How do you get everyone ‘serious about data’?

‘Good data management is like world peace’

Shauna Ní Fhlaithearta

Shauna Ní Fhlaithearta is a Research Data Management specialist for the WUR Library. She gives courses and advice on data management to students and researchers. “It’s something that needs to be part of your daily routine, like brushing your teeth.”

Shauna Ní Fhlaithearta does not like the expression ‘the carrot and the stick’ advocated by some behavioural scientists as a way of getting people to exhibit desired behaviours. “Our researchers aren’t donkeys to be punished or rewarded; they’re hard-working scientists who, on top of their busy jobs, have to learn how to store large quantities of data securely in the right way and make that data future-proof.”

But some of the things she sees... Research data stored on USB sticks or only on a laptop. The head of a department — no, she won’t name names — who incorrectly claimed that their department did not process personal data. What is more, informed consent forms were not used for the data they collected.

Doesn’t she feel tempted to report such a flagrant violation of all the data rules to the highest authorities? “Not remotely — I’m not a police officer. I see myself as someone who is there to help the researchers. I try to make sure data management becomes part of their daily routine, like brushing your teeth.”

Photography: Judith Jockel

WUR has registered

1.373 datasets

of which

1.366 are accessible to all

This year,

54 people

took part in WUR Library's course for PhD candidates on how to write a Data Management Plan

Laptop stolen: research data lost

Indeed, a standard element in Shauna’s courses and workshops is a series of tweets from PhD candidates who lost years of research data when their laptops were stolen. “Because that has an impact on the audience.” The researchers who are hardest to convince are the ones who have not had any problems for years. “They assume it won’t happen to them. The penny only drops when something goes wrong, and only then if it affects them personally.”

If Shauna doesn’t believe in sticks and carrots, what does she see as the answer? The requirements set by funding bodies such as H2020, the Dutch Research Council and the Netherlands Organization for Health Research and Development can be a big help in making people aware of the need for sound data management. “If you want funding, you have to have a data management plan — researchers can’t get round that.”

Financial incentives or extra credits also work, of course, but in the end it is about improving your own work. “Sound data management helps in the practice of science. If you have an overview, you are able to find your way around your own data and that of your PhD student better. Or you are better able to make use of other people’s data. At present, researchers are judged primarily on their publications; my opinion is that data management should be taken into account too. If students and researchers know that sound data management — which eventually will result in more data sharing too — will be rewarded with faster promotion, that would probably have an effect very quickly. But the importance the chair holder attaches to data management is still a key factor.”


3500 publications

appear every year


Agrotechnology and Food Sciences Group

has the most datasets: 386

49 + 304 datasets

Speaking of data sharing, Shauna and WUR Library’s data librarians helped document 49 datasets over the past year for DANS and 4TU, and they helped record 304 datasets in Pure. That means these datasets will remain accessible for other scientists for years, which could be very valuable for future research.

Shauna sighs. “Good data management does mean extra work. Researchers have to write a data management plan, make their data easy to understand for others and archive it in a data repository. It is important that PhD students’ supervisors can still access the data after the student leaves. We explain to researchers how they can make that possible.” Shauna has found that some research groups are already doing a good job but most need help to make further progress. “I fear it’s a bit like world peace. Everyone understands the need, everyone wants it, but it will be a long time before we get it.”

In 2019,

39 Data Management Plans

were assessed

The Data Stewards Network has

90 members

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