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Engaging Researchers with Data Management: The Cookbook
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4. Dedicated Events to Gauge Interest and Build Networks

Humans are social animals, so physical events are a good vehicle with which to engage people. Who doesn’t like to go to concerts, gigs or exhibitions? Unsurprisingly, librarians have capitalised on people’s natural affinity for a get-together. Five different European libraries started using dedicated events to encourage research communities to be interested in data management and to create engagement, and the idea for such events is spreading.

Two cases: the ‘Dealing with Data’ conference at the University of Edinburgh and ‘DuoDi — Days of Data’ from Vilnius University, describe how to engage with researchers by organising events promoting tools and services for data management.

The remaining cases, ‘Data Conversations’ from Lancaster University, which has also been implemented at Vrije University Amsterdam and at the Open University, discusses informal events — by researchers, for researchers. The conversations are organised around data management topics which appeal to the research community.

Bigger events, such as the ‘Dealing with Data’ conference, tend to be more time-consuming to organise and also more costly. Informal events are typically less time-consuming and less costly to organise, particularly if they are not part of a recurring series, and therefore easier to adapt at other institutions.

4.1. ‘Dealing with Data’ Conference at the University of Edinburgh

Author: Elli Papadopoulou

Contributor: Kerry Miller

© Elli Papadopoulou and Kerry Miller, CC BY 4.0 https://doi.org/10.11647/OBP.0185.10

University of Edinburgh staff organise an annual conference and create internal forums for researchers to talk about research data.

Table 4.1, CC BY 4.0.

Fig. 4.1 A collage from the ‘Dealing with Data’ conference 2018 by Robin Rice. © University of Edinburgh 2018, CC BY 4.0.

Inviting Researchers to Explain How They Deal with Data

It is indisputable that in order to successfully engage with researchers, you need to understand what is important to them, and be able to ‘speak their language’. So what better way to gain this understanding than putting them in the spotlight and giving them the microphone? That’s exactly what the University of Edinburgh Library1 did: they established an annual conference to give researchers an opportunity to share their own data experiences both with their peers and with library staff.

‘“Dealing with Data” is our annual showcase event. It gives researchers a valuable opportunity to discuss their research data challenges and solutions, while also improving the visibility of the services we provide and allowing us to make new contacts within our research communities,’ says Kerry Miller, the Research Data Support Officer, Library & University Collections, The University of Edinburgh.

Hunting for a Good Theme

Every year the library looks for a theme for the data conference, based on international, European and/or national developments. The aim is to find a theme that will ensure inspiring presentations and therefore lead to engagement and discussions.2 This year’s theme is ‘collaboration and solutions about sharing and re-using data’.

Once the theme is selected, the library reaches out to faculties to identify researchers who have experience related to that theme, and who would either like to be a keynote speaker or to make a statement on specific aspects of the theme. Having selected main contributors and put a preliminary programme in place, an official call for contributions is sent through the library’s communication channels.

Manoeuvring to Broaden the Audience

There are, however, still research groups that don’t engage with Research Data Management (RDM). ‘On the one hand we have some researchers who are enthusiastic about data and want to talk more about what they are doing and how they are doing it, and on the other, we see a lack of interest from some researchers,’ admits Kerry.

The library tries to find alternative ways to engage with uninterested researchers and to encourage them to come to the conference, reaching out through their contacts within the schools. Approaching researchers through their peers, rather than via Information Services, helps to persuade them of the relevance of the subject.

Usually though, just giving researchers the opportunity to present their own work is enough to attract their participation, and to attract the attention of their peers. The popularity of the event demonstrates its success: 100–150 participants each time and still growing.

4.2. DuoDi: The ‘Days of Data’ at Vilnius University

Author: Elli Papadopoulou

Contributor: Ramutė Grabauskienė

© Elli Papadopoulou and Ramutė Grabauskienė, CC BY 4.0 https://doi.org/10.11647/OBP.0185.11

Vilnius University engages with researchers about RDM through the effective promotion of a month of structured mini-events teaching best practice.

Table 4.2, CC BY 4.0.

