No Time, No Money, No Problem! Getting Your Research Data Services Program Off The Ground

If you’re like most of us, you’ve been watching the proliferation of data or research data services spread like weeds at institutions big and small and in staggering permutations. To begin with, let’s establish a working definition (or at least MY working definition) of data services. To me, they comprise a wide swath of programming and infrastructure related to all things data: management, storage, curation, discoverability, use, visualization, and access with a dash of impact and a pinch of attribution. And by data I mean anything that is textual, numeric, visual…you get the point.

This is a good thing-so many models to choose from! Now your library wants to start a program-this is a bad thing! If you’re also like most of us, you really don’t have the luxury of hiring more people or adding yet another duty under the “Other duties as assigned” category of your job description. But your mission is clear, and you have to “make it work” in the immortal words of Tim Gunn.

Here are a few lessons I learned as the Oklahoma State University Library (OSU) began to explore these issues.

  1. Something needs to go away

The first step is to decide who will be responsible for providing these services. If you’re a liaison, or in charge of one, most likely this will fall into your area of responsibility if you don’t have a data specialist or a dedicated department to oversee the work. Liaison models have shifted dramatically over the last few years to replace what we think of as “traditional” activities such as collection development and reference with a more nebulous set of “outreach” services like these which can encompass everything from assisting faculty with data management plans to helping them find storage solutions for their data. Chances are this is not the first time the issue has come up, and your library has already been involved in discussing how to make this shift to integrating new service models into your workflows. The bottom line to this part of the discussion is that you cannot add something like this without minimizing something else, and that’s one way that you can accommodate this type of initiative without having to hire an entirely new set of employees. Is it ideal? Definitely not. But it might also help you to identify true library and institutional priorities surrounding these issues so that if the opportunity does arise you will be in a much better position to make the case for additional hires and/or resources.

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How you approach this challenge will also likely depend on your position. If you’re simply being asked to take on a new role, you may not have much control of the process outside of your own actions. If you are a department head or administrator, again, this task will fall to you.

  • You will need to know where you are going with these services and how you will scale them, and you’ll want to chart out how you will get there. This also will require planning and thinking strategically about who needs to be at the table and what each of their roles are in the process. Having a clear direction or vision for the “how” is as important as the “what”.
  • Test out to see who is willing to help you or not-the answer will become evident very quickly. But just as it’s true that you will not be able to please everyone, it’s also true that you don’t need everyone on board to make things happen. Think about the minimum number of people or what positions you will need to establish success and what that means. This is true of both internal as well as external collaborators.
  • If you encounter barriers, try to determine if they are technical or adaptive. Is it something that can be changed by a new policy or process or is it more related to personnel or something else? Knowing what the issue is will (obviously) help you get that much closer to solving it. If you do run into fear of change and resistance, this is where your managerial skills will come into play. Focus on learning about people’s reluctance rather than “fixing” the issues right away. Services such as these take time to fully develop, and unless someone is already a specialist in this field, chances are you will face a lot of anxiety. Explain the need for these types of services and focus on the big picture and providing solutions, not creating more problems.
  • Give the work back to those who will be responsible for doing it by orchestrating a process that engages them in addressing the challenge, understanding the issues, and searching for answers rather than giving them a finished product. This will require you to relinquish some of the control and see where things takes you.
  • Finally, training is a huge component of the equation. You will need a lot of it, often, and in as many formats as possible and may require you to work with other campus partners to come in and do some of the training. If people are not comfortable with these concepts, they have to have at least a working knowledge of what they are and, more importantly, why they are useful to faculty and students. Then you can work on a great referral network to folks who have the specialized expertise needed for the next step. Don’t think that your liaisons need to know how to do it all, nor can they, but they better know who can.

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2. Create partnerships

I know I sound like a broken record about this issue, but this cannot be stressed enough. At OSU, we’ve been lucky to establish partnerships with our High Performance Computing Center and our University Center for Proposal Development. We didn’t have a magic solution for how we accomplished this. We set up meetings with the respective directors and explained what we wanted to do and what we saw their role could be in the endeavor.

During these conversations, we realized that we had many similar goals and were struggling with the same issues: a lack of a centralized set of services and resources for faculty, lack of training opportunities for things they could do themselves, and a general lack of knowledge about support services that were already in existence.

We began to meet regularly, and developed a three-pronged approach that is currently in the pilot stages:

a. Web presence. If you have a web presence, you can add the URL to flyers and other marketing materials, create a calendar of events with registration, link to your institutional repository, and schedule appointments with liaisons and other experts. The domino effect at its finest.

b. Workshops and consultations. Just…pick…a…date/time. Do it. Then advertise it like crazy. Don’t worry about perfect times because there aren’t any. Offer some in the mornings, some in the afternoons, on different days, and see what works best. Make descriptions easy to understand and registration equally simple, and you’re maximizing the chances that someone will attend.

c. Cheap(ish) resources. If your library can afford to subscribe to tools like Altmetric, try it out. Otherwise make sure that whomever is offering services is well versed in the capabilities of your institutional repository and other tools like Web of Science that help faculty determine the impact of their research. One of our liaisons had a question from a faculty member about finding the h-index for his publications in Web of Science. Within minutes he created a simple screenshot step by step walkthrough of how to do this and shared it with the other liaisons who then sent it to their faculty. A few more minutes later, and those faculty were interested in it too.

Capture23. You have to start somewhere

Start small, grow in time. This is also something I find myself repeating over and over. As mentioned above, we aren’t doing anything more than taking a few small steps towards a very uncertain direction. We hope the assessment measures we’re establishing to benchmark our “successes” will give us enough information to help us scale up what’s working and re-design what’s not.

In addition, we’re doing a targeted needs assessment with select faculty and interviewing them about their data needs to see what other patterns we might uncover that we might be overlooking.

In closing, I want to encourage all of those who are in a similar situation and help you realize that you don’t need time, money, or resources (ok, maybe a little) but that it can be done if you stop trying to create a perfect-world model, and instead work with what you have because it might just be enough.

*Images taken from Pixabay

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