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Librarians share their top tips for research data management

March 30, 2023

By Linda Willems

Three people looking at a computer

Four participants in a recent data services course run through some of the practical ways you can support your institution’s RDM goals

Last year saw the launch of a new course in the US – the Data Services Continuing Professional Education (DSCPE)opens in new tab/window. This eight-week free training, run by the Research Data Management Librarian Academy (RDMLA) with funding from Elsevieropens in new tab/window, was introduced to “retool” librarians via interactive online sessions and a hands-on capstone project with a mentor.

In part one of this two-article series, we looked at why this kind of training is so timely – a growing focus on research data management (RDM) and sharing has resulted in new mandates for researchers. These include a recent policy changeopens in new tab/window by the US funder the National Institutes of Health (NIH), which requires grant applications to include a data management and sharing (DMS) plan with each submission. The previous article also ran through some of the benefits the course participants and their institutions gained.

In this article, our interviewees provide more details about their capstone projects – including some of the resources they created. They also share tips on how librarians can prepare to help their institution deliver on research data management (RDM) goals.

Preparing for an RDM future in eight practical steps

Despite their varying subject fields, roles and experience of RDM, the four librarians all walked away from the course with valuable new skills. Importantly, they also gained new insights that can benefit other libraries, wherever they are in their RDM journey – here they share their top eight.

1. Give RDM the weight and time investment it deserves

Research data has its own lifecycle with individual stages that need to be considered and catered for. Anna Liss reveals: “The course opened my eyes to the fact that research data management is really a field in and of itself, with the same tasks you would perform for other resources - processing, acquiring, managing, sharing, copyright, archiving. It also helped me understand why there are challenges in managing it effectively.”

2. Ensure your library claims its place at the RDM table

Talking with fellow participants, Shalini was surprised to discover that while some institutions are fully embracing librarians as a key partner in data services, “others are still resistant to the idea of any librarian involvement.” She adds: “It should be a collaboration, not a competition. I learned that, as librarians, if we want to work with other units to provide effective data services, we need to communicate and get their buy-in for our involvement. We need to establish collaborative relationships.”

3. Take time to understand the RDM structure at your institution

Heather believes that very few institutions have a true picture of which employees are responsible for which RDM tasks. “The thing about data is that it kind of crept up on universities and so people just naturally did things, without discussion. As a result, there’s a possibility of repetition and there's a possibility of gaps. In a way, the NIH policy change has made US universities realize that we may need to be a lot more uniform with how we do things. But it can be hard if individual institutions can’t identify what they already have in place.”

In Heather’s case, her capstone revealed that her library still has gaps in its research data services, compared to other universities. “That is helping us think about whether it’s really the library that should be filling them.”

4. Get creative about engaging stakeholders! Communicating about data is just as important as managing it

For Stephanie, the elements of the course that dealt with engaging stakeholders were invaluable. “They helped me understand the different roles that a library can play - you're not necessarily just crunching data or writing DMS plans, you are also educating your patrons on how they can comply with policies or find relevant information. Those soft skills were one of my biggest takeaways.”

For her capstone, Stephanie worked with University of Alabama at Birmingham (UAB) Libraries to create an online quiz about the new NIH policy. “It is a fun and interactive way to engage people with the policy – something like a handout only goes so far.” Crucially, UAB Libraries tailored the questions to match concerns and queries they had received from their own researcher community. And they worked hard to promote it on campus via their own networks and channels, resulting in a high uptake.

For Anna Liss, who has a strong background in outreach, the kind of needs assessment approach taken by UAB Libraries is a great first step. “Understanding what is required is crucial. I then use a strategy of gentle perseverance; communicating key facts, not overwhelming with information, finding impromptu techniques. People are bombarded with emails, so personalization is important.”

5. Don’t feel you have to be an expert to get started

All participants agreed that RDM isn’t easy, and while librarians may not have all the answers, that shouldn’t stop them from getting involved. Stephanie notes: “What I’ve taken back to my team is, you don't have to be a data visualization expert, you don't have to be a statistical wizard. You just need to understand the broad issues and be comfortable reaching out to other people on campus to talk about what they are doing and how the library can help.”

Heather adds: “When it comes to data management and sharing, definitely just do it. Even people with decades of experience in the field are not experts, because data management and sharing differs per discipline. That’s why you need to collaborate with the researcher and subject experts to make a DMS plan and comply with it.”

