Realising the potential – The final report of the Open Research Data Task Force

Guest post by Michael Jubb, 04/02/2019

Michael Jubb has nearly 30 years’ experience in scholarly communications, strategic planning and research management. He was Director of the Research Information Network (RIN) for eleven years, focusing on the changing needs and behaviours of key players in the scholarly communications landscape, and now leads Jubb Consulting. He has been responsible since 2005 for over 30 reports on key aspects of the scholarly communications landscape, ranging from researchers’ use of libraries, through cataloguing and discovery services, to the economics of scholarly communications. Michael has worked as an Associate for Research Consulting since 2016, and reflects here on his work with us to support the work of the Open Research Data Task Force, whose final report was published this week.

To Share or Not to Share?

Just over a decade ago, I was involved in publishing a report titled To Share or Not to Share. It spoke about the growing recognition that the data and related material gathered and created by researchers in digital form could be easily moved around, handed to others, divided up in new ways, worked on with new tools, merged with other data, and manipulated and stored in vast volumes. That brought in its turn, we noted, a widespread recognition that such data were a valuable long-term resource; and that sharing them and making them publicly-available were essential if their potential value was to be realised. So the growing call a decade ago was to make research data publicly-available so that as part of the scholarly record they could be validated and tested, and also be used in new research.

The aim of the report was to examine how researchers across a range of disciplines were responding to these new opportunities, and the challenges they faced. The picture the report presented in 2008 was at best uneven: the challenges were at least as prominent as the opportunities.

A changing landscape

Since then, a lot has happened, in the UK as well as internationally. With support from key bodies including Jisc and the Digital Curation Centre, research data support services have been established in many UK universities, along with policies to promote better data management. Research funders in the UK and across the world have tightened their demands for data management plans as an integral part of grant proposals. Scholarly journals have joined funders in insisting that authors provide access to the data underlying the articles they publish (subject of course to restrictions relating to data that is sensitive on personal or other grounds). And new research data repositories, services and policies are being launched all the time in the UK and across the world: some within universities, some not-for-profit, such as DataCite, others on a commercial basis, such as figshare.

But after a succession of reports and initiatives since 2008, a sense has been developing that things are not moving as fast as many had hoped or expected. A Concordat on Open Research Data, endorsed by UUK, the Research Councils and others after some delays in 2016, was still explicitly aspirational, and achieved little traction: few researchers or even PVCs Research got to know about it. Hence there was also a feeling that the UK was beginning to lose the leading role it had enjoyed a decade ago in seeking to promote better data management and open data: in many European countries as well as Australia and elsewhere, things seemed to be moving faster.

The Open Research Data Task Force was established when Jo Johnson was Minister for Science. It published its first report, a review of the landscape for open data in the UK and across the world, in summer 2017. Its final report, just published, is addressed to UKRI and other funders, universities and other research institutions, publishers and learned societies as a call to arms.

The five fronts of open research data

First, if they want open research data (ORD) to become part of normal practice across the research community, all those organisations need to ensure that researchers have better incentives. That means tangible benefits in the form of scholarly credit and career progression for the efforts they must put into managing data effectively and making it widely accessible. At the same time, researchers need more help to gain the skills they need in data management, and more support from professional data specialists who themselves are able to secure sustainable career paths in universities and other research institutions.

Second, UKRI needs to take an active leadership and co-ordinating role in fostering co-operation across the complex patchwork of funders, research institutions and other bodies involved in developing and implementing policies and services in the UK. And UKRI is also in the best position to promote the necessary levels of co-operation with the wide range of international initiatives and services.

Third, it is right and proper – indeed essential – that policies and services should respect the varying needs and expectations of researchers in different disciplines as they develop over time. One size definitely does not fit all. Policies and services should both stimulate and reflect changes in practice and possibilities in different fields. But there is considerable scope for harmonisation, so that researchers working in different institutions, with different funders, and publishing their work in different journals do not face different policy requirements, intentional or otherwise.

Fourth, researchers as both creators and users of data need access to a comprehensive set of user-friendly services that meet their specific needs in the subjects and disciplines they are working in. That’s going to need extensive international co-operation over a long period, and it’s vital that the UK plays an active part in those efforts. And in the meantime, funders, universities and research institutions are going to have to ensure that UK researchers have access to well-resourced generic services. That will probably involve working with commercial as well as other service providers.

Fifth, we have over the past decade begun to develop some understanding of the costs of data preservation. But that’s only a small part of what of the story. All the key players need to work together to develop a much clearer understanding of the services, the costs, the business and funding models involved if researchers are to manage and share data effectively. If we are to achieve the undoubted benefits that can arise from ORD, services must be sustainable, and additional funds are needed to meet the new costs that are involved.
So we come back yet again to costs and funding. But the real challenge is the leadership, co-operation, co-ordination and new thinking that’s needed to bring about the cultural changes across the research community as a whole if ORD is indeed to become part of normal practice.