Why librarians should be clumsy with research data

Andrew Cox explores the challenges of Research Data Management - and asks if 'clumsy librarianship' can help.

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Wicked problems

You are probably familiar with the distinction between wicked and tame problems. Tame problems are definable and soluble. Wicked problems are complex, ambiguous and defy solution. Arguably in an increasingly globalised and networked world more and more of our problems will be wicked. Because wicked problems are a different type of challenge, recognising whether a problem is tame or wicked is key to what we do about them. The wisdom is that when a new issue emerges our first question should be to categorise them in these terms.

Research Data Management

In the last couple of years terms like Digital curation and Research Data Management (RDM) have become buzz words in professional circles. What is the issue?

A key part of the research process is collecting data. The huge scale of data now being produced in some e-science was captured in the slogan the 'data deluge', but it's now recognised that large quantities of data are not just being created in astronomy or the large hadron collider, but also by humanities scholars and social scientists. Data is also increasingly combined and managed in a complex way in collaborative research processes. Yet such digital data has a fragility, because if it is not stored, named and backed up, it is hard to use or even re-find. It’s a classic information management problem.

Funders of research, such as the research councils, want the money they invest in collecting data to be maximised through careful management of data as a research output and more sharing of data. And the funders have placed the onus on supporting better management of research data squarely on the researchers themselves and their institutions. This is a relatively new activity in many fields, hence the increasing concern in universities to develop RDM services. Of course, researchers are central, but advice, training and support services need to be developed and that implies the involvement of computer services, research administrators and librarians too. In a recent survey I conducted with Stephen Pinfield, most UK university libraries that replied saw RDM as a key priority in the next three years – but the level of current services was quite low.

So what should librarians be doing about RDM?

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