Are Libraries Organized to Provide Research Data Management Services?

Where do research data management services fit into today’s organisational charts for academic libraries? I have had this discussion several times in the past couple of months with librarians from different institutions. Each of these conversations has been independent of the other, suggesting that this is becoming a topic of interest as academic libraries move to offer research data management services. To address this question, it is helpful to start with the organisation of data services already being offered in libraries and then to consider how these service areas might work together.

Over the past twenty-five years, many North American academic libraries established outstanding services for students and researchers to help them access data produced by organisations or agencies outside their institution. The staff of these services often assist with locating data, interpreting data documentation, retrieving data files, and providing the data in a format that can be directly loaded into analytic software. Data distributors typically require a licence to be signed before granting use of their data on a campus. Therefore, these services also manage data licences, educate patrons about the terms around which data may be used, and monitor these activities.

Organisationally, these data services have been located, for the most part, in a subject library associated with a particular data type, for example, social survey microdata are in the social sciences library while company and market data are in the business library. Those using these secondary data resources are often regular patrons of the subject library in which the service is located. Familiarity with the subject library has proven to be important to these services because elsewhere on the campus, awareness of their existence tends to be low. These services struggle to increase their visibility on campus and to promote the value of their service to a larger user community.

With the emergence of research data management as a service area, one obvious question is whether it should simply be amalgamated with existing data services. After all, a common skill set around providing access to data is shared by both service areas. On the other hand, existing data services are only part of the wider mandate of research data management services, which covers all stages of the research data lifecycle and applies to all research on campus. With such a widespread mandate, should a new vertical service division be created in the library to house both research data management and existing data services? Or should existing data services remain in their current organisational location but be coordinated in conjunction with a larger research data management service?

While there are undoubtedly many successful ways of organising research data management services in a library, the following list raises some important considerations about the location of these services.

Research Data Management Services and Organisational Factors

  1. Research data management involves horizontal activities that cut across the vertical organisational structure of today’s academic library.
    • Research data management touches on almost all operations of the library. Whether organised around facility, function, domain, or some combination of these, research data will span these organisational divisions.
    • Because of its ubiquitous nature, research data management needs to be part of the library’s mission and service culture.
    • The vast majority of librarians must embrace research data management as part of their responsibilities.
  2. Research data management requires personnel practices that will support flexible work assignments for both horizontal and vertical activities.
    • The mandate for research data management is large and draws upon a range of skills and knowledge. The professionals with these talents are spread across the vertical divisions of the library, requiring the need to call upon staff from the whole organisation.
    • To work horizontally in a vertical structure, flexible work assignments must be accommodated by the system.
    • To operate within a vertical reporting structure, management methods are needed to pool staff from across the library. One method that has proven successful is the use of teams that are formed on the basis of a charter defining a fixed set of objectives. Once the team completes its work, the team is disbanded.
  3. Research data management must be intentionally coordinated across the vertical organisational structure of the library.
    • Research data management requires a full-time coordinator who has been granted authority to organise this service’s activities across the vertical divisions of the library.
    • The coordinator position needs to be high enough on the organisational structure to work effectively with fellow managers.
    • The coordinator should be supported as an ambassador for research data management on campus.
  4. Through coordinated supervision, the functions supporting research data management service can be distributed across the library system.
    • An existing data service with an identity well established within a specific subject library should be allowed to stay in its location. The staff will likely be called to participate on team projects but this in itself does not require an organisational relocation.
    • Liaison and subject librarians need to incorporate research data management materials into the portfolio of resources that they maintain for students and researchers.
    • When drawing upon library system resources and services, research data management services must be given the priority attention it needs to ensure the delivery of systemwide support for its services.

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