Research data – an introduction
What are research data?
Research data can be defined as any digital object created or collected during the course of research (which might include documents, still images, video and audio files, spreadsheets, software, computer code, databases or websites) in addition to physical objects such as sketchbooks, diaries, lab notebooks, portfolios, models, or other artefacts and includes the documentation of practice based research.
Why look after data?
The benefits of looking after your research data effectively include:
- Improving the integrity, longevity and usefulness of your research which includes mitigating the risk of accidental data loss or inappropriate release of sensitive data as well as making sure associated records are complete
- Enabling data sharing and re-use, increasing the visibility, impact and integrity of research
- Supporting future use and discovery
- Meeting funder requirements
See Making the case for Research Data Management (Digital Curation Centre) for more detailed information.
Planning data management
You should make plans for your data before you start to create and collect it. The University’s Research Data Management Policy strongly recommends that a Data Management Plan is completed and many funders are now asking you to do this as part of their application process. Planning at an early stage can help you make the right decisions about creating, storing and sharing your data.
If you would like advice on writing data management plans contact email@example.com.
Working with data
Data may be lost for many different reasons, from accidental file deletion to natural disasters. Even if data are not lost, they may become corrupted during storage or when transferred elsewhere. In the long term this cannot be prevented: the only way to protect against it is to ensure all files are regularly backed up and check integrity periodically. See Storing data for more information.
There are many reasons why you may need to restrict access to your data. It may be commercially sensitive, or contain personal information about subjects, or you may simply not be ready to publish it yet. Either way, you will need to think carefully about how you store it to prevent unauthorised users accessing it.
Equally important will be ensuring that collaborators can have access, whether they are other members of the university or external partners.
See Information Security and Compliance including a link to the IT Security and Use Policy and Storage options to see what is available at the University of Westminster and Storing Your Data (UK Data Archive) for further advice.
Keeping data safe is not enough. It is very easy for data to get disorganised quickly, making it difficult to use information which may have been gathered only a few months earlier. To avoid this you (with your colleagues on the project) should agree a structure for naming and organising your files and folders. Having documentation of this structure (metadata – or data about your data) will help you, and others, to access, use and cite your data effectively in the long term. See organising your files for more information.
When a project is finished you need to consider which data to deposit in a digital repository (again some funders require this). The research councils are committed to the principle that publicly funded research should be publicly accessible, and should remain so; in addition to your data you can deposit the full-text of your publications.
Long-term archiving of research data is necessary to enable future use and reuse, both by the originating researchers and (where applicable) by others.
Archiving data involves selecting which data to archive. How to appraise and select research data for curation (Digital Curation Centre) is a good place to start.
The University’s Archive Services collects, preserves, and provides access to records created by staff and students of the University and its predecessors. They also provide a range of services to staff and students and can give you tailored guidance on how to appraise and select research data for archiving.
See Archiving research data for further information.
If you have any queries about looking after your research data, contact firstname.lastname@example.org.
Sharing and reuse
While working on a project, you will often need to share data with other members of your team or with external collaborators at other institutions or commercial partners.
In addition to this it is increasingly common, especially for publicly-funded research, for data associated with a publication to themselves be published. This enables the analysis in the publication to be independently verified, demonstrating research integrity, and also creates a source of data for new types of research, such as large-scale meta-analyses.
Think about who needs access to your data; is this just colleagues at your institution or will your collaborators need access? You may need to think about protecting sensitive data from unauthorised access. Data management plans can help to manage Freedom of Information Requests (FoI) by demonstrating intent to publish in the future. See Freedom of Information at the University of Westminster and FOI and Research Data Q&A (Jisc) for further information.
See Sharing and re-using research data for more information. Other useful links include Managing & Sharing Data (UK Data Archive; PDF), FAQs on Data Sharing (UK Data Archive) and How to cite data (Michigan State University Libraries).
We gratefully acknowledge the University of Bath in the development of this guidance.