Library Services from a Business Perspective

In the commercial world, enterprises develop products and services, then promote them to customers to facilitate wide adoption and uptake. Similarly, libraries have a pool of resources and services developed to support researchers, so why not promote them in the way that a business person would? That was the thinking that drove Vilnius University Library to build a community around their Research Data Management (RDM) support service.3

Their promotion took the form of five mini-events over the course of a month, called ‘DuoDi’4 (an abbreviation of ‘Duomenų Dienos’ or ‘Days of Data’, which creates an acronym meaning ‘to give’ in Lithuanian).

Each mini-event was a training workshop in three phases:

  1. ACCEPT — increase participants’ familiarity with the RDM support and resources available at the library, including data management planning;
  2. ACT — learn how to use the National Open Access Research Data Archive, MIDAS,5 and its data analysis tool DAMIS;6
  3. BREAK THROUGH — publish and share research data.

Success and the Need to Grow

The ‘Days of Data’ events were initiated after recognizing that researchers needed RDM support, and that the demand was increasing because Data Management Plans (DMPs) had become a requirement for research proposals submitted to in response to national calls in Lithuania. To address this growing demand for support, the Vilnius University Library organised ‘Days of Data’ in collaboration with one of the faculties.

‘Days of Data’ sessions last two hours and cover best practices in writing DMPs, as well as more theoretical issues around RDM. ‘The approach has been much more effective [than previous approaches], but requires effort to prepare the specific examples needed for different scientific disciplines each time, as well as to promote the event through multiple communication channels: we even reach out to the Public Relations Office!’ explains Ramutė Grabauskienė, former Data Manager.

She recognises the wider impact of the ‘Days of Data’: ‘Some researchers have already uploaded their data to the repository, however, sometimes they are not willing to openly share their data with others; there’s still work to do,’ and she can cite cases when people have come to the library after the events looking for further support.

The ‘Days of Data’ have been a start, but they are just one of the mechanisms by which the team at Vilnius hopes to increase engagement with researchers and develop knowledge. Ramutė presents their plans: ‘One of the things we are looking into at the moment, for example, is not only organising these group activities that take place at one moment during the year, but arranging individual consultations and personal meetings with researchers to truly increase researcher engagement.’

4.3. Let’s Talk Data: Data Conversations at Lancaster University

Author: Marta Teperek

Contributor: Joshua Sendall and Hardy Schwamm

© Teperek, Sendall and Schwamm, CC BY 4.0 https://doi.org/10.11647/OBP.0185.12

Researchers at Lancaster University build an RDM community of practice through informal events on research data with multiple speakers and plenty of discussion time.

Table 4.3, CC BY 4.0.

Little Time? Little Money?… But Still Want to Have a Community of Researchers Talking with Passion about Data? You Can Have It with Data Conversations!

Lancaster University started their Data Conversations initiative with the belief that to improve data management practice, they needed to turn away from policy-driven approaches and address cultural issues instead.

Data Conversations are informal, lunchtime talks with time for discussion, which channel researchers’ passions to focus on the human aspects of Research Data Management (RDM). ‘They bring research data stories to life,’ says Joshua Sendall, Research Data Manager and the organiser of Data Conversations at Lancaster. ‘An approach which communicates the intrinsic value of RDM best practice seems to be a better vehicle to drive people to best practices than one which mandates compliance,’ he reasons.

Fig. 4.2 Joshua Sendall, Research Data Manager at Lancaster University. © Joshua Sendall, CC BY 4.0.

So What’s the Recipe?

It is simple: book a nice venue, invite speakers, order pizzas, advertise the event and sit back and let researchers do the talking. Joshua estimates that it takes about two-and-a-half days to organise such an event. He admits that, in practice, the event promotion can be time-consuming. In addition, it’s important to think carefully about the topic: subjects that appeal to a broad range of researchers will attract a more diverse audience from a broader group of disciplines. Of course, a catchy title always helps!

If You Want to Talk about Data, Allow Time for Talking

To increase the diversity of views, each Data Conversation has at least four speakers. Lancaster identifies the speakers in two ways: ‘if we already know about an expert on the topic, we will approach them,’ explains Joshua, ‘but then there is also the open call — when people sign up for the data conversation, they can sign up either to attend or to speak.’

