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Becoming a data steward

By Shalini Kurapati for the lSE Impact Blog

Like most PhD researchers, my motivation to enter academia was not driven by monetary success, but a strong desire to make an impact on society for the greater good. After undertaking a complex balancing act between PhD, postdoc, motherhood, and starting a company, I decided not to follow the daunting path of uncertainty towards obtaining tenure. However, neither was I was ready to cut ties completely with the academic network that I had built over 7 years of research. Instead, I wanted to find a role, where I could put my research experience to use, whilst preparing myself to step outside academia. The role I eventually found was that of data steward at TU Delft.

What is a data steward?

In the context of higher education, data stewards are the first point of reference for all data related questions. In my role as a data steward at TU Delft, I was able to advise, support and train researchers on various aspects of data management throughout the life cycle of a research project, from initial planning to post-publication. This included storing, managing and sharing research outputs such as data, images, models and code.

Data stewards also advise researchers on the ethical, policy and legal considerations during data collection, processing and dissemination. In a way, they are general practitioners for research data management and can usually solve most problems faced by academics. In cases that require specialist intervention, they also serve as a key point for referral (eg: IT, patent, legal experts).

Data stewardship is often organised centrally through the university library. (Subject) Data librarians, research data consultants and research data officers, usually perform similar roles to data stewards. However, TU Delft operates a decentralised model, where data stewards are placed within faculties as disciplinary experts with research experience. This allows data stewards to provide discipline specific support to researchers, which is particularly beneficial, as the concept of what data is itself varies across disciplines.

Bridging Gaps

I did both my PhD and postdoc at the faculty of Technology, Policy and Management, where I ultimately worked as a data steward. Support and training requests from researchers were often related to data management plans, data storage and archiving options, data sharing possibilities, personal data protection, GDPR, cross-border data transfers, commercially sensitive data, discipline specific protocols, ethics/legal compliance, and data/code licensing.

Notwithstanding this technical knowledge, my biggest strength was my disciplinary knowledge and deep understanding of how research is actually done. Being able to say ‘I know what you mean’ or ‘I’ve been there’ and really mean it, is massively important to developing healthy and supportive relationships with researchers. This knowledge also made it easier to explain to researchers, who are normally more focused on their research and publications, the importance of data stewardship and the benefits it can provide in terms of research quality and efficiency.

In addition to these technical and consulting activities, I was also able to contribute to university level initiatives to improve the current reward system, which at present is overly focused on high-impact factor publications, and influencing institutional policy towards open science. Having a foot in both camps, allowed me to contribute to these debates and to promote equity in research, if only in a modest capacity, which may not have been possible had I been in a pure research role.

Data stewardship for open science

The profession of data stewardship has emerged in tandem with the development of the open science movement and a renewed focus on how data and other research outputs can be best deployed by higher education and research institutions.

Sharing research outputs like data and code in a way that can be easily Findable, Accessible, Interoperable and Reusable (FAIR)  has multiple benefits: It increases the credibility and reputation of researchers and gives tangible value to taxpayers’ money, decreases research waste, can help influence policy making, and can increase access to research in less developed countries. However, adopting open science and FAIR standards is easier said than done and often requires a distinct set of technical, operational and institutional skills.

This growing complexity of scholarly communication and open science has necessitated the emergence of a new community of data professionals. Having had the opportunity to speak and provide training in this field at events across Europe, it is encouraging to see evermore job opportunities in this area. New roles such as, research reproducibility librarians, further highlight the pace at which the field is developing and how the open research movement is driving a trend for convergence between roles that were previously split between university libraries and research departments.

More importantly, this is a field, where research experience and doctoral training along with good communication skills, are greatly beneficial and even required in most job descriptions. As post-doctoral careers become more varied, data stewardship presents an important alternative route for researchers, where the skills they have developed over years of study are put to good use.

After an eventful and enriching year as a data steward, I’m now moving on to my next professional adventure to focus on a tech startup aiming at improving transparency in Machine Learning models. My experience as a data steward has enabled me to develop a career outside of academia. I believe that data stewardship can be an excellent alternative career path for researchers and I can say with conviction that this job can give a true sense of satisfaction to that little activist in us, who nudged us in the first place to become an academic and change the world.


This posted was originally placed on the LSE Impact blog: https://blogs.lse.ac.uk/impactofsocialsciences/2019/04/30/becoming-a-data-steward/ 

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