Research Data Workshops: DataVault Summary

Having soft-launched the DataVault facility in early 2019, the Research Data Support team -with the support of the project board – held five workshops in different colleges and locations to find out what the user community thought about it. This post summarises what we learned from participants, who were made up roughly equally of researchers (mainly staff) and support professionals (mainly computing officers based in the Schools and Colleges).

Each workshop began with presentations and a demonstration by Research Data Service staff, explaining the rationale of the DataVault, what it should and should not be used for, how it works, how the University will handle long-term management of data assets deposited in the DataVault, and practicalities such as how to recover costs through grant proposals or get assistance to deposit.

After a networking lunch we held discussion groups, covering topics such as prioritisation of features and functionality, roles such as the university as data asset owner, and the nature of the costs (price).

The team was relieved to learn that the majority (albeit from a somewhat self-selecting sample) agreed that the service fulfilled a real need; some data does need to be kept securely for a named period to comply with research funders’ rules, and participants welcomed a centralised platform to do this. The levels of usability and functionality we have managed to reach so far were met with somewhat less approval: clearly the development team has more work to do, and we are glad to have won further funding from the Digital Research Services programme in 2019-2020 in order to do it.

Attitudes toward university ownership of data assets was also a mixed bag; some were sceptical and wondered if researchers would participate in such a scheme, but others found it a realistic option for dealing with staff turnover and the inevitability of data outlasting data owners. Attitudes toward cost were largely accepting (the DataVault provides a cheaper alternative than our baseline DataStore disk storage), but concerns about the safekeeping of legacy and unfunded research data were raised at each workshop.

A sample of points raised follows:

  • Utility? “Everyone I know has everything on OneDrive.”
  • Regarding prioritisation of features – security first; file integrity first; putting data from other sources than DataStore; facilitating larger deposit sizes; ease of use.
  • Quickness of deposit and retrieval? Deposit was deemed more important to be quick than retrieval.
  • University as data asset owner?
    • Under GDPR the data are already university assets (because the Uni is the data controller).
    • People who manage the data should be close to the research; IT people can manage users but shouldn’t be making decisions about data. Danger that because it’s related to IT it gets dumped on IT officers. The formal review process helps to ensure decisions will be made properly. Include flexibility into the review hierarchy to allow for variation in school infrastructure.
    • When I heard that I was – not shocked – but concerned. If I move to another university how do I get access? This might be a problem. Researchers might prefer to retain three copies themselves.
  • Is the cost recovery mechanism valid?
    • Vault costs are legitimate costs.
    • Ideally should come from grant overheads, until then need to charge.
    • Possible to charge for small / medium/large project at start rather than per TB?
  • Is the 100 GB threshold sufficient for unfunded research? How else could unfunded or legacy data be covered (who pays)?
    • Alumni sponsor a dataset scheme?
    • There will be people with a ‘whole bunch of data somewhere’ that would be more appropriately stored in DataVault.

The team is grateful to all of the workshop participants for their time and thoughts; the report will be considered further by the project board and the Research Data Service Steering Group members. The full set of workshop notes are colour-coded to show comments from different venues and are available to read on the RDM wiki, for anyone with a University log-in (EASE).


Robin Rice
Data Librarian and Head, Research Data Support
Library & University Collections

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Research Data Workshops: Sensitive Data Challenges and Solutions

This workshop at the Bioquarter was attended by 27 research staff representing all three colleges, with a majority of Medicine and Veterinary Medicine. It began with an introductory presentation from Robin Rice covering the new Data Safe Haven facility of the Research Data Service and and was followed by brief presentations from Lynne Forrest (Research Support Officer on Scottish Longitudinal Study); Fiona Strachan (Clinical Research Manager, Centre for Cardiovascular Science); and Jonathan Crook (Professor of Business Economics). Each speaker shared their experiences of both conducting research using sensitive data and supporting other researchers. Although they work with very different types of data it was easy to identify certain common requirements:

  • Easy access to secure data storage and analysis platforms;
  • Consistent & comprehensive training and guidance on working with sensitive data;
  • Support to meet the necessary requirements to gain access to the data they need;

In the discussion groups that followed, participants were asked about their experiences working with sensitive data, the requirements researchers needed services such as data safe havens to fulfil, and ramifications of the cost recovery model, with regard to including costs in grant proposals.

The major themes that emerged were concerns around training, data governance, and concerns about meeting costs for protecting sensitive data. There was a strong feeling that more and better training was required for all those working with sensitive data. There was also confusion about the number, location, and criteria of different Data Safe Havens now available, and no single place to find clear information on these.

