RDM: A challenge too big to tackle alone

Brian Lavoie

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The scholarly record continues to evolve, gathering a wider array of research outputs—including research data sets. In response, universities and other institutions have started to acquire capacity to support data management needs on campus. While services and infrastructure are coalescing around emerging data management practices, guidelines, and mandates, many questions remain about the future of the research data management (RDM) service space, and the university’s role in acquiring and managing RDM capacity in support of their researchers.

How do we approach problems like these that are clearly too big for any one institution to solve? One piece of the solution is to scale learning.

Scaling our collective strengths

In a recent blog post, Lorcan Dempsey describes how libraries organize themselves in consortia and other groups to leverage the power of collective strengths, collective knowledge, and collective action. Libraries group together to scale capacity (e.g., services, infrastructure, expertise), innovation (e.g., responding to change, meeting emerging needs), influence (e.g., in negotiations or advocacy), and learning.

Scaling learning involves activities such as establishing communities of practice, facilitating knowledge exchange—and in some cases, pooling uncertainty—around issues of mutual interest. Lorcan calls this the “soft power” of library collaboration: “bringing people together around shared practices and problems, mobilizing the trust networks they have created.”

One example of this is the OCLC Research Library Partnership (RLP), a venue through which more than 100 research libraries engage with OCLC Research staff and each other on issues and challenges that benefit from collective attention and collective action. Scaling learning is a vital aspect of the partnership’s value to its membership.

RDM network … activate!

One of the Partnership’s latest initiatives is to scale learning around the challenges of RDM through the RLP RDM Interest Group—80+ individuals from nearly 50 RLP member institutions, located in nine countries. The group activates a network of RDM practitioners and other stakeholders that scales learning around shared problems and a wide spectrum of experiences in addressing them.

Adrian Gomez, Science Informationist at Cold Spring Harbor Laboratory and a participant in the interest group, had this to say about the interest group and its opportunities for learning and engagement:

“The RDM Interest Group has provided us with not only an advanced introduction to the specific issues regarding the best practices for implementing RDM services, but it has also helped in creating an environment of shared resources between the attendees for all of our RDM interests/needs. Unaware of the advancing RDM landscape, these interest group discussions have been a critical resource in formulating our future RDM strategy at our laboratory.”

The group’s formation was catalyzed by a three-part webinar series that covered the major findings from OCLC Research’s The Realities of Research Data Management report series, which examined some of the ways universities are acquiring RDM capacity. Following each webinar, an interest group discussion was held, using the topics covered in the webinar as a starting point, but with ample flexibility to accommodate a spirited and wide-ranging conversation.

Identifying common “realities”

One of the most interesting aspects of the group discussions was learning about some of the on-the-ground “realities of RDM” that practitioners cope with in developing and managing RDM services and infrastructure. Such as:

  • Storage systems offered by campus IT services deemed unsuitable by important research funders
  • Data sets deposited without adequate documentation to support re-use
  • No clear indication of how long retention is needed
  • Researchers who do not think to come to the library for data management needs

Sharing the many frictions, some small, some large, that can arise in the daily life of the RDM practitioner was one way the group scaled learning among its members.

Scaling solutions, results … and perspectives

These and other stories about how RDM practitioners are finding creative ways to educate, advise, and support researchers on good data practices represent yet another way the interest group scaled learning.

We also scaled perspectives. Participants in the discussions represented institutions with established RDM services, as well as ones that are currently in the planning stages or in the process of developing services. The membership included individuals with a variety of RDM roles, ranging from strategic to practitioner. And the composition of the group was strongly international, permitting us to hear viewpoints from a variety of national contexts. Bringing people from so many different perspectives and contexts together helps leverage a wide range of experience that the whole group benefits from.

Marshalling the collective wisdom of its membership around topics of mutual interest—like RDM—is a key component of the OCLC Research Library Partnership’s mission. The RDM Interest Group is just one example of how the Partnership scales learning, and in doing so, helps libraries design their futures.

Recordings from the three-part Realities of RDM webinar series are available online, as well as summaries of the RDM Interest Group discussions to date: here, here, and here.


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