Towards research data sharing – what does the RDA offer?

Highlights of a seminar What does the Research Data Alliance offer for Finland?, held on the 10th of February 2015 at CSC Finnish IT Center for Science, Espoo.

Today’s scholarly research is characterized by digitalization and production of huge amounts of diverse data. At the same time, society confronts grand challenges, such as environmental pollution, climate change and public health issues. Solution of these problems is by nature international, requiring large and dynamic networks. Efficient cooperation depends on effective sharing of data. To achieve shareability and reusability, data must be findable, accessible, combinable and interpretable in various contexts.

Unfortunately, the idea and practices of data sharing are not always appreciated in research organizations. Every project defines its own strategies without thinking interoperability in wider context. Poorly documented data formats, missing metadata and obsolete software hinder or prevent retrieval and reuse of data. The concept of data entropy is used to describe this situation. The data becomes useless little by little and finally it is impossible to extract knowledge from the data.

In addition to technological questions, there are also societal and cultural issues in collaboration. Gateways are not hardware or software alone, they are more like technical solutions with a social choice. According to anthropologist Anna Tsing, “actual existing universalisms are hybrid, transient and involved in constant reformulation through dialogue” (1). There is usually a kind of friction between the parties. The collaborators might not have common goals at all, but it is important to reconcile the local with the global. The concept “glocal” may help in understanding both global and local needs. To work out through friction, a “neutral place” is needed. System theory can also provide tools for addressing collaboration problems. Well-known Ashby’s Law of Requisite Variety states that “only variety absorbs variety” (2).

Research Data Alliance (RDA) is an initiative founded in 2013 to support data sharing activities. The founders of RDA include European Commission, the US National Science Foundation and the Australian Government’s Department of Innovation. The RDA vision (3) states that researchers and innovators openly share data across technologies, disciplines and countries to address the grand challenges of society. RDA builds the social and technical bridges and infrastructure that enable open sharing of data. Infrastructure in this sense is relations, interactions and connections between people, technologies and institutions. It is a process of consolidation characterized by gateways that allow dissimilar systems to be linked into networks (4). The RDA doesn’t do “architecture”, but it provides a level of unity, fostering relationships, interfaces, and connections.

The RDA is “bottom-up” organization, playing locally and globally. Participation in the RDA is open to anyone who agrees to the RDA principles (7):

Openness
Membership is open to all interested individuals who subscribe to the RDA’s guiding principles. RDA community meetings and processes are open, and the deliverables of RDA Working Groups will be publicly disseminated.

Consensus
The RDA moves forward by achieving consensus among its membership. RDA processes and procedures include appropriate mechanisms to resolve conflicts.

Balance
The RDA seeks to promote balanced representation of its membership and stakeholder communities.

Harmonization
The RDA works to achieve harmonization across data standards, policies, technologies, infrastructure, and communities.

Community Driven
The RDA is a public, community-driven body constituted of volunteer members and organizations, supported by the RDA Secretariat.

Non-profit
The RDA does not promote, endorse, or sell commercial products, technologies, or services.

The RDA Council is responsible for RDA strategy and leadership, including mission, vision and sustainability. The Technical Advisory Board (TAB) is responsible for technical roadmap, the Secretariat takes care of administration and operations, and the Organizational Advisory Board (OAG) is responsible for process and strategic advice (6).

Persons supporting RDA principles may join RDA as individual members. Organizations can join as Organizational Members paying a nominal fee, or as Organizational Affiliates to support jointly sponsored efforts. It is also possible to initiate or join an Interest Group or propose or join a Working Group (5). These groups are formed of experts from around the world, from academia, industry and government. At present there are about 2500 members from 92 countries (3). RDA also organizes Plenary Meetings every six months in different places around the world.

What can libraries do regarding research data management and sharing? Libraries are certainly familiar with many aspects related to research data, at least in conceptual level. Libraries create and manage standardized metadata on daily basis, in order to build databases for national and international use. Libraries are also well versed in user guidance and instruction. The issue at stake is how to apply all this knowledge to research data domain (8). To begin with, libraries have to learn about research data management. It is necessary to encourage library staff and offer opportunities to develop new professional skills. Expertise is reshaped by joining existing training programmes for data librarians or by initiating new programmes. New expertise can be recruited, but this is difficult in today’s economic situation. It is also necessary to initiate collaborative projects with researchers. Libraries cannot do anything alone. For example, participating in relevant RDA Working Groups and Interest Groups (5) offer opportunities to build relationships. Mutual understanding of library’s role and setting realizable goals helps to overcome the friction.

References

  1. Tsing AL. Friction : an ethnography of global connection. Princeton [N.J]: Princeton University Press; 2005.
  2. Ashby WR. An introduction to cybernetics. London: Chapman & Hall; 1956. Available at: http://pespmc1.vub.ac.be/books/IntroCyb.pdf
  3. About Research Data Alliance. Available at: https://rd-alliance.org/about.html
  4. Edwards PN, Jackson SJ, Bowker GC, Knobel CP. Understanding Infrastructure: Dynamics, Tensions, and Design. Available at: http://deepblue.lib.umich.edu/handle/2027.42/49353
  5. RDA Working and Interest Groups. Available at: https://rd-alliance.org/groups
  6. RDA Organisation. Available at: https://rd-alliance.org/organisation.html
  7. RDA Get involved. Available at: https://rd-alliance.org/about/get-involved.html
  8. LIBER Scholarly Communication and Research Infrastructures Steering Committee – Work Plan 2013-2015. Available at: http://libereurope.eu/wp-content/uploads/LIBER_SCRI_SC_implementation_plan.pdf

Heikki Laitinen
Information specialist

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