When talking specifically about the Data Safe Haven offered by IS for UoE researchers, the biggest concern was around cost. The standard price was considered high for the majority of grants, which are either small or need to be highly competitive. In some disciplines grant funding is not common and so it is unclear how the costs would be able to be met. The Research Data Service representatives encouraged people to get a bespoke quote and discuss requirements with the team as early as possible, as flexibility on both cost and build specifications (e.g. high performance computing) is built-in.

Some specific points arising from the discussions were:

  • One negative experience about working with sensitive data is the length of time needed to get data approvals (e.g. from NHS bodies). Participants wondered if the University could help to speed those up.
  • More training was desired in sensitive data management and better ways to structure training for students.
  • Learning outcomes need to focus on change of behaviour; with focus on local procedures.
  • One participant felt that schools need a researcher portfolio system, some way of keeping track of who has what data. A suggestion was made to have an asset manager in the university, similar to the one in NHS.
  • Less than optimal security practices can be observed, such as leaving a clinical notebook in a coffee room. More training is needed but this is not fully covered in either clinical practice courses nor ethics.
  • There were concerns around data governance – how to set up gatekeepers for research projects using Data Safe Haven, how long to store things in the DataVault. ACCORD was pointed to for having good structure in data governance.
  • Long-running projects (e.g. ten years) would have trouble meeting the annual costs.
  • Projects are invested in locally run services and expertise; added value centralised services need to be low-cost.

Overall researchers were in favour of having a Data Safe Haven available for projects that need it, but they would also like to have support to correctly anonymise and manage their data so that they could continue to use standard data storage and analysis platforms. This would mean that only those with the most sensitive of data would need to rely upon the UoE DSH to conduct their research.

Those with a University log-in may read the full set of notes on the RDM wiki.

Kerry Miller
Research Data Support Officer
Library & University Collections

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RDM Training for Undergraduate Students

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RDM Training for Undergraduate Students

The Research Data Service at the University of Edinburgh provides research data support and training for staff and postgraduate students. Yet, over the last year through an Innovation Grant  – we have decided to branch out and produce training materials to support our undergraduate students as well.

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The result is a new handbook called ‘Data Mindfulness: Making the most of your dissertation’, along with a set of face-to-face workshops that we have delivered during the spring semester and will be delivering again this autumn. The idea behind this handbook and the workshops is to take UG students through all the stages of their dissertation journey: from choosing their question to dealing with literature and data to preserving their data after submission.

Unlike existing material for postgraduates and researchers, this handbook has been written by one of our PhD interns from the perspective of a student; and it places data management tips within the broader experience of conducting a UG dissertation. We believe this student perspective is what makes this handbook unique and particularly innovative.

Download Data Mindfulness-Making the Most of your Dissertation handbook for your own use or to customise for your own UG students.

Candela Sanchez-Rodilla Espeso
UG Research Data Management Skills Co-ordinator

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Research Data Workshops: Electronic Notebooks Summary of Feedback

In the spring of this year (March & May) the Research Data Service ran two workshops on Electronic Notebooks (ENs) where researchers from all three colleges were invited to share their experiences of using ENs with other researchers. Presentations and demos were given on RSpace, Benchling, Jupyter Notebooks, WikiBench, and Lab Archives. Almost 70 research and support staff attended and participated in the discussions.

This post is a distillation of those discussions and we will use them to inform our plans around Electronic Notebooks over the coming year. It was obvious from the level of attendance and engagement with the discussions that there was quite a lot of enthusiasm for the idea of adopting ENs across a variety of different schools and disciplines. However, it also quickly became clear that many researchers and support staff had quite justified reservations about how effectively they could replace traditional paper notebooks. In addition to the ENs which were the subject of presentations a number of other solutions were also discussed, including; LabGuru, OneNote, SharePoint, and Wikis.

It appears that across the University there are a very wide range of platforms being used, and not all of them are intended to serve the function of an EN. This is unsurprising as different disciplines have different requirements and an EN designed for the biological sciences, such as Benchling, is unlikely to meet the needs of a researcher in veterinary medicine or humanities. There is also a huge element of personal preference involved, some researchers wish a simple system that will work straight out of the box while others want something more customisable and with greater functionality for an entire lab to use in tandem.

So, within this complex and varied landscape are there any general lessons we can learn? The answer is “Yes” because regardless of platform or discipline there are a number of common functions an EN has to serve, and a number of hurdles they will have to overcome to replace traditional paper lab books.

