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The DataRes Project: Research on Data Management in Policy and Practice

By Spencer Keralis

Unless you really haven’t been paying attention, most readers of this blog will be well aware that in May of 2010, the National Science Foundation (NSF) announced its intention to require every grant applicant to include a plan for the retention and sharing of research data in their proposals, effective January 18, 2011. This data management plan requirement—often described by stakeholders as an unfunded mandate—initiated a furor across the academy, from offices of research to research teams, to academic libraries.

Funded by an Institute of Museum and Library Services (IMLS) Laura Bush 21st Century Librarians award, the DataRes project was initiated in July 2011 at the University of North Texas (UNT) to examine how research institutions responded to the NSF and other agency data management plan requirements in terms of policy and practical support for researchers, and to evaluate what role, if any, academic libraries and the library and information sciences profession should have in supporting researchers’ data management needs. The project is a collaborative effort between the University of North Texas Libraries, the UNT College of Information, and the Council on Library and Information Resources.

As part of our research, we conducted a wide-ranging scan of institutional policies at the top 200 National Institutes of Health and NSF awardee schools (after eliminating the overlap, individual awards, and stand-alone institutes, we were left with 207 universities). We found only 38 institutions with explicit, public-facing policies governing the retention and sharing of research data, about 18% of the original 207.

Closer examination revealed that most of these “mandates” tend to be fairly weak and usually take the form of statements of “recognition” or “encouragement.” For example, the University of New Hampshire’s policy states, “The University recognizes the importance of data sharing in the advancement of knowledge and education.” In a move typical of these policies, UNH goes on to restrict sharing of research data: “only by specific agreement with persons or entities outside the University except where mandated by Federal funding agencies.” We will provide an index of all the institutional policies we found on our website beginning in February.

Policy, it seems, is the last and often weakest resort in addressing the needs of researchers for data management support. What we did find, however, was a robust culture of grassroots support for researchers, often originating in libraries, but commonly developing out of collaborations between libraries, offices of research, and campus IT. As we learned when we brought representatives from several institutions together to discuss their programs at EDUCAUSE, these responses are eclectic, ranging from elaborate, infrastructure-intensive responses to more personalized efforts driven by liaison librarians reaching out to the departments they serve. These programs are driven by the needs of researchers on individual campuses and their willingness to perceive libraries as more than just dispensaries of goods, but also as potential collaborators in the research process.

In our final report, which will be released this spring as a CLIR publication, we will include peer reviewed papers from other scholars engaging with questions that are emerging from the new culture of data management in research. From the small-scale responses of land grant universities, to national-scale infrastructure projects, to questions of data curation pedagogy and the ethics of sharing research data, these reports provide insight into the range of issues facing scholars, universities, and libraries as research data—big and small—becomes a central problem for the 21st century academy. Further details on the forthcoming report may be found at: and we post periodic updates on Twitter as @DataRes.

Spencer Keralis is director for digital scholarship at the University of North Texas. Shannon Stark, strategic projects librarian at the University of North Texas Libraries, contributed to this blog.

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