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Studies show data management skills in high demand and low supply at universities

Data Management Deficit
April 3, 2012

BALTIMORE — The ability to work well with data is understood to be an increasingly crucial skill as universities aim to preserve, sort and discover information that emerges from research.

But several studies, revealed here at the annual meeting of the Coalition for Networked Information, suggest that higher education has so far fallen short of preparing research faculty and university information workers to handle those tasks.

An ethnographic study of 23 faculty members, postdoctoral fellows, graduate students and other researchers, conducted by the anthropologists Lori Jahnke and Andrew Asher on behalf of the Council on Library and Information Resources (CLIR), found that none had received formal training in data management -- “nor do they express satisfaction with their level of expertise,” according to a summary of the report.

“Researchers are learning on the job in an ad hoc fashion,” explained Rachel Frick, director of the Digital Library Federation at CLIR, quoting the report.

The ethnographers also found that “[m]etadata and documentation is only of interest if it helps a researcher complete their work,” and that researchers are generally ignorant of the data services that librarians are able to provide.

In another, less formal study, CLIR took a snapshot of the landscape of library and information studies (LIS) programs. It found that formal training in data management is hard to come by, even for aspiring librarians. Only five universities offered “dedicated programs” in data management as part of their LIS offerings, according to Frick.

Learning how to properly manage research data is often perceived as a “substandard choice” for aspiring academics, Frick says. “This should be a defined professional path and not a secondary career choice,” she said, adding that building more explicit data management concentrations into LIS graduate programs would help elevate the skill set to a more appropriate level of respectability.  

A delegation from the University of North Texas spoke about a three-year initiative at North Texas to investigate what specific skills such a program would need in order to certify good data managers for academe. The university is building four online, competency-based courses for its own graduate LIS program. It plans to launch the first two courses -- Digital Curation & Data Management Fundamentals; and Tools, Applications & Media Structure -- this summer. 

Apart from the scarcity of data training through LIS programs, universities have not paid much heed to data management and reporting standards now required by certain federal funding agencies, according to additional data collected by investigators at CLIR and North Texas.

Of the 220 universities receiving the most grant funding from the National Science Foundation (NSF) and the National Institutes of Health, only 61 (28 percent) have publicly available policies on how researchers should handle and share their data. Of the top 50 universities receiving NSF grants, half have published policies.

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