Turning Outward on Data Management

On Thursday January 23, ACRL kicked off activities at the 2014 ALA Midwinter Meeting by hosting a forum on data management with Drexel University Libraries.  The goal of this forum was to have a dialogue between disciplinary faculty and academic librarians on the management, curation, and sharing of research data.

Rather than having the standard “focus group,” we used the concept of “turning outward,” a practice identified by Richard Harwood of the Harwood Institute for Public Innovation to engage the faculty in a discussion about their research and data management practices. Turning outward asks a community about their aspirations to inform internal discussions about how best to develop programs to serve the members of the community.


Federal mandates and recent studies underscore the need for thoughtful management of research data. A study just published in Current Biology found that 80% of scientific data from a random sample of studies was lost over two decades. “The current system of leaving data with authors means that almost all of it is lost over time, unavailable for validation of the original results or to use for entirely new purposes” according to Timothy Vines, one of the researchers. This underscores the need for intentional management of data from all disciplines and opened our conversation on potential roles for librarians in this arena.1

Dealing with “big data” is particularly challenging.  Although there is no definitive definition big data, it is typically characterized as being high-volume, high-variety, and high-velocity.  The Wikipedia definition is useful, defining big data as “. . .a collection of data sets so large and complex that it becomes difficult to process using on-hand database management tools or traditional data processing applications. The challenges include capture, curation, storage, search, sharing, transfer, analysis, and visualization.”

Conversations with Faculty

Danuta Nitecki, Dean of Libraries at Drexel, recruited a half dozen faculty to spend two hours talking with us about their data management needs and desires.  Most of the faculty were from the sciences, with one from media studies.  The conversation was very rich and I’ll share just the nutshell version here.  The faculty agreed that they would want to share most of their data, although they allowed for the possibility that some data might need to remain private for a period of time, depending on the nature of the data and whether or not the scholar was still working with it.  (We began with the premise that shared data is always depersonalized if it involves human subjects.)  They saw strong roles for librarians including providing consultation on data management plans, curation, and long term preservation of data.

We discussed the fact that not all data can or should be stored forever.  Both data management plans and the actual capture and description of data should facilitate downstream use, including elements like the version of software used for data capture and analysis.  While the faculty noted a desire to share data as a fulfillment of the mission of higher education and a necessary part of the scientific process, they all agreed that this sharing was far more likely to happen if it did not impose extra burden on the scholars.  If normal workflows don’t make it easy to manage and share data, many will not do so.  While most of the faculty were aware of existing and proposed federal mandates, they noted that beyond turning in data management plans, there has been no real enforcement of implementing said plans to date and faculty overload often leads to the minimum required effort.  The faculty urged librarians maintain an active role in data management.

Unpacking the Conversations

On Friday morning, about 20 librarians who have been working in this arena assembled (some from remote locations) to hear a summary of Thursday’s session with faculty and to discuss potential roles for ACRL.  Drawing on their own experiences, they concurred with the faculty that there are strong roles both for librarians on their own campuses, and for ACRL. Discussions about possible ACRL action ranged from clearinghouse type roles (e.g., developing knowledge banks of specific information) to extending the ACRL Scholarly Communications tools and programs to include data management to extending the information literacy model to data literacy.

Other suggestions included the development of a strong advocacy role for librarians in the area of research data management, the need to help librarians redefine their roles to include managing research data and helping their institutions to think programmatically about research data management.

Along the way, the participants also considered the question “What is the essence of librarianship in the 21st Century?”  We began by providing collections and then added services to the mix.  Now we’re working with scholars on knowledge creation; how do we meet our role as intellectual partners? What at the core makes us a profession?

With a wealth of suggestions to consider, the ACRL Board asked its Research and Scholarly Environment Committee (ReSEC) to work with ACRL’s Data Curation Interest Group to develop a background paper for the ACRL Board that suggests potential programs and services ACRL might undertake to assist the profession with the newer role of data management.

ReSEC will be guided by these four basic questions as they develop their report:

  1. What do we know about the needs, wants and preferences of our members, prospective members and customers relevant to this decision?  (Sensitivity to member views)
  2. What do we know about the current and evolving dynamics of our profession relevant to this decision? (Foresight about future environment)
  3. What do we know about the strategic position and internal capacity of our organization relevant to this decision? (Insight about the organization)
  4. What are the ethical implications of our choices relevant to this decision? (Consideration of our choices)

The Board will discuss the report at its Spring meeting in early April And assess the relative advantages and disadvantages of the strategies suggested as it determines the best direction for ACRL in this domain.

Karen WilliamsACRL Vice-President/ President-Elect

1 Julie S., “80 Percent of Scientific Data Gone in 20 Years,” HNGN, Dec. 20, 2013, http://www.hngn.com/articles/20083/20131220/80-percent-of-scientific-data-gone-in-20-years.htm.