Decisions and Revisions…

The ending of a recent CLIR report on research data management to which I contributed and edited had a sort of rosy, optimistic glow to it that the data in the report didn’t really support. Some of the stronger language about the risk to humanities research as libraries capitulate to the demands of increasingly technocratic administrations was defanged, and the final lines were reframed as a call to arms, rather than the abject pessimism (I still believe) that belied not only the data, but the state of the field that we observed over a period of two years.

Needless to say, none of that was my decision – the PI intervened after reviewing the final text and added the peppier language. I was able to reframe this a little in a blog post the publisher requested, but it’s been nagging at me that the report ended on such a note. So here, then, is the ending I wrote, after two years in the trenches observing librarians’ struggles with the latest great federal unfunded mandate: the retention and sharing of research data.


At our final focus groups, conducted in June 2013 during the American Library Association annual conference in Chicago, we asked participants (mostly academic librarians) what message they most wanted us to take away from the discussion. In stark contrast to focus groups early in the research process, in which participants, while anxious about the cost of implementing data management services, were eager to hear what was happening at other institutions, and to share gossip and anecdotes about badly-behaved PIs and administrators, the atmosphere in the Chicago focus groups was noticeably subdued. “Worried,” “anxious,” and “stressed,” were the words most often used by participants to describe their feelings about data management services at their institutions.

One participant, a liaison librarian from a prestigious private research university, eloquently stated that she feared that disciplines like philosophy, the humanities, and the soft social sciences would be left behind in terms of library support as university administrations and offices of research, library leadership, and funding agencies including the NEH-ODH turn away from supporting traditional lines of scholarly inquiry toward data driven – and in particular “big data” driven – projects that are now “sexy.” Just as the turn to information in libraries was a profoundly anti-humanist move that diminished, and continues to diminish, support for humanities disciplines in academic libraries, the now-trendy turn to data threatens to further weaken support for non-STEM research in favor of agency and administration priorities which in many cases researchers in the disciplines do not share.

In the two and a half years since the NSF announced its data management plan requirement, academic libraries have scrambled to keep up with what remains perceived as an unfunded mandate. Returning to the nautical metaphors popular in discussions of big data, we’re neither riding the wave nor being swamped by it. Rather, we’re becalmed, mired in the Sargassum of institutional inertia. There was some hope that the February OSTP memo nudging federal agencies to come up with a coherent strategy would spark some movement, but the August deadline for agency plans came and went with no public announcement. In the absence of clear guidance from the agencies, university administrations have an easy excuse for withholding resources from service providers – mainly libraries – claiming that they believe this is a passing whim on the part of the agencies, and there’s no point in investing time, money, and staff without a more clear return on investment. PIs too have room doubt the seriousness of the data-sharing mandate, and can craft data management plans that reinforce the proprietary nature of their data, rather than planning to make data available to be preserved, shared, and repurposed. And libraries will continue to try to meet the demands of both administrations and researchers with ever-shrinking financial resources – diligently polishing the decks and patching the sails in vain hope that today the winds will return.


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