To Protect and to Serve: A research data management roadmap for the University of Oxford

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City of Oxford | Research Consulting

This week sees the publication of a UKSG Insights case study reflecting on our review of Research Data Management (RDM) services undertaken at the University of Oxford – a globally leading research-intensive institution. Delivered as a partnership between Research Consulting, Charles Beagrie Ltd (technical lead) and Tracey Clarke Consulting (library lead), the review led to the development of a ‘live’ road map and action plan for future use by the University.

Why should I worry about RDM?

Managing research data has grown to be a significant concern during the last decade, and RDM has been described as a ‘wicked’ problem. Discussions about RDM have become increasingly important not only because data is growing rapidly in volume and complexity, but also due to regulatory requirements concerning data protection (e.g. the GDPR). The Covid-19 pandemic has focussed attention even further on the importance of research data and software, as the ways research is carried out have been revolutionized.
RDM can be described as the ways in which researchers organise, structure, store and care for the information used or generated as they carry out their research. RDM is a policy requirement of most major funders, and good data handling practices are essential for access to key datasets from partners in government, the NHS and industry.

Delivering the RDM Review

Our RDM review focused on Oxford’s divisions and central provision of RDM services. Research within the University operates at multiple levels, with researchers’ own efforts being supported at a local level by their departments/institutes and divisions, libraries and research services.
Linking into the University’s Strategic Plan and IT Strategic plan, the review engaged a broad range of stakeholders using an online survey, interviews, focus groups, and workshops. In total, 237 people from across the university contributed to this work.
As the review took shape, the breadth and depth of RDM activities carried out at the university became apparent. Through external benchmarking, we were able to assess the many strengths and examples of good practice, but also gaps that needed addressing. As a result, we put forward a road map with 42 action areas identified (see Figure 1 below).

Figure 1 | Research Consulting
Figure 1.

On completion of our work, Patrick Grant, Pro Vice-Chancellor for Research at the University of Oxford said:

“Research Consulting delivered a wide-ranging research data management review, engaging multiple university functions and our academic community. The consulting team worked closely with us to prioritise the objectives for this work, and combined a structured approach to project management with a flexible approach to delivery. I was impressed with their responsiveness to our needs and ability to stick to our timeline, and their work has laid a firm foundation for the strategic and operational development of research data management at the university.”

What lessons can others take from this work?

Reflecting on our work with the team at the University of Oxford, we came up with ten recommendations for other institutions seeking to enhance their support for research data management:

  1. Secure high-level sponsorship – The support of senior leaders is critical to the overall success of any review of RDM services. In Oxford’s case, overall leadership was provided by the Pro-Vice-Chancellor [EK1] [GU2] for Research, and the resulting road map is owned by the Research Information Management and Technology Sub-Committee. A range of influential stakeholders, including the senior administrators within IT Services, Research Services and the Bodleian Libraries, were identified early in the review process, and given the chance to shape the final outcomes.
  2. Prioritize engagement with the academic community – The use of multiple consultation methods, including an online survey, interviews, focus groups and engagement with relevant committees, allowed a wide range of stakeholders to be involved and was crucial to legitimizing the findings in the eyes of the academic community at Oxford. Engaging researchers through a range of techniques helps ensure that the findings are ultimately driven by their needs, rather than those of the administration.
  3. Recognize the cross-cutting nature of RDM – The collaborative approach taken by the Bodleian Libraries, IT Services and Research Services was a significant strength of the review and allowed for a holistic approach to be taken to the project. Other institutions embarking on a similar project are advised to recognize the cross-cutting nature of RDM, and ensure all relevant professional services are engaged from the outset.
  4. Acknowledge the respective roles of central and distributed support services – In a large institution, critical RDM services and support staff will be present at multiple levels, including within departments, at division or faculty level, and within central services. Researchers will also rely on a range of externally provided services. The most appropriate level for provision of RDM services will vary according to local context and needs, with no single ‘right’ answer.
  5. Identify unifying themes or ‘pillars’ to guide the review process – Our review identified five ‘pillars’ as a tool to organize and rationalise the evidence assembled, analyse the findings and summarise the actions required to meet the University’s strategic objectives. Given the complexity of the subject matter, having a comparable set of themes or pillars for a review of this nature reduces the risk of scope creep and makes it easier for other stakeholders to grasp the review’s purpose and implications.
  6. Understand and embrace different disciplinary cultures for data sharing – Disciplinary communities, and their organizational units, have very different needs and expectations of RDM services. This needs to be explicitly acknowledged from the outset of any review process, with a recognition that there will be few, if any, one-size-fits-all solutions.
  7. Recognize the value and limitations of using independent consultants – The use of independent consultants allowed the review to be progressed much more quickly than would have been possible through internal resources alone. It was also of value in reaching a synthesized outcome that did not privilege the interests of any particular stakeholder or constituency. However, there remained a need for significant engagement and input from Oxford staff to guide the consultants. It is therefore important that effective knowledge exchange between consultants and staff members occurs throughout the review process.
  8. Be prepared to adapt to changing circumstances – The Covid-19 pandemic meant that the review at Oxford took on a very different shape than was originally expected. While disruptive in some respects, the pandemic also served to highlight the critical importance of good data management practices and information security, which was ultimately helpful in securing buy-in for the review’s recommendations.
  9. Be realistic about institutional planning and budgeting timelines – A key lesson learned is that completion of the review report is best seen as the beginning rather than the end of the process. While the review itself took just over 12 months to complete, further work continues to be required to embed the recommendations in operational plans and budgets.
  10. Recognize that the journey is as important as the destination – While there is a tendency to see the final report and road map as the primary output of a review of this nature, the real value is likely to lie in strengthened internal relationships, improved institutional awareness and cultural change in favour of good research data management practice. A well-managed review should aim to deliver all of these benefits, irrespective of the findings of the final report.

What next?

You can find out more about the work we did for the University of Oxford in the full UKSG Insights article: “To protect and to serve: developing a road map for research data management services”.

Meanwhile, we at Research Consulting continue to work with stakeholders across the research landscape to support the transition to open research. For example, we’re currently working with Wellcome, the Gates Foundation and UK Research and Innovation to investigate the long-term impact of open sharing commitments, and are exploring lessons learned from genomic viral data sharing during the COVID-19 pandemic for the G7 Open Science Working Group.

If you’d be interested in finding out more about what we do, or believe you have the right skills to join our team, please get in touch!

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