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Is training the key to preparing for new research data policies?

March 30, 2023

By Linda Willems

Hands typing on keyboard with digital data overlay

Four librarians who participated in a recent data services course explain how the knowledge they’ve gained is benefiting both them and their institution

As research data continues to grow in importance, the requirements attached to its creation and use are evolving. In recent years, many governments, funders and publishers have introduced or updated policies around the storage, sharing and management of research data records. For example, the world’s largest public funder of biomedical research – the US’ National Institutes of Health (NIH)opens in new tab/window – recently announced that, from January 2023 onwards, investigators and institutions must:

  • Plan and budget for the management and sharing of research data

  • Submit a data management and sharing (DMS) plan when applying for funding

  • Comply with that plan (if approved)

Definition of research data

Similar policies have been introduced in other countries; in the UK the Biotechnology and Biological Sciences Research Council (BBSRC)opens in new tab/window requires a data management plan with all submissions, as does the Australian Research Council (ARC)opens in new tab/window, which also encourages researchers to deposit research data in publicly accessible repositories.

At many universities, academic libraries are among the departments tasked with responding to these policy changes. This brings benefits for librarians; for example, the opportunity to build new collaborations on campus and demonstrate their value. However, it also poses challenges – for some librarians, research data stewardship is still a relatively new topic, while those with greater knowledge are grappling with shifts in policy requirements.

Professional development can play an important role in helping librarians prepare for the change ahead. In this two-part series, we hear from four US-based librarians who recently completed a data services education program developed by the Research Data Management Librarian Academy (RDMLA) and its partners.opens in new tab/window

The eight-week Data Services Continuing Professional Education (DSCPE)opens in new tab/window, which was funded by Elsevier, aims to “retool” librarians via interactive online sessions and a hands-on capstone project with a mentor. Below, the four participants run through some of major benefits they’ve gained from the course, while in article two, they share practical tips librarians can use to support their institution’s research data management (RDM) goals.

The 2022 DSCPE course participants we interviewed

Anna Liss Jacobsen is Health Sciences Librarian at Indiana University, Purdue University of Indianapolis (IUPUI). She describes her previous experience with RDM as “minimal”, although she had contributed to some grant applications, both as an internal advisor and co-Principal Investigator.

Motivation for taking the course: “I wanted to gain more mastery and knowledge of RDM so I can support the departments that I work with through the NIH policy change. It’s also a topic that really interests me.”

Stephanie McFarland joined Minnesota’s Mayo Clinic Libraries as the Healthcare Business Librarian around 18 months ago. With a career history in the corporate sector, she came to the role with very little research data experience.

Motivation for taking the course: “I'm currently leading a team that’s assessing the need for a research data role in our library, so it made sense to learn more about RDM.”

Heather Owen took on the role of Data Librarian at the University of Rochester’s River Campus Libraries after graduating from library school in the summer of 2022. She also heads up a recently launched research data service at the library.

Motivation for taking the course: “Data librarianship is a growing field, and I was interested in gaining technical skills. Also, I knew that the NIH policy would go live soon – my university gets a lot of NIH funding, so I wanted to be prepared.”

Shalini Ramachandran is STEM Librarian at Chapman University in California. She sits on a library committee that develops and offers data services, and although she has previously written data management plans, prior to the course, she had “little experience of providing research data management guidance as a library service.”

Motivation for taking the course: “I had been receiving questions from faculty about repositories for sharing research data, and data management plan writing. I wanted to offer more expert support.”

Librarians share their top tips for research data management

New insights and a fresh perspective

The capstone project element of their training resulted in practical materials that many of the participants are now using in their roles – we explore these projects and their outcomes in article two. But since completing the course, it’s become clear that these aren’t the only rewards the librarians and their institutions are reaping.

1. Participants not only learned from their capstone mentors, they also learned from each other.

For Anna Liss, identifying the challenges and opportunities that IUPUI has in common with other institutions “has given a sense of camaraderie; a feeling that we're all working together and can share our strategies and wins, etc.” It has also proved inspirational – hearing what Shalini gained from editing a DMS plan prompted Anna Liss to do the same.

