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NECTAR and the Data Asset Framework – final thoughts

NECTAR logo“Our DAF project has provided an evidence base for the development of a future research data policy and of services to support research data management.”

Some months ago I blogged about our plans to undertake a DAF project at The University of Northampton. DAF is the Data Asset Framework, which enables universities to audit departmental data collections, awareness, policies and practice for data curation and preservation. There had not previously been any systematic audit of data management practices at the university and it was felt that the DAF methodology would allow us to gather evidence to inform not only preservation planning but also the development of new policy and services to support researchers.

At that stage we had won approval for the project to go ahead and were investigating how we might implement the methodology.

This post describes some of the key challenges and findings of the project we eventually undertook. We conducted both an online survey and a series of interviews. We found that researchers were generally confident in managing their data but held a number of misconceptions regarding the services available to support them in this.


The biggest obstacle to starting the project was the lack of a project researcher. We had no spare capacity in Information Services but we were aware of several university and local initiatives which aimed to provide graduates and PhD students with the opportunity to gain relevant work experience and new skills. We also had contacts in Information Science departments at other universities and considered inviting a Masters student to undertake the project.

In the end, we were fortunate enough to get two graduate interns from the local Graduate Boost [1] programme.

Lesson #1: Making use of graduates from a local scheme was advantageous to both of us. We gained free research assistants, they gained valuable work experience.

Each intern was available for four weeks and we wanted to offer both of them the chance to be involved in a range of project activities, including design; data collection; analysis and reporting. Our implementation of DAF therefore had to be designed in two halves and completed within eight weeks.

Project plan

Action to be completed by end of week
Week 1 (14/5/10)
Researcher 1
Researcher 1: induction/familiarisation with The University of Northampton (UoN).
Introduction to DAF (Stage 1)
: What is it? Why are we doing it? What do we hope to achieve? Who has used DAF before – what can we learn from them? (Contact other institutions if appropriate).  Establish justification and need for this project.
Who are the project stakeholders? What do they want from the project? (Conduct interviews with Project Board; Director of Information Services; Deputy Director (Academic Services) and Director of Knowledge Exchange).
Define scope of project, aims and objectives.
Write up introduction to project.
Week 2 (21/5/10)
Researcher 1
DAF Stage 2: find out about research data at UoN.
Conduct interviews with research leaders.
Review methodologies used by other institutions (especially content of surveys); draft survey questionnaire for UoN (based on feedback from stakeholders and experience of others); create survey using Bristol Online Surveys.
Write up methodology – including justification for decisions taken.
Week 3 (28/5/10)
Researcher 1
Conduct pilot survey; evaluate pilot and amend survey as required.
Present progress report to Project Board.
Online survey goes live
; promote to research community.
Write up pilot.
Week 4 (4/6/10)
Researcher 1
Monitor survey results; produce data analysis plan; produce draft interview plan (incorporating researcher workflow and data management practices).
Promote survey to research community and identify possible candidates for interview.
Produce briefing sheet for Researcher 2.
Week 5 (11/6/10)
Researcher 2
Researcher 2: induction/familiarisation with UoN.
Introduction to DAF
– familiarisation with DAF methodology and experience so far at Northampton (see Researcher 1’s reports).
Monitor ongoing survey results; evaluate plan for data analysis and amend if appropriate; continue promoting survey to research community.
Finalise interview schedule; pilot this and make amendments as necessary.
Write up plan for analysing survey data.
Meet with Project Board.
Week 6 (18/6/10)
Researcher 2
DAF Stage 3: identify candidates for interview; conduct interviews; transcribe interviews.
Continue monitoring survey.
Online survey closes.

Write short report of key themes arising in interviews.
Week 7 (25/6/10)
Researcher 2
Finish identifying candidates for interview; conducting interviews; transcribing interviews.
Analyse survey results and write up.
Week 8 (2/7/10)
Researcher 2
DAF Stage 4: Final reporting and recommendations.
Write up results from interviews; collate with survey results; make recommendations for policy and practice in research data management.
Present final report to Project Board, Director of Information Services, Deputy Director (Academic Services) and Director of the Knowledge Exchange.

