differently, as inspired by the original workshop’s questions.

What went well

RDM services at Cambridge started in January 2015 – quite late compared to other UK institutions. The late start meant however that we were able to learn from others and to avoid some common mistakes when developing our RDM support. The Jisc’s Research Data Management mailing list was particularly helpful, as it is a place used by professionals working with research data to look for help, ask questions, share reflections and advice. In addition, Research Data Management Fora organised by the Digital Curation Centre proved to be not only an excellent vehicle for knowledge and good practice exchange, but also for building networks with colleagues in similar roles. In addition, Cambridge also joined the Jisc Research Data Shared Service (RDSS) pilot, which aimed to create a joint research repository and related infrastructure. Being part of the RDSS pilot not only helped us to further engage with the community, but also allowed us to better understand the RDM needs at the University of Cambridge by undertaking the Data Asset Framework exercise.

In exchange for all the useful advice received from others, we aimed to be transparent about our work as well. We therefore regularly published blog posts about research data management at Cambridge on the Unlocking Research blog. There were several additional advantages of the transparent approach: it allowed us to reflect on our activities, it provided an archival record of what was done and rationale for this and it also facilitated more networking and comments exchange with the wider RDM community.

Engaging Cambridge community with RDM

Our initial attempts to engage research community at Cambridge with RDM was compliance based: we were telling our researchers that they must manage and share their research data because this was what their funders require. Unsurprisingly however, this approach was rather unsuccessful – researchers were not prepared to devote time to RDM if they did not see the benefits of doing so. We therefore quickly revised the approach and changed the focus of our outreach to (selfish) benefits of good data management and of effective data sharing. This allowed us to build an engaged RDM community, in particular among early career researchers. As a result, we were able to launch two dedicated programmes, further strengthening our community involvement in RDM: the Data Champions programme and also the Open Research Pilot Project. Data Champions are (mostly) researchers, who volunteered their time to act as local experts on research data management and sharing to provide advice and specialised training within their departments.The Open Research Pilot Project is looking at the benefits and barriers to conducting Open Research.

In addition, ensuring that the wide range of stakeholders from across the University were part of the RDM Project Group and had an oversight of development and delivery of RDM services, allowed us to develop our services quite quickly. As a result, services developed were endorsed by wide range of stakeholders at Cambridge and they were also developed in a relatively coherent fashion. As an example, effective collaboration between the Office of Scholarly Communication, the Library, the Research Office and the University Information Services allowed integration between the Cambridge research repository, Apollo, and the research information system, Symplectic Elements.

What didn’t go so well

One of the aspects of our RDM service development that did not go so well was the business case development. We started developing the RDM business case in early 2015. The business case went through numerous iterations, and at the time of writing of this blog post (August 2017), financial sustainability for the RDM services has not yet been achieved.

One of the strongest factors which contributed to the lack of success in business case development was insufficient engagement of senior leadership with RDM. We have invested a substantial amount of time and effort in engaging researchers with RDM and by moving away from compliance arguments, to the extent that we seem to have forgotten that compliance- and research integrity-based advocacy is necessary to ensure the buy in of senior leadership.

In addition, while trying to move quickly with service development, and at the same time trying to gain trust and engagement in RDM service development from the various stakeholder groups at Cambridge, we ended up taking part in various projects and undertakings, which were sometimes loosely connected to RDM. As a result, some of the activities lacked strategic focus and a lot of time was needed to re-define what the RDM service is and what it is not in order to ensure that expectations of the various stakeholders groups could be properly managed.

What could have been done differently

There are a number of things which could have been done differently and more effectively. Firstly, and to address the main problem of insufficient engagement with senior leadership, one could have introduced dedicated, short sessions for principal investigators on ensuring effective research data management and research reproducibility across their research teams. Senior researchers are ultimately those who make decisions at research-intensive institutions, and therefore their buy-in and their awareness of the value of good RDM practice is necessary for achieving financial sustainability of RDM services.

