Benefits of data management

Research data management refers to how you handle, organise, and structure your research data throughout the research process. Data management:

  • Begins with your initial considerations regarding what will be necessary for using or collecting your particular type of data;
  • Includes measures for maintaining the integrity of the data, making sure that they are not lost due to technical mishaps, and that the right people can access the data at the appropriate time;
  • Looks forward to the future, making it clear that you should provide detailed and structured documentation to be able to share your data with other colleagues and prepare them for long-term availability.
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To make your research as time-efficient, reproducible and safe as possible, it is important that your data management is well thought through, structured, and documented. A good data management strategy takes into account technical, organisational, structural, legal, ethical and sustainability aspects. The time invested in setting up a good data management strategy pays off when the time comes to reproduce your analysis and results. You will be able to easily find and understand your data, increase your data's reuse potential and comply with funder mandates at the same time.

Data Management Plan

Data Management Plans (DMPs) are a key element of good data management | European Commission, 2016.

Information regarding your data management needs to be easily found and understood, not least if you are working on a project that runs over several years and involves a large team of people. In order to simplify data management, a Data Management Plan (DMP) can be created early in the research process. A DMP is a formal document that provides a framework for how to handle the data material during and after the research project. The way a DMP will look once it is finished isn't universal. It is a "living" document that changes with the needs of a project and its participants. It is updated throughout the project to make sure that it tracks such changes over time and that it reflects the current state of your project.

A lot of diversity exists in DMPs because they are always built around the particular needs of the data collected within your project. Sometimes there are particular requirements that has to be answered in the DMP from stakeholders such as:

  • Funders may require a Data Management Plan (sometimes called Data Publication Plan (DPP)) to get information on what data you intend to collect and whether (and how) you will make those data accessible to others. In this case you provide the funding agency with whatever information they require, to the extent that they specify. Depending on the nature of the call, such plans may include not only details on the kind and volume of data to be produced but also how the datasets will be documented and shared (along with other research outputs of the project, such as publications, program code, and educational resources). They may specify the length of the DMP, or you may be expected to include it in the page count for the scientific plan.

    A DMP written for the funder is not always the same type of comprehensive DMP which is described in the list of questions to this tour guide (CESSDA, 2017). However, the list can be used as support when writing the DMP/DPP that the funder(s) require. Some funders might require that an updated DMP/DPP shall be submitted as a deliverable within a specific time period. See 'Diversity in funder requirements' for more infomation.

  • Your institution may have its own policy regarding data management, including what information must be gathered and archived together with research data and publications. It’s possible that your institution can support you with writing a DMP, e.g. by providing expertise or (referring to) safe storage services.

The added value of a Data Management Plan

Several researchers I’ve been talking to who have looked at the Data Management Planning checklist of the Swedish National Data Service (SND) have said that doing so made them start thinking of data security, ownership, file formats etc. before they started their project. By doing so they avoided some possible problems that would otherwise appear later on | Ulf Jakobson, Data manager humanities, SND.

A Data Management Plan (DMP) offers added value in the following ways:

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  • Taking the time to plan ahead can save you a great deal of headache once the project is up and running.

    Overall, a DMP helps you to plan for the resources, tools, and expertise that are required to store, handle, and manage the given types and volumes of data that are expected to be collected. A DMP serves as a tool to pay careful attention to all aspects of data management. It makes you aware of possible problems at an early stage so that you can work around them. E.g. it reminds you to gain consent for future reuse and sharing from research participants.

    By thinking early about various aspects of data management, you can ensure that the material is well-managed during the research period. With structured data material, which is also well documented, it becomes easier for others to understand the material. This, in turn, facilitates the preparation of the material for archiving, and enables further research after the project has ended.

  • An important function of a DMP is to work as a one-stop shop to find project-related information. Research becomes so much easier if all your questions surrounding managing your data is gathered in one place and project-related details are readily available rather than just vaguely remembered or simply forgotten.

    A DMP is an efficient way for the researcher and his/her team to gain control over and and keeping track of how data is managed when the research is up and running. Regardless of the size of the team there will be a need for easily found data-related information regarding file locations, naming conventions, standards, project description, project roles, backup regimes, versioning and so on. By writing a DMP, the researcher can ensure that the material is well-managed during the research period, which also facilitates the preparation of the material for archiving, and thus enables further research after the research project has ended. Also, it is usually easier to document research material if this is done in close proximity to the steps in the research process that create or change the material.

    Project management becomes easier if you also include administrative information such as the names and ORCIDs of the Principal Investigator and project members, what institution owns the data, registration numbers for funding and ethics board approvals. Furthermore, a lot of relevant information is kept in log books, code lists, technical reports and other documents. These documents can be referred to in the DMP together with where they are located. Keeping all relevant information regarding your project in one place makes future reference a lot easier, whether that future reference is for your own thesis in three years, for an audit in five years or for a historical study in fifty.

  • Data management is not free. You do not want to find yourself running out of funding before the end of the project because you have ignored or underestimated the cost of structured, detailed, safe data management. Therefore, an important aspect of a DMP is its use in calculating how much money will be required for managing your research data during your research project.

    A DMP can be useful in the process of applying for funding. Grant applications should not only include time and resources for collecting, analysing, and publishing on data in their budget. Time and resources for careful documentation as well as server space, backup solutions, and documentation software need to be included as well. A DMP is also useful once funding is granted to plan and manage your expenses. Many research funders require a DMP as part of the application and decision-making process. The argument for making data available are several, not least, data produced by public funds should be used to the greatest extent possible and available to the public. Unless there are legal, ethical or commercial barriers, data should also be openly available so that research results can be verified.

    A useful tool to assist you in budgeting for data management costs is the 'Data Management Cost Guide' (Westerhof, Pronk, van der Kuil and Mordant (2016), inspired by the 'Data management costing tool' by UK Data Service, 2013).

  • A DMP allows you to think through beforehand how to provide a dataset to a data repository which is as FAIR as possible. A DMP:

    • Makes structuring and documentation of your datasets simpler, thus making it easier for others as well as your future self to find and understand the material;
    • Encourages you to think about the data format which is best suited for reuse;
    • Allows you think about the reuse license you would want to apply your data;
    • Etc.
  • If you draw up a DMP, you are showing your own institution, funders and project partners that you take managing your research data seriously. You are willing to show that you are dealing with research funds and research participants in a responsible way.