Data sharing in a time of data-intensive research

Margaret HentyMargaret Henty is a Senior Policy Analyst for the Australian National Data Service (ANDS).

Using Australia as a case study, she makes a convincing case for preserving and sharing your data.

There can’t be a researcher alive who isn’t accumulating data. This might come from instruments, or surveys, or photographs, or recordings, or emails … the list goes on. Managing your data is an issue, not just now but into the future so that you can use it again if you need to, or so that it can be made available to others.  “Made available to others?” I hear you protest.  “Why should I do that?”

I work with ANDS, the Australian National Data Service. Data is our business and our aim is to create the Australian Research Data Commons. ANDS is all about research data – managing it better so that we can use it to help solve the very considerable problems of the world.  We want to see data being better managed, better connected, visible to others and re-usable.

Decipherable (Photo by Tseen Khoo)

You’ll probably be familiar with the image of Charles Darwin, sailing around the world, collecting specimens, making observations and writing up his findings into a book which changed the way people think.

Researchers don’t quite work that way anymore.  Technology has changed many things and especially the conduct of research.  These changes mean sophisticated telecommunications and networks, huge improvements in computational power and storage, better means of analysis and especially visualisation, and new requirements around data management.  The upshot of this changed environment is that researchers can communicate with each other more readily, tackle more complex problems, produce models of how things operate, and predict behaviour in ways they couldn’t before.  We are seeing more multidisciplinary research, and there is not a single discipline which remains unaffected.  Show me a researcher who isn’t wedded to email or some other technology which helps their work along.

All of these changes put data in the spotlight by making it an asset to the researcher, the discipline, the research institution and the nation.  Think of it as treasure (preferably not buried or lost).  Data presents considerable management challenges in order to maintain its value.

This takes us back to the notion of data sharing and dissemination.

There are benefits in making your data available to others at the end of your research.  It could enhance your research reputation, and there is now evidence to suggest that researchers who share their data are cited more often than those who don’t.  ANDS provides Digital Object Identifiers  (DOIs) for data collections, so that subsequent usage can be tracked and evaluated.  Thomson Reuters launched its Data Citation Index in October 2012 as part of its Web of KnowledgeScopus is likely to follow suit.  We’d like data to be seen as a valid research output to be included in research assessments, and are aware of moves to make this happen.

Another reason you might share your data is to meet policy and funder requirements.

The Australian Code for the Responsible Conduct of Research devotes a whole chapter to data and sets out in some detail the responsibilities of both researchers and institutions towards data.  You might also be familiar with the changing requirements of both the Australian Research Council (ARC) and the National Health and Medical Research Council (NHMRC) around research data both of which are making increasing reference to the need for data sharing.

For example, the Australian Research Council Funding Rules for 2012 state:

The Final Report must justify why any publications from a Project have not been deposited in appropriate repositories within 12 months of publication. The Final Report must outline how data arising from the Project has been made publicly accessible where appropriate.

The NHMRC has similar requirements.  It is likely that Australian research funders will follow the lead of their overseas counterparts and require that publicly-funded data be made available at the end of a research project unless there is a very good reason for it not to be.

There are many examples of changing funder requirements about data sharing overseas.  One comes from the Engineering and Physical Sciences Research Council of the UK, which has adopted a number of principles informing decisions relating to the management of research data created using their funding.  The first of these states that ‘EPSRC-funded research data is a public good produced in the public interest and should be made freely and openly available with as few restrictions as possible in a timely and responsible manner.’

The National Science Foundation in the US now requires that all funding applications include a two-page data management plan which asks how research data will be disseminated at the end of the project.

Some Australian universities already have research data management policies which strongly encourage data sharing.

If data is to be shared at some point (or even if it isn’t), a data management plan is a good place to start when thinking about how to manage your data.  ANDS has a simple template available to help you prepare your data management plan, but it is possible that your institution has its own.  Taking time at the start of a research project to put into place robust, easy-to-use data management procedures will usually pay off several times over in the later stages of the project.  What’s in it for you? Improvements to efficiency, protection, quality and exposure.

The researcher isn’t the only person in the institution who is involved with research data and its management.  Others include the research office, library, IT Services, high performance computing, ethics, records office and legal office. So the researcher should not feel that they are on their own.

ANDS has a wide variety of programs designed to encourage data sharing and discovery.  One of these is the creation of Research Data Australia, a registry of Australian research data which now includes over 43,000 records and which may well include something in your field of interest.  Grasshoppers, theatre, sport and cancer are all there, together with many more subjects.  Your own research data could be registered there as well, either through your institution or by yourself. ANDS does not collect the data, but rather the metadata describing the data and linking to where it can be found.

Check out the ANDS website to find out more about data sharing and management, and to search Research Data Australia.

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