The Intangible Rewards of Engaging with Research Data

Guest post by Amanda K. Rinehart, MS, MLIS, Life Sciences Librarian and Associate Professor for the Department of Research and Education, University Libraries, at the Ohio State University. Ms. Rinehart will deliver the 2022 Joseph Leiter NLM/Medical Library Association (MLA) Lecture, “Data Communities: Room for Everyone, Roles for Librarians,” on December 6, 2022.

As I reread the OSTP Public Access Memos from 2013 and 2022, I am struck again by the premise behind openly sharing research data:

When federally funded research is available to the public, it can improve lives, provide policymakers with important evidence with which to make critical decisions, accelerate the rates of discovery and translation, and drive more equitable outcomes across every sector of society.

That’s ambitious enough but sharing research data goes a few steps further: It also uses our taxpayer funds more efficiently, increases public trust in the scientific endeavor, and facilitates research collaboration. However, if you haven’t had the opportunity to be a part of it yet, these can remain abstract motivations and may seem daunting. How and why would any librarian engage with sharing research data?

Research data management (RDM) is the organization, storage, preservation, and sharing of data. When a researcher is faced with a new RDM expectation—especially one that is often seen as a burden instead of a boon—it’s a natural fit for them to trust their librarian to help. Librarians are allies in this changing and confusing landscape. Because an inherent aspect of cutting-edge research is that it has never been done before, it often results in data that has never been previously collected or synthesized. As a result, this data doesn’t yet have ideal resources, workflows, or technologies for sharing it.

There is rarely one solution or easy answer. Librarians must ascertain what the researcher needs, whether it be awareness of new requirements, information about their options to meet these requirements, or education about better data management practices. We point to resources like shared curation training, multi-institutional partnerships and international perspectives, or appropriate data repositories. We acknowledge workflow gaps and challenges and summarize those needs across disciplines and institutions. We advocate for better resources, services, and support for managing research data. Because of this complexity, finding the combination of resources that results in appropriate sharing is more akin to building a relationship or becoming part of the research team rather than a transactional interaction.

However, providing assistance that is tailored to the specific needs of the researcher takes time, effort, and knowledge. Because RDM is a burgeoning field heavily dependent on changing technology and policy, staying abreast of current practices is a heavy investment as well. Most librarians, if not all of them, face reduced staffing, longer hours, more responsibilities, and limited pay. Therefore, what would induce a librarian to engage with research data? For myself, I share values with those cited in the OSTP Public Access Memos, so I have found many of my RDM interactions quite rewarding, and I suspect other librarians do as well.

For example, I participated in a meeting comprised of researchers who wished to improve infant and maternal health outcomes for local lower-income communities. In our county, we have a high rate of infant and maternal mortality, with Black infants dying at 2.7 times the rate of White infants. The researchers wanted to use an app, pre-installed on free phones, to make transportation to health care providers low cost or free. But how would they manage sensitive location and appointment data? Who needs access to that data, and when? What regulations apply, and how can we go beyond those requirements to make sure we are ethical? These are difficult questions, but they can lead to heartening discussions and innovative solutions with custom databases, Data Use Agreements, de-anonymization, encryption, and ultimately, data destruction.

This is just one example that touches on topics that I care about: infant and maternal health, social justice and equity in health care, and effective, efficient transportation as part of city infrastructure. But I’m not a health care provider, a sociologist, or a city planner. I’m a librarian, and as such, I can contribute by meeting researchers where they are, determining their most urgent needs, guiding them to resources, identifying gaps in knowledge and services, and advocating on their behalf to have those gaps filled.

I know my work doesn’t solve these large real-world problems or even just the problem of making research data available to those who can most beneficially use it. But any improvement in RDM practice gets us one step closer. I don’t have to solve the world’s problems to help solve the world’s problems. If you care about how data can be used to fulfill the NIH mission to “enhance health, lengthen life, and reduce illness and disability,” then you can see the value in becoming engaged with research data and how librarians can help researchers meet that goal.

Prior to starting her career as a librarian in 2011, Ms. Rinehart spent eleven years as a biologist with the United States Department of Agriculture testing alternative agricultural methods to reduce the human impact on climate change. Ms. Rinehart has a Master of Library and Information Science degree from the School of Information at the University of South Florida and a Master of Science degree in Botany and Plant Pathology from Michigan State University.

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