Data: a rose by any other name (part 2)

In an earlier blog entry, I spoke about the importance of having a technical language that allows data curators to talk within their profession about the details of their work. The words they use may be part of society’s everyday vocabulary but carry a meaning specific to data curation. Confusion can arise during conversations between data curators and others outside the profession when a term is used that carries different meanings for each group. For example, I was in a meeting recently with people from a variety of technical backgrounds, including librarians and research administrators. One librarian spoke about sharing resources across libraries. For the librarian, resources meant information tools, such as, library guides, while the administrator assumed that resources referred to money. The administrator was confused about why libraries would be exchanging money.

Communication problems can also arise within a campus’ research community. We encountered this with humanities researchers on our campus earlier in the year when our library hosted a week of workshops and talks on research data management. Speakers at this event consisted of researchers from all areas on the campus, including two prominent researchers from the digital humanities. One of the humanists said in reference to the title of the event, Research Data Management Week, that researchers in the humanities don’t see their research involving data. Rather, they see data as something belonging to the sciences. When the other humanist spoke, she commented on management in the event’s title, saying that in the humanities, management is seen as a topic for discussion in the business school. Of the four words in the event’s title, only research and week were acceptable concepts in the eyes of these humanists.

Subsequent to this event, a few of us in research data management services met with a humanities researcher who has a unique collection of digital video recordings of live musical performances from a Middle East country. His immediate concern was about the survival of the digital content. In addition to his copy of these recordings, only one other person on the globe has a set. As we worked through the options for making secure copies of his research content, I realized that we were talking primarily about organising his research materials, which happen to be in digital format.

Those of us providing research data management services learned an important lesson from these encounters. When talking with researchers from the humanities, we need to talk about organising their digital research materials rather than managing their data. A meeting with the liaison librarians in the humanities library later confirmed this approach. As data curators, we will continue to talk about managing data with most of the researchers on our campus, but with humanists, we have a new way of talking with them that lowers communication barriers when discussing their digital research content.