Plans for Data Management or Mobilisation?

I had a recent conversation with a researcher who had just been informed that her letter of intent for a major grant competition had been accepted and that she was invited to submit a full application. As she started this process, she organised a committee to provide her advice on a knowledge mobilisation plan. Such a plan is a requirement of the funding agency to which she is applying. One person she asked to serve on her committee inquired if she had also thought about preparing a data management plan (DMP). Because Canada’s three major federal funding councils have yet to institute DMP policies, she was unfamiliar with such plans and was referred to me to learn more about them.

When we met to discuss her research, I discovered that the project consisted of an international team with data from several countries. The data will be a mix of qualitative and quantitative information, some of which will be collected by the project and some of which will be obtained from national agencies. We reviewed the types of consent required from her research participants that would enable sharing these data with other researchers and preserving it for long-term access. We talked about the technical options for making the data safely accessible to the researchers on her team from other countries. We spoke about developing a data charter for the project that addresses governance issues around the use of the data by everyone within the project. As we went through these and other data topics, she paused and said, “I now understand that I will need a data mobilisation plan as well as a knowledge mobilisation plan.” This observation struck me that the “M” in DMP should possibly be mobilisation instead of management.

Data Mobilisation Plans

For most funding councils, the administrative purpose of data management plans is to learn the steps that researchers will apply to share the data from their projects. One way to frame this data-sharing goal is to address expectations around data stewardship. In taking this direction, I believe that mobilisation is a more appropriate concept than management.

  • First, management is about controlling or administering activities and resources, while mobilisation is about organising or preparing something for use (see remarks in the previous blog entry about organising versus managing). From the perspective of data stewardship, the planning steps for sharing data have more to do with organising the custodial care of data across the lifecycle than with controlling the details of data management.

    Mark Parsons, Secretary General for the Research Data Alliance, illustrated this point in a comment that he made during the CASRAI Reconnect 2014 Conference. He noted that when his staff at the National Snow and Ice Data Centre at the University of Colorado helped researchers prepare DMPs for U.S. funding agencies, the researchers had difficulty describing in advance the details around how they would manage their data. Such decisions often come later in the project and depend on the technology available at that time. My response was that assuming DMPs to be statements about the nuts and bolts of managing data misses the policy intent of the plan to elicit how the data will be shared. Instead of small details, these plans should be about the strategies that researchers will follow throughout their project around managing their data.

    Preparing strategies in a DMP should draw upon the data stewards with whom solutions might be formulated. For example, if a DMP asks a researcher to identify the data repository with which she or he will deposit the project’s data, one answer might be to discuss with a liaison librarian the identity of an appropriate domain or campus data repository. Another strategy might be to contact a curator from a data repository about her or his involvement in the project from its beginning. A DMP consisting of strategies for finding solutions that can be implemented during a project directs the researcher’s focus toward mobilising data stewards and services to deal with data management requirements as they arise.

  • Second, knowledge mobilisation plans are a funding agency requirement already known to many Canadian researchers, although some agencies may identify them as knowledge transfer or translation plans. Researchers see the value of these plans, which chart the dissemination activities of research findings. The rewards of having such plans are well understood by researchers. These statements identify pathways to influence other researchers, policy makers, and practitioners that will increase the likelihood of a larger readership of the researcher’s findings and potentially more citations of the researcher’s work. These valued outcomes translate into increased prestige and greater promotion opportunities.

    Data mobilisation plans may benefit from the widely recognised value already attributed to knowledge mobilisation plans. We may soon see rewards structured around data sharing, especially if data citation takes root and the linkage between data and research articles becomes universally adopted through the use of persistent digital identifiers. The more incentives are associated with data sharing, the more data mobilisation plans will be linked to researcher rewards.
  • Third, one should not lose sight of the role that a DMP plays as an administrative tool to promote research practices supportive of an organisation’s data policy. This connection between data policy and a DMP is fundamental to its function. Whether the data policy is directed at data stewardship, data sharing, reproducible research, or a combination of these, the DMP should elicit responses that are expressive of the policy’s values. The level of abstraction called for in this context is more directed at organising than managing things. As a policy instrument, the goal of DMPs keeps our attention more centred on mobilising than managing resources.