In DAF terms, Researcher 1 focussed on Stages 1 (planning) and 2 (identification and classification of data assets) while Researcher 2 took on Stages 3 (assessment of data asset management) and 4 (reporting and recommendations). The project was overseen by a Project Board comprising myself (NECTAR repository manager), the university’s Records Manager and Information Services’ Collections and Learning Resources Manager.

Fortunately, the project went according to plan. The first project researcher had no difficulty completing the desk research, interviewing several research leaders, designing and launching the survey, and writing up progress thus far. The second project researcher had the harder task, since he was tasked with conducting in-depth interviews with researchers, analysing the data from both the survey and the interviews, and producing the first draft of the project report.  To his credit, he succeeded in all of this.

Lesson #2: The limited availability of project staff and the tight deadlines for the project forced everyone to work quickly and effectively in order to complete the project in time.

Project findings

The online survey attracted 80 responses – more than we initially expected. No doubt the incentive of a £50 prize draw helped. The survey covered a wide range of issues including the types, sizes and formats of research data held; its ownership; means of storage; security arrangements; sharing and access over the short and long term; and the requirements of funders. The (sixteen) interviews enabled the project team to follow up key findings from the survey and gather additional technical information on specific data objects.

Lesson #3: The timing of the project, toward the end of the summer term, worked well for us.  Researchers had time to respond to the survey and a good number volunteered for the follow-up interviews.

A number of themes emerged. Three generic types of researcher were identified, based on their different needs and behaviours with respect to research data: the research student, the independent researcher and the group researcher/collaborator.

Some common behaviours were identified, for example, researchers overwhelmingly use Microsoft software for creating documents and spreadsheets and so habitually create .doc and .xls file types; similarly, .jpeg is the preferred format for image files. In contrast, there is much greater variation in the file types used for databases, audio and video files. This of course has significant implications for preservation planning.

Data storage needs and behaviours vary throughout the research lifecycle, with different storage devices being prominent at the data collection, analysis and project completion stages. For those that need to share data, a shared server has proved to be effective, but where this is not available, email is most frequently used.

Relatively few Northampton researchers have applied for funding from a body that mandates open access to research data and just over half are interested in a university repository for data (either for their exclusive use or for wider access). Of those that are interested in using a repository, more are interested in storing data for a finite period (say, until the end of the project or for a specified period thereafter) than indefinitely. Although a significant minority of researchers would consider allowing academic colleagues, either at Northampton or elsewhere, to access their data, the majority do not want their research data to be publicly available.

The project highlighted some common problems and concerns:

  • researchers’ data management practices are guided by intuition rather than informed by good practice;
  • data are sometimes neglected once a project is complete;
  • there is uncertainty surrounding the ownership of data;
  • in some cases data are still being collected or stored in out-dated formats;
  • the university’s shared server space is under-exploited;
  • researchers are unaware or misinformed of the full range of services available to them.

It is impossible to know whether these issues are common to the research community as a whole, but they certainly provide a useful starting point for a dialogue with researchers.


The DAF project gave us a much greater understanding of the needs and wants of researchers with respect to their research data. It has provided an evidence base for the development of a future research data policy and of services to support research data management. Project recommendations additionally include clarification of data ownership, provision of data management training and guidelines, and promotion of digital preservation.

Although researchers were generally not interested in storing their datasets in the university’s open access institutional repository (NECTAR), the DAF project has been helpful in confirming that the file types which are stored in NECTAR are representative (albeit as a subset) of the types generally created by researchers. Future preservation planning for the repository will therefore also inform preservation plans for research data.

UPDATE (18 October 2010) The full report on this work is now available: E. Alexogiannopoulos, S. McKenney, and M. Pickton, Research Data Management Project: a DAF investigation of research data management practices at The University of Northampton, University of Northampton, September 2010

[1] Graduate Boost is designed to provide unemployed graduates with work experience and postgraduate credits towards an MBA qualification. It is managed by 3e, a social enterprise employment agency, on behalf of the Northampton Business School, and is funded by the Higher Education Funding Council for England (HEFCE) and the European Union European Social Fund.

UPDATE (20 Oct. 2010) The full report on the Northampton DAF project is now available: Alexogiannopoulos, E.McKenney, S. and Pickton, M. (2010) Research Data Management Project: a DAF investigation of research data management practices at The University of Northampton. University of Northampton, September 2010

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