In addition, it would have been valuable to set aside time for strategic thinking and for defining (and re-defining, as necessary) the scope of RDM services. This is also related to the overall branding of the service. In Cambridge a lot of initial harm was done due to negative association between Open Access to publications and RDM. Due to overarching funders’ and government’s requirements for Open Access to publications, many researchers started perceiving Open Access to publications merely as a necessary compliance condition. The advocacy for RDM at Cambridge started as ‘Open Data’ requirements, which led many researchers to believe that RDM is yet another requirement to comply with and that it was only about open sharing of research data. It took us a long time to change the messages and to rebrand the service as one supporting researchers in their day to day research practice and that proper management of research data leads to efficiency savings. Finally, only research data which are management properly from the very start of the research process can be then easily shared at the end of the project.

Finally, and which is also related to the focusing and defining of the service, it would have been useful to decide on a benchmarking strategy from the very beginning of the service creation. What is the goal(s) of the service? Is it to increase the number of shared datasets? Is it to improve day to day data management practice? Is to to ensure that researchers know how to use novel tools for data analysis? And, once the goal(s) is decided, design a strategy to benchmark the progress towards achieving this goal(s). Otherwise it can be challenging to decide which projects and undertakings are worth continuation and which ones are less successful and should be revised or discontinued. In order to address one aspect of benchmarking, Cambridge led the creation of an international group aiming to develop a benchmarking strategy for RDM training programmes, which aims to create tools for improving RDM training provision.

Final reflections

My final reflection is to re-iterate that the questions asked of me by the workshop leaders at the Jisc RDN meeting really inspired me to think more holistically about the work done towards development of RDM services at Cambridge. Looking forward I think asking oneself the very same three questions: what went well, what did not go so well and what you would do differently, might become for a useful regular exercise ensuring that RDM service development is well balanced and on track towards its intended goals.


Published 24 August 2017
Written by Dr Marta Teperek

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Open Resources: Who Should Pay?

This blog is the first in a series of three which considers the perspectives of researchers, funders and universities in relation to the support for open resources, coordinated and written by Dr Lauren Cadwallader. This post asks the question: What is the responsibility of national funders to research resources that are internationally important?

In January 2017 the Office of Scholarly Communication and Wellcome Trust started an Open Research Pilot Project to try to understand how we could help our researchers work more openly and what barriers they faced with making their work open. One of the issues that is a common theme with the groups that we are working with is the issue of the sustainability of open resources.

The Virtual Fly Brain Example

Let’s take the Connectomics group I am working with for example. They investigate the connections of neurons in fly brains (Drosophila). They produce a lot of data and are committed to sharing this openly. They share their data via the Virtual Fly Brain platform (VFB).

This platform was set up in 2009 by a group of researchers in Cambridge and Edinburgh; some of the VFB team are now also involved in the Connectomics group so there is a close relationship between these projects. The platform was created as a domain-specific location to curate existing data, taken from the literature, on Drosophila neurons and for curating and sharing new data produced by researchers working in this area.

Initially it was set up thanks to a grant from the Biotechnology and Biological Sciences Research Council (BBSRC). After an initial three year grant, the BBSRC declined to fund the database further. One likely reason for this is that the BBSRC resources scheme explicitly favours resources with a large number of UK users. The number of UK researchers who use Drosophila brain image data is relatively small (<10 labs), whereas the number of international researchers who use this data is relatively large, with an estimated 200 labs working on this type of data in other parts of the world.

Subsequently, the Wellcome Trust stepped in with funding for a further three years, due to end in September 2017. Currently it is uncertain whether or not they will fund it in the future. By now, almost eight years after its creation, VFB has become the go-to source for openly available data on Drosophila brain information and images integrated into a queryable platform. No other resource like it exists and no other research group is making moves to curate Drosophila neurobiology data openly. The VFB case raises interesting and important questions about how resources are funded and the future of domain specific open infrastructures.

The status quo

On the one hand funders like the Wellcome Trust, Research Councils UK and National Institutes of Health (NIH) are encouraging researchers to use domain specific repositories for data sharing. Yet on the other, they are acknowledging that the current approaches for these resources are not necessarily sustainable.

