17 June 2014

Hype vs reality: how many libraries have research data services anyway?

There is a lot of pressure on university libraries to start offering research data services; I am sure that on some days every librarian trying to improve data management feels like everyone else in the world is moving faster than she/he is.

This perception is not necessarily true though. Two key publications were released last year that provide some evidence about the extent to which libraries are actually getting involved in offering research data services. Both reports involved surveys of institutions about their current practices and their intentions for the future and both showed that while many libraries had strong intentions, they had not yet developed sustainable services.

One of these was a journal article by University of Sheffield researchers [1]. Key findings from this survey of 81 UK academic libraries were that:

  • Limited research data management services were in place; many organisations offered no services even in areas they regarded as a priority. Most services were 'basic' and those in place seemed to be those that were most closely related to existing areas of expertise (e.g. providing advice on intellectual property issues for data could be seen as an extension of copyright advisory services). 
  • Only around 20% of institutions were providing more technical services like auditing, metadata or a repository.
  • 41% reported they were undertaking early career researcher awareness-raising activities and 36% training for higher degree by research students, a significant increase from only 12% engaging in these activities at the time of a previous survey in early 2012.
  • Skills gaps and resourcing were explicitly identified as the biggest challenges for libraries. Many answers also referred implicitly to issues around the ambiguity of the role of the library, the library’s relationship with other parts of the institution and lack of clarity around responsibilities. 
  • Most institutions had put formal research data policies in place in 2012 or would do so during 2013 and the priority on research data was expected to become higher. 
  • The key drivers for change were funding agency mandates and JISC projects.

The other publication was a white paper for the Assocation of College and Research Libraries by researchers from the University of Tennessee [2]. Their results of a survey of 221 North American libraries showed that:
  • Only a small minority of academic libraries in US and Canada were offering research data services at the time of the survey.
  • However, a quarter to a third of the surveyed libraries planned to offer some services within the next two years. 
  • Changes were largely driven by funding agency requirements, and in particular the requirement for a data management plan from the National Science Foundation.
  • Libraries offering research data services have reassigned, or are planning to reassign, existing staff. 
  • Libraries are relying on conferences or workshops to provide training for their staff. They need institutional support to send their librarians for this professional development, but other models might also help to disperse expertise, such as mentorship relationships between different libraries. 
There is a lot more detailed data associated with individual survey questions in both of these publications; they are well worth a read and I guarantee will make you feel better about progress at your own institution, no matter where that progress may be at!

In the Australian context, it seems likely that similar numbers of university libraries will be offering, or considering offering, research data services. The Australian National Data Service (ANDS) has played an enabling role in Australia similar to that of JISC in the UK, by funding projects in organisations and by providing, as the Digital Curation Centre does, a range of information resources, planning tools and events that have helped build a strong national community of practice as well as institutional capabilities.

Two key differences in our environment are:
  1. The relative weakness of our major funding agencies' data requirements; the flurry of activity generated by the Australian Research Council's request in 2014 for (minimal) data management and sharing information from project applicants shows just how important a driver funding agency requirements are. 
  2. Australian university libraries have played a greater role in the development of institutional research data management policies, an area that neither UK nor US libraries were heavily involved in.
The authors from the UK make some interesting observations about the hype cycle and how it might apply:
Amongst library and information professionals, there now seems to be a significant amount of positive hype associated with RDM. This is evidenced in professional discussions at conferences and meetings, and in various online fora. Significantly, the hype itself becomes a driver for change with librarians being encouraged to implement change in line with current trends in the profession. However, the hype cycle model predicts that at some point this positive hype will turn negative as the scale and complexity of the challenge, resourcing implications and technical constraints become more apparent. Disillusion is usually linked to a loss of faith in the potential return on investment particularly associated with slower-than-expected adoption. Perhaps the slip into negativity for RDM will occur in 2014. This can often triggered by a small number of influential actors coming out debunking the ‘bandwagon’, something that could be impactful in a professional community, such as academic librarianship, characterised by strong networks. The attack is likely to focus on the difficulties of providing an infrastructure for diverse data at the institutional level.
I find myself both demoralised by, and in furious agreement with, this argument. In myself I recognise a strong desire to debunk the research data bandwagon - even though I am on it! - not out of malice but because I believe strongly that a more pragmatic, incremental and peer-to-peer approach will be needed once external funding (and the enthusiasm it is currently generating) runs out. I hope that Cox and Pinfield are right when they say that, despite the likelihood of a less positive phase coming up, the development of research data management services will continue because there are strong drivers (such as funding mandates and the sheer volume of data that needs to be stored) that will not go away.

Do you have any thoughts on hype cycles and research data management in your organisation? If we are at the positive hype point of the cycle now, how can we best prepare to ride out the troughs that might be coming before we get to a happier place where research data management services are in place, sustainable and well-used by our research communities?


[1] Cox, Andrew M., and Stephen Pinfield. 2013. “Research Data Management and Libraries: Current Activities and Future Priorities.” Journal of Librarianship and Information Science (June 28): 0961000613492542. doi:10.1177/0961000613492542. [subscription only]

[2] Tenopir, Carol, Ben Birch, and Suzie Allard. 2013. Academic Libraries and Research Data Services: Current Practices and Plans for the Future. An ACLR White Paper. Association of College and Research Libraries.