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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Is RDM wicked?

Maybe the first part of the answer to this question is to consider what type of problem RDM is. I would suggest that RDM is a wicked problem. Writing about what he calls social messes but is very similar to the concept of a wicked problem, Robert Horne identifies a number of characteristics of these types of issue, which seem to apply to RDM. Thus he says that with a social mess there is no 'correct' view of the problem, everyone sees it differently. That is true of RDM. Every community of researchers defines data differently and sees the agendas around openness or research quality differently. Librarians tend to see RDM as about preservation, computing services as an issue around storing active data, research offices focus on data planning for getting contracts. 

Horne also says these types of problem are hedged round with all sorts of political, cultural and economic constraints. This seems to be true of RDM at an institutional level. The politics are complex, the challenge of culture change is deep, and the resourcing is uncertain. Wicked problems are complex because they are linked to other problems. It’s difficult to untangle RDM from open access or data storage and security issues more generally.

Horne says that with social messes we often simply lack information about the problem. Again, the scale and reach of the RDM issue, effectively down to the level of every researcher in a university, means that those developing services do not really know where the critical data management problems are. Horne also says one of the problems with social messes is that there are many ways we can intervene to affect them and it is hard to imagine the effect of our actions. Again, ways of dealing with RDM are still emerging and there seem to be a number of plausible starting points.

The clumsy librarian

If it is correct to categorise RDM as a social mess or wicked problem, then it certainly calls for a different set of skills and attitudes to handle it. Keith Grint has made some fascinating suggestions about the skills of 'bricolage' needed to cobble together ways of coping with wicked problems. Reflection, relationship building and empathy are among the qualities needed.

Interestingly, Grint also suggests that the aim in dealing with wicked problems is not to achieve the elegant solution that a tame problem requires, rather we should think in terms of a 'clumsy' solution, that meets various fundamentally incompatible goals at once. As librarians we tend to like to establish well-defined, efficient and effective processes. That is a real strength with managing known problems, where we have a lot of control. If more and more problems are becoming wicked, maybe we need to start getting clumsier. Perhaps the 'clumsy librarian' will be the role model in the next decade!

Andrew will be exploring the role of librarians in RDM further at Internet Librarian International (ILI) in Session B202 – The Data Librarian. You can find out more about ILI here.

Image courtesy of swanksalot via Flickr.

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