6. Make RDM training available to all researchers – whatever their level

Following the course, Shalini developed DMS plan writing instruction materials that she now plans to present as a library workshop. “I’m not targeting faculty specifically, because learning to write a robust DMS plan is not only useful to researchers; graduate students may also need to apply for grants in the future.

Colleagues having an informal interactive meeting

7. Don’t fall into the trap of over promising – be realistic about what you can deliver

For Heather, one point that really stood out on the course was that some libraries had over promised what they could do with regards to RDM, which made life difficult for them later. “I was given a task in the December 2022 to launch a new research data management and sharing service at our library. Before the pilot was even underway, people were already talking about next steps,” she reveals. “What I took away from the course is that it’s really important to manage expectations. You have to be efficient, be practical.”

8. Learn from other librarians in your network

As a relatively new academic librarian, Stephanie really valued hearing the stories of other librarians on the course. “You see what everyone else is doing and what other people have succeeded in doing, or been challenged in doing. This gives you a good perspective on other libraries, and gives you ideas of how to approach RDM at your own institution.”

The value of hands-on training with an experienced mentor

The capstone project was a major component of the DSCPE, comprising 70 hours of the eight-week course. Each participant was paired with a mentor at another US university, chosen to match their areas of interest.

The librarians we interviewed have kindly agreed to share some of the resources they created both during their capstones and following the course.

Anna Liss Jacobsen, Stephanie McFarland, Heather Owen, and Shalini Ramachandran

Left to right: Anna Liss Jacobsen, Stephanie McFarland, Heather Owen, and Shalini Ramachandran

Anna Liss Jacobsen, a Health Sciences Librarian at Indiana University, Purdue University of Indianapolis (IUPUI), was matched with Jen Ferguson, Head of Research Data Services at Northeastern University Library in Boston. Their focus was engagement and instruction, particularly in relation to the NIH policy change. “One of my first tasks was to run an environmental scan on the new NIH policy,” recalls Anna Liss, who then drew on the knowledge she gained to:

  • Create blurbs for Jen’s librarians to send to stakeholders

  • Draw up a LibGuide box and an outline for further resources

  • Contribute to presentations and trainings

Anna Liss adds: “The area I really lacked knowledge was hands on work, so she gave me an actual grant proposal DMS plan, which we separately evaluated before comparing notes. That was a really valuable process!”

Stephanie McFarland, Healthcare Business Librarian at Minnesota’s Mayo Clinic Libraries, was matched with Marla Hertz, Research Data Management Librarian at University of Alabama at Birmingham (UAB) Libraries. Their capstone project also had a strong outreach component.

Stephanie reveals: “Games are a key education tool for UAB Libraries, which uses an online platform to create quizzes for researchers. Marla suggested compiling a quiz about the new NIH policy to make it interactive and fun.” Stephanie researched and wrote many of the questions and the quiz is now proving a big hit at UAB. Importantly, Stephanie believes the experience has benefited her own library: “I learnt a lot about the policy and while I don't know that we're necessarily going to make a game, bringing back a different perspective on how to engage patrons has been very useful.”

Heather Owen, Data Librarian at the University of Rochester’s River Campus Libraries, was matched with Andrew Creamer, Science Data Specialist at Brown University in Rhode Island. For their project, they made a visual, “a bit like a web or network, which compares who does what when it comes to data at both Brown and Rochester,” explains Heather. “One of the first things we discovered is that there are a lot of people on both campuses with data in their title, but they don’t actually work directly with researchers. So, we decided to limit our map to people who help users. The other thing that struck us both is that there is a lack of uniformity across institutions in terms of roles and responsibilities.”

What Heather really valued about the project was the brainstorming opportunity. “My library was, and still is undergoing a transition and I was mapping out my new role. It helped me define myself, and I think it also gave me the courage, as a new person on campus, to reach out to other offices and find out what they're doing.”

Shalini Ramachandran, STEM Librarian at Chapman University in California, was matched with Clara Llebot Lorente, Data Management Specialist at Oregon State University (OSU). Together with Clara, Shalini studied the review process for data management plans submitted to Oregon’s institutional repository, ScholarsArchive@Osu. She also joined a DMS plan writing workshop. “I really learned a lot; as a result, my library can now confidently offer research data management plan reviews as an added service.”

Shalini also participated in OSU meetings and workshops on research data-related tools, and created a LibGuide for the OSU Library page assessing their institutional repository’s ability to meet guidelines for federally funded research.

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 –information 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