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.

Data management planning overview

If you would like advice on writing data management plans contact [email protected].

Funder expectations for research data planning

Working with data

Preventing loss

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 the Storing and sharing data page for more information.

Managing access

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 the Information Security and Compliance page including a link to the IT Security and Use Policy below.

and our Storage options page to see what is available at the University of Westminster and Storing Your Data (UK Data Archive) for further advice.

Organisation

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 the organising your files page for more information.

Sharing data

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.

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 our Storing and sharing data page 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).

Preserving data

Many research funders and publishers expect that the research data underpinning research outputs are preserved and made available as openly as possible. The most common way to achieve this is to preserve and share your research data and materials via a data repository

When a project is finished you will need to consider which data to preserve in a digital repository. You can get guidance on how to appraise and select research data for curation from the Digital Curation Centre website.

See the Preserving and sharing data page for further information.

Acknowledgements

We gratefully acknowledge the University of Bath in the development of this guidance.

Contact us

For further guidance and support, please contact the Research Data Management Officer at [email protected]