Research Data Policy – Should it be aspirational?

I’ve come back from the JISC MRD Projects Workshop on Developing Institutional Research Data Management Policies with lots to think about, especially as we will have our first Policy Review meeting on the 26th March. One of the themes that arose during the event was that of whether it was useful for an institutional research data policy to be aspirational. As we followed the Chatham House Rule during the Workshop, I will not state the identity or affiliation of those whose opinions/ideas/experiences are discussed below.

Most universities that are developing a research data policy at the moment consider the University of Edinburgh’s aspirational policy to be a key point of reference. It is clear, succinct and acknowledges that implementation will take some time. The nitty-gritty of who does what and how is not covered although certain responsibilities for both the University and for Principal Investigators are clarified. One of the reasons why an aspirational policy is deemed to be a good approach to take is because the practical implications of such a policy are likely to change frequently and no-one wants to go through the long process of ratification again every time there’s a change in somebody’s role, for example. This can also mean that the procedural level documentation can be specialised – different Colleges, Departments or research groups have the freedom to create their own “working policies” according to their specific structure, discipline or main funders, looking to the institutional policy for guidance.

However, some universities have either been forced to look at the infrastructure that the implementation of an Edinburgh-style policy would require or have decided to take the practicalities of good practice in RDM seriously at an institutional level before developing a policy. One worry is that, it’s all well and good to have a research data policy (and I think that most people would agree that it’s better to have something than nothing), but we can’t ask researchers (and other staff) to take on responsibilities when they don’t have the training/awareness/repository/procedures to do so. Another issue is that once the institutional policy box is ticked, the implementation (and possible investment into the implementation) of this policy is forgotten, which at the end of the day, is the aim of having a policy.

I would argue, (and this is a personal view – we are yet to see how our policy work strand will develop), that it would be easier to get an aspirational policy approved, specifically because the document wouldn’t explicitly demand too much of our researchers’ limited time. Once you have a process to follow, that’s the point at which complaints are made; it’s easier to agree to an idea than to a real responsibility. The process of developing any style of policy could engage stakeholders across the University, and if you have the means of maintaining this buy-in, you can hope to ensure the roll-out of “working policies” that suit differing working practices as well as continued investment in the development and maintenance of a research data repository. This doesn’t mean that universities should delay the more practical aspects of policy implementation until a later date – many at the JISC Workshop stated that advocacy and training are essential to the success of good practice in RDM, which after all, is the main objective of our project.

Posted under Advocacy and Governance

This post was written by Hannah Lloyd-Jones on March 14, 2012

1 Comment so far

  1. Chris Rusbridge March 15, 2012 11:36

    In my view, while the policy should be aspirational, it will be meaningless unless it is accompanied by a research data management strategy of some kind. There needs to be a plan to get from the current relatively chaotic situation to the sorts of capabilities required to meet the aspirations of the policy. And top management should get the two together.

    Plus, based on interviews at a couple of universities, get a draft of both on the table at faculty level. With any luck that should get engagement; it might also mean a protracted, argumentative process, but that might be better in the long run than a top-down policy/strategy that can ignore the realities at the researcher/scholar level, and can be ignored by the researchers and scholars!

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