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Engaging Researchers with Data Management: The Cookbook
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5. Networks of Data Champions

Good Research Data Management (RDM) practice can be challenging to achieve in higher education institutions because of the diverse nature of the research community. Difficulties also arise because researchers may not possess the skills, resources or time to manage their research data effectively; they may not be aware of the benefits of RDM and open science; or perhaps they don’t see its value since it is not well incentivised by the current academic system. Many institutions have already implemented centralised research data management units to mitigate such problems and provide support, but the desired discipline-specific expertise, and the resources required for training, remain limited.

Lack of Funding? Need More RDM Support? Build a Community-Based Model

Implementing a network of Data Champions can provide a cost-effective solution to improve RDM support. Essentially, Data Champions are individuals who volunteer their discipline-specific expertise; they lead by example to promote FAIR (Findable, Accessible, Interoperable, Re-usable) data principles, advocate good RDM practice and advise members of their local research community on the proper handling of research data. They use their passion for knowledge exchange and desire to build a collaborative and researcher-led community to drive the uptake of open science principles in their departments and institutes, and engage with central RDM units to improve understanding of research practices in their discipline.

Fig. 5. The definition of a TU Delft Data Champion. © Connie Clare/TU Delft, CC BY 4.0.

In this chapter we share success stories and valuable lessons learned from research institutes that have pioneered the development of community-based models in order to better engage researchers with research data. We learn how to establish a Data Champions community from the University of Cambridge, how to reward and recognise Data Champions from TU Delft, and how to launch a similar Data Stewards programme from Wageningen University.

5.1. Data Champion Programme at the University of Cambridge

Author: Connie Clare

Contributors: Lauren Cadwallader, Sacha Jones, James Savage

© Clare, Cadwallader, Jones and Savage, CC BY 4.0 https://doi.org/10.11647/OBP.0185.15

The University of Cambridge links central RDM support to a network of volunteer Data Champions to efficiently disseminate RDM knowledge and training, start conversations across research units, and gather discipline-specific expertise for input on policy.

Table 5.1, CC BY 4.0.

Establishing a Data Champions Network

The University of Cambridge kick-started their Data Champion programme1 in September 2016 to drive cultural change towards open data within 6 academic schools and around 100 departments and institutes across the university. The programme is centrally coordinated by the Research Data Management Facility in the Office of Scholarly Communication (OSC).2

The OSC provides information about good Research Data Management (RDM) practice, short training courses, consultancy, and guidance for researchers depositing their data in the institutional repository, but it cannot meet demand. Lauren Cadwallader, Deputy Head of Scholarly Communication and manager of the Research Data Management Facility, explains how establishing the Data Champions network has helped the OSC to meet these growing research demands. ‘Without our Data Champions it would be physically impossible for the OSC to reach the many thousands of researchers at the University.’ With only two employees, who each spend about 0.3 FTE (Full-Time Equivalent) of their time coordinating the programme, Lauren reveals that ‘embedding Data Champions within many schools and departments has dramatically extended the influence of the OSC in promoting the open science agenda across a breadth of research disciplines.’

Growth of a Community

Since its inception, the University of Cambridge Data Champion programme has made three successive calls for volunteers. Following the most recent call made in January 2019, the programme comprises an impressive 87 active members.3 This substantial cohort of Data Champions welcomes anyone interested in data management, including researchers (from early to established), technicians, data managers, IT professionals, librarians and data scientists. The programme also includes ‘affiliated’ Data Champions, who are individuals who contribute their RDM expertise without working to benefit any specific department.

Fig. 5.1 A cartoon advertising the Data Champions network at the University of Cambridge. © Clare Trowell/University of Cambridge, CC BY-NC-ND.

What Does It Take to Become a Data Champion?

The first call for volunteers (September 2016), outlined the various roles and responsibilities of prospective Data Champions, requesting that they act as local experts and advocates for good RDM, serve as RDM representatives by attending bimonthly forums, forward questions to the RDM team, and conduct at least one workshop per year. However, as the programme evolved it became apparent that the first cohort of Data Champions were delivering RDM support and advocacy in a variety of ways, from writing data management plans to conducting electronic lab notebook trials, but not necessarily by conducting a workshop. Consequently, the second call (February 2018) was amended such that Data Champions were not required to deliver any particular type of support.4

What’s in It for You?