A recent review on building and sustaining data infrastructures commissioned by the Wellcome Trust acknowledges that in light of the FAIR principles “it is clear that data is best made available through repositories where aggregation can add most value”, which is arguably in a domain-specific repository. Use of domain-specific repositories allows data to be aggregated with similar data recorded using the same metadata fields.

It is also clear that publishers can influence where data is deposited, with publishers such as Nature Publishing Group, PLOS and F1000 all recommending subject-specific repositories as the first choice place for deposition. If no subject-specific repository is available then unstructured repositories, such as Dryad or figshare are often recommended instead, which complicates infrastructure needs and therefore provisions.

The economic model for supporting data infrastructures is something the Wellcome Trust are considering, with reports recently published by other funding agencies (here, here and here). The Wellcome Trust’s commissioned review noted that project-based funding for data infrastructures in not sustainable in the long term.

However, historically funders have encouraged, and still encourage, the use of domain specific resources, which have been born from project-based funding because of a lack of provision elsewhere. This has created a complex situation – researchers created domain specific data infrastructures using their project funding; these have become the subject norm; funder’s encourage their use, but now don’t have the mechanisms to be able to pledge sustained long-term funding.

National interests?

What is the responsibility of national funders to research resources that are internationally important? Academic research is collaborative. It crosses borders and utilises shared knowledge regardless of where it was generated and this is acknowledged by funders who see the benefits of collaboration. Yet, the strategic goals of funders, such as the BBSRC, are often focused on the national level when it comes to relevance and importance.

On the one hand it is understandable that funders concentrate on national interests – taxpayers’ money goes into the funder’s coffers and therefore they have a responsibility to those taxpayers to ensure that the money is spent on research that benefits the nation.

But, one could argue that international collaboration is in the national interest. The US-based NIH funds resources that are of international importance, including most of the model organism databases and genomic resources, such as the Gene Expression Omnibus. These are highly used by US researchers so one could argue that NIH are acting in the national interest but they are open to researchers all over the world and therefore constitute a resource of international importance.

Wellcome Trust do have a global outlook when it comes to funding, with 21% of their total spend (2015-6) going to projects outside of the UK. Yet, the VFB resource is still vulnerable despite being an internationally important resource.

One of the motivations for the Connectomics group to to participate in the Open Research Pilot is to open a dialogue with the Wellcome Trust about these issues. The Wellcome Trust are committed to strategically investing in Open Research and encourage the use of domain-specific resources. The Connectomics group are interested in how will this strategic investment translate into actual funding decisions now and into the future.

Issues on which researchers would like clarification

All the researchers who are part of the Open Research Pilot have had the opportunity to contribute to questions on open resources sustainability. Posts on the funder’s and University’s perspective will be published as parts 2 and 3 of this blog.

  1. What do you think is the responsibility of national funders towards research resources that are of more international benefit than national?
  2. How do you think the funding landscape will react to the move towards open research in terms of supporting the sustainability of resources used for curating and sharing data?
  3. Researchers are asked to share their data in domain specific resources if they are available. There are 1598 discipline specific repositories listed on re3data.org and each one needs to be supported. How big does a research community need to be to expect support?
  4. What percentage of financial support should be focussed on resources versus primary research?
  5. If funders are reluctant to pay for domain specific resources, is there a need to move to a researcher pays model for data sharing rather than centrally funding resources in some circumstances? Why? How do they envisage this being paid for?
  6. How can we harmonise the approach to sustainable open resources across a global research community? Should we move to centralised infrastructures like the European Open Science Cloud?
  7. More generally how can funders and employers help to incentivise open research (carrot or stick?)
  8. Wellcome often tries to act in a way to bring about change (e.g. open access publishing): Do they envisage that the long term funding of open research (10-20 years from now) will be very different from the situation over e.g. the next 5 years?

