Some Insights on the Roles and Uses of Generalist Repositories

Guest post by Susan Gregurick, PhD, Associate Director for Data Science and Director, Office of Data Science Strategy, NIH

Data repositories are a useful way for researchers to both share data and make their data more findable, accessible, interoperable, and reusable (that is, aligned with the FAIR Data Principles).

Generalist repositories can house a vast array of data. This kind of repository does not restrict data by type, format, content, or topic. NIH has been exploring the roles and uses of generalist repositories in our data repository landscape through three activities, which I describe below, garnering valuable insights over the last year.

A pilot project with a generalist repository

NIH Figshare archive

Last September, I introduced Musings readers to the one-year Figshare pilot project, which was recently completed. Information about the NIH Figshare instance — and the outcomes of the project — is available on the Office of Data Science Strategy’s website. This project gave us an opportunity to uncover how NIH-funded researchers might utilize a generalist repository’s existing features. It also allowed us to test some specific options, such as a direct link to grant information, expert guidance, and metadata improvements.

There are three key takeaways from the project:

  • Generalist repositories are growing. More researchers are depositing data in, and more publications are linking to, generalist repositories.
  • Researchers need more education and guidance on where to publish data and how to effectively describe datasets using detailed metadata.
  • Better metadata enables greater discoverability. Expert metadata review proved to be one of the most impactful and unique features of the pilot instance, which we determined through two key metrics. When compared to data uploaded to the main Figshare repository by NIH-funded investigators, the NIH Figshare instance had files with more descriptive titles (e.g., twice as long) and metadata descriptions that were more than three times longer.
Illustrating how professionals can identify opportunities for collaboration and competition.

The NIH Figshare instance is now an archive, but the data are still discoverable and reusable. Although this specific pilot has concluded, we encourage NIH-funded researchers to use a generalist repository that meets the White House Office of Science and Technology Policy criteria when a domain-specific or institutional repository is not available.

A community workshop on the role of generalist repositories

In February, the Office of Data Science Strategy hosted the NIH Workshop on the Role of Generalist and Institutional Repositories to Enhance Data Discoverability and Reuse, bringing together representatives of generalist and institutional repositories for a day and a half of rich discussion. The conversations centered around the concept of “coopetition,” the importance of people in the broader data ecosystem, and the importance of code. A full workshop summary is available, and our co-chairs and the workshop’s participating generalist repositories recently published a generalist repository comparison chart as one of the outcomes of this event.

We plan to keep engaging with this community to better enable coopetition among repositories while working collaboratively with repositories to ensure that researchers can share data effectively.

An independent assessment of the generalist repository landscape

We completed an independent assessment to understand the generalist repository landscape, discover where we were in tune with the community, and identify our blind spots. Key findings include the following:

  • There is a clear need for the services that generalist repositories provide.
  • Many researchers currently view generalist repository platforms as a place to deposit their own data, rather than a place to find and reuse other people’s data.
  • Repositories and researchers alike are looking to NIH to define its data sharing requirements, so each group knows what is expected of them.
  • The current lack of recognition and rewards for data sharing helps reinforce the focus on publications as the key metric of scientific output and therefore may be a disincentive to data sharing.

The pilot, workshop, and assessment provided us with a deeper understanding of the repository landscape.

We are committed to advancing progress in this important area of the data ecosystem of which we are all a part. We are currently developing ways to continue fostering coopetition among generalist repositories; strategies for increasing engagement with researchers, institutional repositories, and data librarians; and opportunities to better educate the biomedical research community on the value of effective data management and sharing.

The Office of Data Science Strategy will announce specific next steps in the near future. In the meantime, we invite you to share your ideas with us at

Dr. Gregurick leads the implementation of the NIH Strategic Plan for Data Science through scientific, technical, and operational collaboration with the institutes, centers, and offices that make up NIH. She has substantial expertise in computational biology, high performance computing, and bioinformatics.

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