Becoming a Data Champion has many benefits. Lauren highlights the opportunity to enhance professional development through the programme. ‘Many individuals join the team to learn new skills and improve their own RDM practice.’ She adds, ‘by undertaking OSC training and organising extracurricular activities, individuals can develop essential transferable skills to boost their CV and future career prospects.’

Joining the vibrant community of Data Champions can facilitate multidisciplinary collaboration with like-minded personnel, increase an individual’s impact beyond their immediate circle, and present opportunities for networking beyond the University. This was wonderfully demonstrated by Data Champion and postdoctoral researcher from the Department of Zoology, James Savage, who received funding through the OSC to attend the International Data Week 20185 conference in Botswana and gave a presentation on the Data Champion Programme. James embraced this opportunity by engaging with representatives of similar programmes at the conference, disseminating the knowledge he gained back to the Data Champion programme, and ultimately publishing a practice paper6 to summarise the progress made on the establishment of the Data Champion community at the University of Cambridge.

The Challenges

Whilst establishing a community of Data Champions provides many benefits, there are also many challenges. The main issues revolve around: (i) attracting new volunteers, in particular from the arts, humanities and social sciences; (ii) sustaining motivation and productivity amongst the existing cohort; (iii) maintaining central support; and, (iv) providing incentives to devote time to the programme.

James emphasised the additional problem of bias towards STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering, and Mathematics) disciplines in the current demographic of Data Champions (since only 18% of current Data Champions work in humanities and social science disciplines, with none in the arts). To address this problem, the language of the most recent call was altered to make it more inclusive to individuals working within those disciplines. James stressed the importance of promoting diversity and inclusion when establishing a community of Data Champions. ‘The programme was designed for all disciplines. All researchers should have a voice to direct the future of the Data Champion programme at the University of Cambridge.’

5.2. TU Delft Data Champions

Author: Connie Clare

Contributor: Yasemin Türkyilmaz-van der Velden

© Clare and Türkyilmaz-van der Velden, CC BY 4.0 https://doi.org/10.11647/OBP.0185.16

RDM staff at TU Delft reflect on the value of their network of volunteer Data Champions for engaging with the research community, and explore how Data Champions can be appropriately rewarded for their contributions.

Table 5.2, CC BY 4.0.

Inspired by the original University of Cambridge Data Champions programme, TU Delft Data Champions programme was launched in September 2018 to deliver disciplinary-specific support to all 8 research faculties of Delft University of Technology. Sharing the common goal of advocating proper Research Data Management (RDM) practice, both programmes adopt a centrally-coordinated, researcher-led and bottom-up approach to community building.

As described in case 6.1, TU Delft Data Stewards are full-time staff embedded within each faculty with the purpose of being the first point of contact for inquiries relating to RDM practice. However, it is appreciated that Data Stewards will not possess all of the disciplinary experience and will not have all of the answers all of the time. Furthermore, they are unable to reach every single researcher; therefore there is a need for Data Champions to build on the existing infrastructure to create a cohesive web of support.

The Glue that Holds the Community Together

Data Champions are a valuable asset to the TU Delft research community. To date, there are 47 Champions and numbers are continually increasing. Data Steward and Data Champion Community Manager, Yasemin Türkyilmaz-van der Velden, tells us how the programme responds to the needs of Data Champions so that they can cater to the needs of their community: ‘We appreciate that Data Champions are volunteers who offer their time, support and expertise out of goodwill. As this is not their full-time position and because time is in short supply, we don’t enforce strict requirements on what they must deliver. Rather, we give them the flexibility to make their individual contribution to the community of TU Delft as they wish.’

Fig. 5.2 The network of Data Champions meet to discuss ideas and share knowledge at TU Delft. © Jan van der Heul/TU Delft, CC BY 4.0.