Published 23 June 2017
Written by Dr Lauren Cadwallader

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Strategies for engaging senior leadership with RDM – IDCC discussion

This blog post gathers key reflections and take-home messages from a Birds of a Feather discussion on the topic of senior management engagement with RDM, and while written by a small number of attendees, the content reflects the wider discussion in the room on the day. [Authors: Silke Bellanger, Rosie Higman, Heidi Imker, Bev Jones, Liz Lyon, Paul Stokes, Marta Teperek*, Dirk Verdicchio]

On 20 February 2017, stakeholders interested in different aspects of data management and data curation met in Edinburgh to attend the 12th International Digital Curation Conference, organised by the Digital Curation Centre. Apart from discussing novel tools and services for data curation, the take-home message from many presentations was that successful development of Research Data Management (RDM) services requires the buy-in of a broad range of stakeholders, including senior institutional leadership

Summary

The key strategies for engaging senior leadership with RDM that were discussed were:

  • Refer to doomsday scenarios and risks to reputations
  • Provide high profile cases of fraudulent research
  • Ask senior researchers to self-reflect and ask them to imagine a situation of being asked for supporting research data for their publication
  • Refer to the institutional mission statement / value statement
  • Collect horror stories of poor data management practice from your research community
  • Know and use your networks – know who your potential allies are and how they can help you
  • Work together with funders to shape new RDM policies
  • Don’t be afraid to talk about the problems you are experiencing – most likely you are not alone and you can benefit from exchanging best practice with others

Why it is important to talk about engaging senior leadership in RDM?

Endorsement of RDM services by senior management is important because frequently it is a prerequisite for the initial development of any RDM support services for the research community. However, the sensitive nature of the topic (both financially and sometimes politically as well) means there are difficulties in openly discussing the issues that RDM service developers face when proposing business cases to senior leadership. This means the scale of the problem is unknown and is often limited to occasional informal discussions between people in similar roles who share the same problems.

This situation prevents those developing RDM services from exchanging best practice and addressing these problems effectively. In order to flesh out common problems faced by RDM service developers and to start identifying possible solutions, we organised an informal Birds of a Feather discussion on the topic during the 12th IDCC conference. The session was attended by approximately 40 people, including institutional RDM service providers, senior organisational leaders, researchers and publishers.

What is the problem?

We started by fleshing out the problems, which vary greatly between institutions. Many participants said that their senior management was disengaged with the RDM agenda and did not perceive good RDM as an area of importance to their institution. Others complained that they did not even have the opportunity to discuss the issue with their senior leadership. So the problems identified were both with the conversations themselves, as well as with accessing senior management in the first place.

We explored the type of senior leadership groups that people had problems engaging with. Several stakeholders were identified: top level institutional leadership, heads of faculties and schools, library leadership, as well as some research team leaders. The types of issues experienced when interacting with these various stakeholder groups also differed.

Common themes

Next we considered if there were any common factors shared between these different stakeholder groups. One of the main issues identified was that people’s personal academic/scientific experience and historic ideals of scientific practice were used as a background for decision making.

Senior leaders, like many other people, tend to look at problems with their own perspective and experience in mind. In particular, within the rapidly evolving scholarly communication environment what they perceive as community norms (or in fact community problems) might be changing and may now be different for current researchers.

The other common issue was the lack of tangible metrics to measure and assess the importance of RDM which could be used to persuade senior management of RDM’s usefulness. The difficulties in applying objective measures to RDM activities are mostly due to the fact that every researcher is undertaking an amount of RDM by default so it is challenging to find an example of a situation without any RDM activities that could be used as a baseline for an evidenced-based cost benefit analysis of RDM. The work conducted by Jisc in this area might be able to provide some solutions for this. Current results from this work can be found on the Research Data Network website.  

What works?

The core of our discussion was focused on exchanging effective methods of convincing managers and how to start gathering evidence to support the case for an RDM service within an institution.