About fifty percent of the speakers are invited, while the other half is identified through the open call. The presentations typically take no longer than 10 minutes and are followed by lively and dynamic discussions. ‘We strive to provide enough time for discussions, so there are always long breaks timetabled between the talks,’ adds Joshua.

Community Building and Cultural Change

Lancaster University Library organises Data Conversations twice a year and has already held 7 events with almost 240 attendees in total. Some of the PhD students who had been attending Data Conversations from the beginning have now graduated and moved on. ‘It’s nice to know that they are embarking on their careers with the awareness of open data and good RDM,’ reflects Joshua.

But does the initiative really lead to cultural change? Joshua sends out a survey after each event and the feedback has been positive, but he prefers to focus on qualitative measures. ‘Researchers said that Data Conversations have changed their practice and we’ve seen it act as an interdisciplinary incubator,’ he says. Data Conversations bring people together from various disciplines. ‘This is where our investment pays dividends: in the relationships developed through these conversations. And there is a sense of community as well,’ reflects Joshua.

Data Conversations have also acted as a springboard for other initiatives. Due to the interest that the attendees expressed in open research, Lancaster has now started a new initiative, ‘Open Research Café’. In addition, they recently partnered with researchers from the Department of Psychology at Lancaster to run a full-day workshop on open research based on the Data Conversations model.

‘FAIL’ Means ‘First Attempt In Learning’

While the initiative is relatively easy to implement, Joshua warns: ‘Be mindful that initiatives such as Data Conversations can take some time to gain traction. Building a brand and awareness takes time.’ Joshua also thinks organisers shouldn’t be afraid of failure. Laughing, he says that in Lancaster they remind themselves of the saying ‘FAIL means First Attempt In Learning’. ‘You learn from experience, and put a different spin on things which didn’t work,’ he adds.

Joshua always approaches the day of the event with a degree of nervousness and apprehension. He wonders if things will go to plan, if people will turn up, if pizzas will arrive. However, he reflects, ‘once the event is taking place, you put all those apprehensions aside and you become lost in the event and you realise, that’s it, it has been a success!’

Additional Resources

4.4. Starting New Data Conversations at Vrije Universiteit Amsterdam

Author: Marta Teperek

Contributor: Maria Cruz

© Marta Teperek and Maria Cruz, CC BY 4.0 https://doi.org/10.11647/OBP.0185.13

Staff at Vrije Universiteit Amsterdam reflect on the benefits and challenges of starting an RDM community of practice through informal researcher-led events.

Table 4.4, CC BY 4.0.

‘We wanted to build a community of researchers interested in data, but we didn’t know where to start and had only limited resources,’ says Maria Cruz, Community Manager RDM at Vrije Universiteit Amsterdam (VU). She attended one of Lancaster’s Data Conversations and got inspired. ‘I loved that it was researcher-led: researchers had lively RDM conversations and kept answering each other’s questions on the subject. It was impressive. I loved the concept and seeing it in action made me want to start this at the VU.’

Getting the Timing Right

The VU had an impressive start. Close to 40 people attended the first event, which was a pleasant surprise given that it took time to build such an audience at Lancaster. Maria thinks that shortening the event to one-and-a-half hours might have helped: ‘one-and-a-half hours isn’t much longer than an extended lunch break;’ however, she warns: ‘ensuring diversity, having at least four 10-minute talks lined up, plus allowing 15 minutes at the beginning for lunch, plus time for discussion, means that scheduling and chairing is tricky. It’s always a pity to interrupt animated discussions between researchers.’

Good Connections Mean a Lot

Maria also reflected that the administrative effort to put the event together took her only two days. She believes it’s thanks to their existing strong networks. The VU already had good connections with PhD students developed through previous training, which meant less effort spent on advertising. Maria also already knew some influencers from previous events and she could send them personal invitations and ask them to distribute the message. ‘These are people whose emails will translate into registrations,’ she says.

An Engaging Event Is Not the Same as Community Building

Maria emphasised that it’s important to manage expectations. ‘Putting the event together is not demanding, but a community doesn’t grow by itself — it requires resources and time.’ People come to an event and then they go away. Keeping track of those who attend these events and staying in touch with them can facilitate community building, but it requires additional effort and careful planning.