Reward and Recognition: If They Make It ‘FAIR’ for Us, We Should Make It Fair for Them

One of the key objectives at TU Delft is to reward the exemplary efforts of their Data Champions by giving them more publicity, which in turn can raise their professional profile. Many researchers are taking great leaps forward to advance open science by making their data ‘FAIR’ (Findable Accessible Interoperable and Re-usable) but are not widely recognised for their inspiring work. TU Delft want to commend their Data Champions and express gratitude to those who go the extra mile.

A recent internship project is currently underway to publicise the achievements of TU Delft’s Data Champions. One-to-one interviews are conducted with Champions to learn more about their research projects, how they effectively engage with researchers, their motivations for becoming Data Champions, and their future goals and aspirations. Following each interview, each Data Champion case study is written and published as an article on TU Delft’s ‘Open Working’ blog (alongside a quirky illustration), under a dedicated tab on the Homepage titled ‘Data Champions’.7 Here are examples of articles written to showcase their stories:

  • ‘The Changing Landscape of Open Geospatial Data’, 10 July 2019 — Balázs Dukai harnesses the power of existing data to build 3D city models8
  • ‘Keep calm and go paperless: Electronic lab notebooks can improve your research’, 5 July 2019 — Siân Jones champions the use of Electronic Lab Notebooks9
  • ‘Reduce, Reuse, Recycle knowledge: How open hardware can help to build a more sustainable future’, 3 July 2019 — José Carlos Urra Llanusa shares his vision of open hardware,10
  • ‘Can I really read your emotions if I look deep into your eyes’, 2 July 2019 — Joost de Winter explains the importance of replication research in the field of ‘Cognitive Robotics’11

Tweeting and Tagging

Articles and events are regularly published and shared to the blog and social media accounts (for example, Twitter, LinkedIn and Slack) in order to increase the visibility of the Data Champions programme. Making the Data Champion network more transparent online facilitates community interaction and incentivises a wider community to engage with the programme. This may be particularly important to demonstrate the benefits of the programme to those who might be reluctant to join because they fear that becoming a Data Champion will place added burdens on them, in addition to their other academic commitments.

Final Thoughts and Future Steps

Yasemin stimulates further debate over the best way to reward, recognise and incentivise good RDM practice in her final thoughts on the matter. ‘To successfully sustain a thriving community of Data Champions at TU Delft we must continue to reward their efforts and explore innovative ways of reinventing the programme to attract new Data Champions and maintain turnover.’

In a recent interview with TU Delft library, Balázs Dukai expressed his feelings of personal satisfaction and accomplishment upon joining the network of Data Champions. ‘As an individual researcher, becoming a Data Champion has allowed me to acquire valuable skills and knowledge that I wouldn’t have otherwise encountered. As part of a wider research community, becoming a Data Champion has allowed me to connect my group with a diverse network with opportunity for collaboration.’ From this we conclude that whilst efforts should be made to reward and recognise Data Champions for their work, simply becoming a member of a supportive community network can be a reward in itself.

5.3. Data Stewards at Wageningen University and Research

Author: Connie Clare

Contributors: Saskia van Marrewijk and Erik van Den Bergh

© Clare, van Marrewijk and van Den Bergh, CC BY 4.0 https://doi.org/10.11647/OBP.0185.17

Wageningen University’s network of Data Stewards will be formed primarily from existing academic and research-related staff given new formal roles and responsibilities around supporting RDM.

Table 5.3, CC BY 4.0.

The Wageningen Data Competency Center (WDCC) was established at Wageningen University and Research (WUR) in September 2017 to support developments in the field of big data. The Center encompasses five WUR policy lines: (1) education, (2) research, (3) data management, (4) infrastructure, and (5) value creation, to integrate and strengthen the existing organisation of education and research within the University.

Meet the Team

The Data Management Support Team, a collaboration of WUR Library and IT (Information Technology), coordinated by the WDCC, comprises 9 employees from the library, legal services and IT, who provide guidance for researchers throughout the research lifecycle. Additionally, the WDCC data management website12 is a useful resource where PhD candidates can read WUR data policy13 and regulations. What’s more, researchers can contact the ‘Data Desk’14 via an open mailbox to have all of their data questions answered by a member of the support team.

