Wednesday, 18 December 2013

Guest blog post: personal thoughts about depositing data and the importance of RDM

We are delighted to publish our first guest blog post on the importance of research data management from the perspective of a University of Sheffield staff member. Dr Julie Ellis is a Research Associate in the Department of Sociological Studies.

Julie Ellis, RA, Sociological Studies
Thoughts about depositing data

I was fortunate enough to secure a studentship from the Economic and Social Research Council (ESRC) to complete my PhD research at Sheffield (I graduated in 2011).  I imagine that due to demands from funders to consider RDM issues at the very inception of a project, there is now far more support and information available for PGRs starting their doctoral work.  

At the time I began mine, this support didn’t feel so present.  Nonetheless, it was still a contractual requirement that I should offer the data I generated from my study to be archived in what was then Qualidata – now UK Data Archive.  I discovered this during the course of my research, rather than at the start. Sure enough, there it was buried within a funding handbook – but somehow with so many other things to think about, I hadn’t taken in fully what it meant and what was required.  In the time that had lapsed between getting the award and completing my MA as the first part of my studentship, archiving the data had been lost in a myriad of other questions, issues and anxieties about doing a PhD. 

Midway through data collection I realised depositing data was a requirement.  I sought retrospective consent to do this and did the best job I could to find out what I needed to do and how the depositing would work.  Since submitting my thesis and moving immediately into a series of fixed-term contracts (working both inside and outside of academia) I have spent the best part of 2 years working on making sure my interview data is in good shape to be deposited.  This has involved re-reading 37 interview transcripts and carefully formatting them, ensuring that they are fully and consistently anonymised throughout and spotting spelling mistakes (lots in my case as I did my own transcription!)  I haven’t resented doing this – I understand why it is important in some cases to make our data available so others can work with it and new insights can be gained.  However, for me to be able to honour this obligation to deposit, I have had to use annual leave and work into evenings and weekends to do this work. 

It shouldn’t have taken you so long I hear you cry!  Maybe it shouldn’t have.  Maybe I worked too slowly, was too fastidious about checking.  But because I wanted to make absolutely sure that the anonymity of my participants was protected (I’d anonymised at point of transcription, but when you are putting the whole thing out there and not just bits of quotes… I had to check), I simply could not do this as a skim-read job.  It takes time to get peace of mind. 

So what am I saying?  Despite the fact that there’s probably more general awareness about RDM now, please don’t assume PGRs know all about this, how they can best plan to manage it and how to make most effective use of the advice and support. Make sure they are signposted at induction and that supervisors are supported to support their PGRs to manage RDM challenges.  Better still, introduce it – albeit light-touch - where undergraduate students are doing dissertations that generate data – just so they are aware of the landscape that is developing in relation to RDM (OK, good data management has always been crucial, but I refer to the formalisation of this practice).

As a result of my experiences and my recent engagement with the RDM team we managed to identify that there are aspects of University Policy which need to be honed to effectively deal with this evolving landscape.  It wasn’t clear who owned the copyright to my data – me solely or me and the University jointly?  It seems that PGR projects sat within a murky grey area between student and employee.  We went for joint ownership in the end. 
So with the copyright question sorted and my data beautifully prepared, I have finally ‘let go’.  The team at UK Data Archive have, in my experience, being very patient and supportive.  They agreed to embargo access to my data for a while to give me time to try and publish from my research.  I have to say, it was a nice feeling when the link to my data record landed in my inbox a couple of weeks ago. 

Dr Julie Ellis, December 2013

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