Doomsday scenarios

We all agreed that one strategy that works for almost all possible audience types are doomsday scenarios – disasters that can happen when researchers do not adhere to good RDM practice. This could be as simple as asking individual senior researchers what they would do if someone accused them of falsifying research data five years after they have published their corresponding research paper. Would they have enough evidence to reject such accusations? The possibility of being confronted with their own potential undoing helped convince many senior managers of the importance of RDM.

Other doomsday scenarios which seem to convince senior leaders were related to broader institutional crises, such as risk of fire. Useful examples are the fire which destroyed the newly built Chemistry building at the University of Nottingham, the fire which destroyed valuable equipment and research at the University of Southampton (£120 million pounds’ worth of equipment and facilities), the recent fire at the Cancer Research UK Manchester Institute and a similar disaster at the University of Santa Cruz.

Research integrity and research misconduct

Discussion of doomsday scenarios led us to talk about research integrity issues. Reference to documented cases of fraudulent research helped some institutions convince their senior leadership of the importance of good RDM. These cases included the fraudulent research by Diederik Stapel from Tilburg University or by Erin Potts-Kant from Duke University, where $200 million in grants was awarded based on fake data. This led to a longer discussion about research reproducibility and who owns the problem of irreproducible research – individual researchers, funders, institutions or perhaps publishers. We concluded that responsibility is shared, and that perhaps the main reason for the current reproducibility crisis lies in the flawed reward system for researchers. 

Research ethics and research integrity are directly connected to good RDM practice and are also the core ethical values of academia. We therefore reflected on the importance of referring to the institutional value statement/mission statement or code of conduct when advocating/arguing for good RDM. One person admitted adding a clear reference to the institutional mission statement whenever asking senior leadership for endorsement for RDM service improvements. The UK Concordat on Open Research Data is a highly regarded external document listing core expectations on good research data management and sharing, which might be worth including as a reference. In addition, most higher education institutions will have mandates in teaching and research, which might allow good RDM practice to be endorsed through their central ethics committees.

Bottom up approaches to reach the top

The discussion about ethics and the ethos of being a researcher started a conversation about the importance of bottom up approaches in empowering the research community to drive change and bring innovation. As many researcher champions as possible should convince senior leadership about important services. Researcher voices are often louder than those of librarians, or those running central support services, so consider who will best help to champion your cause.

Collecting testimonies from researchers about the difficulties of working with research data when good data management practice was not adhered to is also a useful approach. Shared examples of these included horror stories such as data loss from stolen laptops (when data had not been backed up), newly started postdocs inheriting projects and the need to re-do all the experiments from scratch due to lack of sufficient data documentation from their predecessor, or lost patent cases. One person mentioned that what worked at their institution was an ‘honesty box’ where researchers could anonymously share their horror data management stories.

We also discussed the potential role of whistle-blowers, especially given the fact that reputational damage is extremely important for institutions. There was a suggestion that institutions should add consequences of poor data management practice to their institutional risk registers. The argument that good data management practice leads to time and efficiency savings also seems to be powerful when presented to senior leadership.

The importance of social networks

We then discussed the importance of using one’s relationships in getting senior management’s endorsement for RDM. The key to this is getting to know the different stakeholders, their interests and priorities, and thinking strategically about target groups: who are potential allies? Who are the groups who are most hesitant about the importance of RDM? Why are they hesitant? Could allies help with any of these discussions? A particularly powerful example was from someone who had a Nobel Prize winner ally, who knew some of the senior institutional leaders and helped them to get institutional endorsement for their cause.

Can people change?

The question was asked whether anyone had an example of a senior leader changing their opinion, not necessarily about RDM services. Someone suggested that in case of unsupportive leadership, persistence and patience are required and that sometimes it is better to count on a change of leadership than a change of opinions. Another suggestion was that rebranding the service tends to be more successful than hoping for people to change. Again, knowing the stakeholders and their interests is helpful in getting to know what is needed and what kind of rebranding might be appropriate. For example, shifting the emphasis from sharing of research data and open access to supporting good research data management practice and increasing research efficiency was something that had worked well at one institution.