Fig. 4.3 Q&A session during a data event. © Jan van der Heul/TU Delft, CC BY 4.0.

Keep Calm and Get Started

Contemplating starting Data Conversations at your institution? ‘Attend one if it’s nearby, talk to people who organised it; seeing it happen and chatting with people is inspiring and helps to get started,’ says Maria. She believes that as long as you have a gut feeling that Data Conversations could work at your institution, you should go for it and you shouldn’t get discouraged if some people are sceptical. There will be others who will share your enthusiasm!

After the first Data Conversation at the VU, a few of the attendees approached Maria and thanked her for organising the event. This, together with the positive feedback received through a feedback form, made Maria very happy and convinced that ‘it was certainly worth it!’

Additional Resources

4.5. Talk to Understand Your Community Better: Informal Events at the Open University

Author: Marta Teperek

Contributor: Dan Crane

© Marta Teperek and Dan Crane, CC BY 4.0 https://doi.org/10.11647/OBP.0185.14

Reflections on how informal discussion forums and speaker-led lunchtime events have helped Open University RDM engage with their research community.

Table 4.5, CC BY 4.0.

The Open University (OU) in the UK used informal events as a vehicle to hear from researchers about their work and what was important to them. ‘We offer RDM support through our website, training, repository and enquiries, but contact with researchers is largely limited to those who get in touch or attend our sessions. It seems natural for us to focus on the mandated and defined goals of data management planning and meeting funder requirements — they are of course important — but are they the things that are most important to researchers as well?’ wonders Nicola Dowson, Senior Library Services Manager for Research Support at the OU Library.

Two Informal Events to Get Discussions Started

‘We’ve held two events where we invited researchers to come and talk about RDM in an informal setting, without us talking at them or pushing an agenda of policy compliance, or telling them why they should write a DMP,’ explains Dan Crane, the librarian at the OU.

The two events were:

  • ‘Data Resolutions’: an open discussion forum without an agenda or structure, just allowing the conversation to flow.7
  • ‘Data Conversations’: a more structured lunchtime event, following the Lancaster model explored in case 4.3, with a mixture of academic staff, PhD students, and RDM staff as speakers.8

Fig. 4.4 Informal discussions with researchers. © Jan van der Heul/TU Delft, CC BY 4.0.

So What’s Next?

The OU aren’t sure yet whether they will organise more events of this kind in the future. These initial discussions highlighted that research at the OU is varied; different disciplines, methods, and groups, require different solutions and approaches. This has inspired them to launch a Data Champions programme (similar to the Cambridge University model detailed in case 5.1) and a call has been issued for researchers who are ready to lead by example and share best practice within their communities.9

Advice for Others Who Want to Start

‘Be bold and do it! Don’t spend too much time thinking about whether it will work and if it will be successful. The worst result would be that not many people turn up. But just go ahead and do it. Someone will come!’ says Dan. ‘Seeing researchers engaged and enjoying the event makes it really worth the effort.’


1 University of Edinburgh Library website, https://www.ed.ac.uk/information-services/library-museum-gallery

2 To get a better idea of the structure around the theme, you may consult past Dealing with Data programmes for 2018 and 2017 at the University of Edinburgh Media Hopper Create space, ‘Dealing with Data Conferences’, https://media.ed.ac.uk/channel/Dealing+With+Data+2017+Conference/82256222

4 DuoDi events, https://www.midas.lt/public-app.html#/news?documentId=100681&newFields=Body&galleryField=GalleryImage&titleField=Title&lang=en

6 DAMIS data analysis tool, https://damis.midas.lt/login.html

7 Data Resolutions at the OU (blog post): Dan Crane, ‘Research Data Resolutions’, 8 February 2018, http://www.open.ac.uk/blogs/the_orb/?p=2553

8 Data Conversations at the OU (blog post): Dan Crane, ‘Data Conversation — talking with researchers about open data, 14 December 2018, http://www.open.ac.uk/blogs/the_orb/?p=3091

9 Call for Data Champions at the OU (blog post): Isabel Chadwick, ‘Call for Data Champions!’, 26 June 2019, http://www.open.ac.uk/blogs/the_orb/?p=3267