Firstly, let’s look at common functional requirements:

  1. Entries in ENs must be trustworthy, anyone using one has to be confident that once an entry is made it cannot be accidentally deleted or altered. All updates or changes must be clearly recorded and timestamped to provide a complete and accurate record of the research conducted and the data collected. This is fundamental to research integrity and to their acceptance by funders, or regulators as a suitable replacement for the traditional, co-signed, lab books.
  2. They must make sharing within groups and between collaborators easier – it is, in theory, far easier to share the contents of an EN with interested parties whether they are in the same lab or in another country. But in doing so they must not make the contents inappropriately available to others, security is also very important.
  3. Integration is the next requirement, any EN should be able to integrate smoothly with the other software packages that a researcher uses on a regular basis, as well as with external (or University central) storage, data repositories, and other relevant systems. If it doesn’t do this then researchers may lose the benefits of being able to record, view, and analyse all of their data in one place, and the time savings from being able to directly deposit data into a suitable repository when a project ends or a publication is coming out.
  4. Portability is also required, it must be possible for a researcher to move from one EN platform to another if, for example, they change institutions. This means they need to be able to extract all of their entries and data in a format that can be understood by another system and which will still allow analysis. Most ENs support PDF exports which are fine for some purposes, but of no use if processing or analysis is desired.
  5. Finally, all ENs need to be stable and reliable, this is a particular issue with web based ENs which require an internet connection to access and use the EN. This is also an area where the University will have to play a significant role in providing long-term and reliable support for selected ENs. They also need the same longevity as a paper notebook, the records they contain must not disappear if an individual leaves a group, or a group moves to another EN platform.

Secondly, barriers to adoption and support required:

  1. Hardware:
    1. Many research environments are not suitable for digital devices, phones / tablets are banned from some “wet” labs on health and safety grounds. If they are allowed in the lab they may not be allowed out again, so space for storage and charging will need to be found. What happens if they get contaminated?
    2. Field based research may not have reliable internet access so web based platforms wouldn’t work.
    3. There is unlikely to be space in most labs for a desktop computer(s).
    4. All of this means there will still be a need for paper based notes in labs with later transfer to the EN, which will result in duplication of effort.
  1. Cost:
    1. tablets and similar are not always an allowable research expense for a grant, so who will fund this?
    2. if the University does not have an enterprise licence for the EN a group uses they will also need to find the funds for this
    3. additional training and support my also be required
  2. Support:
    1. technical support for University adopted systems will need to be provide
    2. ISG staff will need to be clear on what is available to researchers and able to provide advice on suitable platforms for different needs
    3. clear incentives for moving to an EN need to be communicated to staff at all levels
    4. funders, publishers, and regulatory bodies will also need to be clear that ENs are acceptable for their purposes

So, what next? The Research Data Support service will now take all of this feedback and use it to inform our future Electronic Notebook strategy for the University. We will work with other areas of Information Services, the Colleges, and Schools to try to provide researchers in all disciplines with the information they need to use ENs in ways that make their research more efficient and effective. If you have any suggestions, comments, or questions about ENs please visit our ENs page (https://www.ed.ac.uk/information-services/research-support/research-data-service/during/eln). You can also contact us on data-support@ed.ac.uk.

The notes that were taken during both events can be read here Combined_discussion_notes_V1.2

Some presentations from the two workshops are available below, others will be added when they become available:

Speaker(s) Topic Link
Mary Donaldson (Service Coordinator, Research Data Management Service, University of Glasgow) Jisc Research Notebooks Study Mary_Donaldson_ELN_Jisc
Ralitsa Madsen (Postdoctoral Research Fellow, Centre for Cardiovascular Science) RSpace 2019-03-14_ELN_RSpace_RRM
Uriel Urquiza Garcia (Postdoctoral Research Associate, Institute of Molecular Plant Science) Benchling
Yixi Chen (PhD Student, Kunath Group, Institute for Stem Cell Research) Lab Archives 20190509_LabArchives_Yixi_no_videos
Andrew Millar (Chair of Systems Biology) WikiBench
Ugur Ozdemir (Lecturer – Quantitative Political Science or Quantitative IR) Jupyter Notebooks WS_Talk
James slack & Núria Ruiz (Digital Learning Applications and Media) Jupyter Notebooks for Research Jupyter_Noteable_Research_Presentation

Kerry Miller, Research Data Support Officer, Research Data Service

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