This also led to a discussion about the perception of RDM services and whether their governance structure made a difference to how they were perceived. There was a suggestion that presenting RDM services as endeavours from inside or outside the Library could make a difference to people’s perceptions. At one science-focused institution anything coming from the library was automatically perceived as a waste of money and not useful for the research community and, as a result, all business cases for RDM services were bound to be unsuccessful due to the historic negative perception of the library as a whole. Opinion seemed to confirm that in places where libraries had not yet managed to establish themselves as relevant to 21st century academics, pitching library RDM services to senior leadership was indeed difficult. A suggested approach is to present RDM services as collaborative endeavours, and as joint ventures with other institutional infrastructure or service providers, for example as a collaboration between the library and the central IT department. Again, strong links and good relationships with colleagues at other University departments proved to be invaluable in developing RDM services as joint ventures.

The role of funding bodies

We moved on to discuss the need for endorsement for RDM at an institutional level occurring in conjunction with external drivers. Institutions need to be sustainable and require external funding to support their activities, and therefore funders and their requirements are often key drivers for institutional policy changes. This can happen on two different levels. Funding is often provided on the condition that any research data generated as a result needs to be properly managed during the research lifecycle, and is shared at the end of the project.

Non-compliance with funders’ policies can result in financial sanctions on current grants or ineligibility for individual researchers to apply for future grant funding, which can lead to a financial loss for the University overall. Some funders, such as the Engineering and Physical Sciences Research Council (EPSRC) in the United Kingdom, have clear expectations that institutions should support their researchers in adhering to good research data management practice by providing adequate infrastructure and policy framework support, therefore directly requesting institutions to support RDM service development.

Could funders do more?

There was consensus that funding bodies could perhaps do more to support good research data management, especially given that many non-UK funders do not yet have requirements for research data management and sharing as a condition of their grants. There was also a useful suggestion that funders should make more effort to ensure that their policies on research data management and sharing are adhered to, for example by performing spot-checks on research papers acknowledging their funding to see if supporting research data was made available, as the EPSRC have been doing recently.

Similarly, if funders would do more to review and follow up on data management plans submitted as part of grant applications it would be useful in convincing researchers and senior leadership of the importance of RDM. Currently not all funders require that researchers submit data management plans as part of grant applications. Although some pioneering work aiming to implement active data management plans started, people taking part in the discussion were not aware of any funding body having a structured process in place to review and follow up on data management plans. There was a suggestion that institutions should perhaps be more proactive in working together with funders in shaping new policies. It would be useful to have institutional representatives at funders’ meetings to ensure greater collaboration.

Future directions and resources

Overall we felt that it was useful to exchange tips and tricks so we can avoid making the same mistakes. Also, for those who had not yet managed to secure endorsement for RDM services from their senior leaders it was reassuring to understand that they were not the only ones having difficulty. Community support was recognised as valuable and worth maintaining. We discussed what would be the best way of ensuring that the advice exchanged during the meeting was not lost, and also how an effective exchange of ideas on how best to engage with senior leadership should be continued. First of all we decided to write up a blog post report of the meeting and to make it available to a wider audience.

Secondly, Jisc agreed to compile the various resources and references mentioned and to create a toolkit of techniques with examples for making RDM business cases for RDM. An initial set of resources useful in making the case can be found on the Research Data Network webpages. The current resources include A High Level Business Case, some Case studies and Miscellaneous resources – including Videos, slide decks, infographics, links to external toolkits, etc. Further resources are under development and are being added on a regular basis.

The final tip to all RDM service providers was that the key to success was making the service relevant and that persistence in advocating for the good cause is necessary. RDM service providers should not be shy about sharing the importance of their work with their institution, and should be proud of the valuable work they are doing. Research datasets are vital assets for institutions, and need to be managed carefully, and being able to leverage this is the key in making senior leadership understand that providing RDM services is essential in supporting institutional business.

Published 5 May 2017
Written by Silke Bellanger, Rosie Higman, Heidi Imker, Bev Jones, Liz Lyon, Paul Stokes, Dr Marta Teperek and Dirk Verdicchio

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