Being relatively new to the academic sphere , Stephanie appreciated hearing how other institutions approach RDM. “For example, the university I worked with for my capstone project, gamifies its researcher education. Bringing that mindset back to where I work has been useful; it provides a fresh perspective on how we can engage our patrons.”

For Shalini, discovering how others are responding to the updated NIH policy was insightful. “I was curious to hear how librarians most directly impacted by the NIH change are planning to educate their constituents. I learned a lot; for example, it’s not a linear or easy process. That reassured me that these are long term conversations and I’m not the only one facing these challenges.”

One of Heather’s key takeaways from her fellow librarians was that it’s important to be realistic about what you can accomplish. “That point really stuck out for me as our library is still trying to establish what we can deliver in terms of RDM.”

2. They are using that knowledge to build out the content and value of their roles.

In Shalini’s case, her capstone included the opportunity to review researchers’ data management and sharing plans. “I saw the ways that reviews are responded to in writing, the things that they focus on, the good practices recommended. Thanks to that training, my library now confidently offers research data management plan reviews as an added service.” She also learned about the tools that support RDM, including institutional repositories (IRs). “It puts me in a good position to offer guidance when our university is ready to choose a new IR.”

Anna Liss believes that the insights they’ve gained will help to elevate the status of the librarian’s role on campus. She explains: “When I initiated a systematic review evidence and synthesis service at a previous institution, I ended up being appointed a faculty member. I think research data is an even bigger topic and this course has given us the knowledge and understanding to make our institutions’ RDM processes so much easier.”

Woman giving instruction to two men looking at a computer monitor

3. And they are sharing it with fellow librarians and wider stakeholders.

During the course, Stephanie picked up new project management skills, which she has subsequently shared with her team. “Templates, deadlines, they can be applied to so much of what we do.” She’s also been able to brief them on the importance of the new NIH policy and identifying opportunities for the library to support it.

Shalini has already created an instruction for a research data management plan writing workshop that she’s shared with colleagues. “The idea is that I can teach it, or they are welcome to use it to develop their own version.”

Anna Liss drafted a LibGuide box on the NIH policy, which she forwarded to her department. She also sent it to her Instruction Library team and briefed members on the NIH policy change. “The goal is that the whole team has the background and comfort level to support these issues.”

Heather has conducted workshops on campus about the NIH policy and DMS plans. “I’ve also held librarian-specific trainings, and I’ve received a lot of great feedback; for example, many said they were previously really nervous about the policy, but now they understand it and feel prepared.”

4. They’ve gained the understanding, language and confidence to discuss research data with colleagues across campus.

In Stephanie’s case, having knowledge of RDM terms and practices has helped her figure out the current RDM support available at her institution. “We had an idea that there might be groups outside of the library working in this space; for example, the Research Office. The course gave me the vocabulary to ask the right questions.”

It’s an experience that Shalini recognizes: “Our library recently met with the Office of Research and Research Computing, essentially so we could all pitch ‘here's what we plan to do’. The knowledge I gained through the course definitely gave me more confidence and speaking power.”

5. They are better prepared for the future!

As Heather notes: “Funders who have yet to introduce these kinds of research data policies, are very likely to do so in the next few years. This isn't just an NIH or a medical thing. Investing in your professional development now means you can be ready for the changes that are coming.”

In part two, these librarians provide their top tips for research data management.

Interested in applying for this year’s DSCPE course?

Following the success of the 2022 program, the RDMLA is planning to train a new DSCPE cohort in the US this year. Tuition costs will again be covered by Elsevier. The 2023 course is scheduled to begin in the Fall – details will be added to DSCPE’s websiteopens in new tab/window shortly.

Based outside the US? The RDMLA also offers an 11-unit online research data management courseopens in new tab/window that you can follow at your own pace, whatever your location.


Portrait photo of Linda Willems


Linda Willems

Freelance writer and owner

Blue Lime Communications

Read more about Linda Willems