From ‘Data Savvy’ to ‘Data Steward’

It seems as though WUR have all bases covered when it comes to helping researchers engage with their data. However, following the recent establishment of the WDCC, the major reform on EU General Data Protection Regulation (GDPR), and the amendment to WUR Data Policy that stipulates all PhD researchers must archive the data underlying their publications (as well as write a data management plan), there is increasing pressure on researchers to incorporate sustainable data management in their workflows to meet the requirements of research institutes, funding bodies and publishers alike.

The WDCC realises that one centralised support team alone will be insufficient to meet these requirements within all 6 graduate schools at WUR and have, therefore, decided to implement a community of Data Stewards to more effectively engage with their research community about data and to provide better Research Data Management (RDM) support for researchers.

According to WDDC Data Management Secretary, Saskia van Marrewijk, ‘a WUR Data Steward will fulfil a similar role to that of the Data Champion at the University of Cambridge or TU Delft in the sense that they are volunteers with discipline-specific experience in good RDM practice.’ She continues, ‘however, at WUR we will formalise the roles and responsibilities of Data Stewards as we expect them to complete specific tasks within their research departments.’

WDCC Infrastructure Coordinator, Erik van Den Bergh, adds, ‘we haven’t yet appointed Data Stewards within departments but they already exist as “data-savvy personnel” working within their various departments at WUR.’ Indeed, there are approximately 120 employees who frequently undertake RDM tasks as part of their daily work at WUR. ‘Finally being able to award these data experts the official title of “Data Steward” means that they will be recognised for their efforts,’ says Erik. ‘More importantly, they will be allocated specific time to undertake RDM tasks that counts towards their working hours instead of them having to find time to complete tasks.’ The WDCC anticipates that Data Stewards will dedicate time accounting for around 0.2 FTE (Full-Time Equivalent) for every 30 researchers within their departments.

Another unique aspect of the WUR Data Stewards programme is that a Data Steward position may not be available to everyone. Erik hopes that the position will be filled by established staff members, such as senior researchers, lab assistants and technicians, who have long-term employment contracts in order to avoid the risk of Data Stewards leaving with their acquired knowledge. He also believes that the position would be too laborious and time-consuming for an early career researcher. Again, this represents a very different approach to those taken by the University of Cambridge and TU Delft to build their networks of Data Champions.

Measuring Cultural Change

Aside from basic counts of the number of visitors to the WDCC data website, the data management support team don’t currently measure whether their contributions are driving cultural change within the WUR research community. However, they hope that by empowering so many staff members to advocate good data management practices, researchers will become more engaged with data topics. The WDCC is eager to measure the impacts of implementing a Data Stewards programme and plans to achieve this by using Change Performance Indicators implemented as part of their university-wide, strategic, three-year plan that was presented earlier this year. These indicators are metrics used to assess the effectiveness of the programme in improving RDM practice across WUR.


2 Cambridge Research Data Management, https://www.data.cam.ac.uk/

3 Members of the Cambridge Data Champions community, https://www.data.cam.ac.uk/data-champions-search

4 ‘Cambridge Data Champions — reflections on an expanding community and strategies for 2019’ (blog post), 19 June 2019, https://unlockingresearch-blog.lib.cam.ac.uk/?p=2602

5 Information about the International Data Week, https://internationaldataweek.org/

6 J. L. Savage and L. Cadwallader, ‘Establishing, Developing, and Sustaining a Community of Data Champions,’ Data Science Journal 18:1 (2019), 23, https://datascience.codata.org/articles/10.5334/dsj-2019-023/

7 Data Champions page on the Open Working blog, https://openworking.wordpress.com/data-champions/

9 ‘Keep calm and go paperless: Electronic lab notebooks can improve your research’, https://openworking.wordpress.com/2019/07/05/keep-calm-and-go-paperless-electronic-lab-notebooks-can-improve-your-research/

10 ‘Reduce, Reuse, Recycle knowledge: How open hardware can help to build a more sustainable future’, https://openworking.wordpress.com/2019/07/03/reduce-reuse-recycle-knowledge-how-open-hardware-can-help-to-build-a-more-sustainable-future/