On June 15th, the Government of Canada published the Tri-Agency Statement of Principles on Data Management, promoting data management for federally-funded research efforts going forward. Outlining the responsibilities of individuals, institutions, funders and the research community as a whole, the statement does not lay out a standard data management program, but instead expectations on what researchers need to consider with their data, and why. In this manner, the Statement is less a point by point plan, and more of expected guidelines: researchers are free to develop their own blueprint on how data is handled, so long as a blueprint or organized approach to data is written and implemented during the study. By addressing institutions, the community and funders, the Statement of Principles on Data Management places expectations on all stakeholders, establishing commitment and top-down support.
Yet what does the Statement of Principles on Data Management actually mean for Canadian researchers? What must be taken into account during the data lifecycle? If you’re developing a proposal for your field of study and might need federal support, below are five points you need to know.
1. If you’re going to use government funds for your research, be prepared to share that data with the public.
"The agencies believe that research data collected with the use of public funds belong, to the fullest extent possible, in the public domain and available for reuse by others."
A critical difference between data collected by private institutions and data collected through federal grants: data collected through federal grants are paid for, in essence, by taxpayers. Taxpayers, in the interest of transparent government, have a right to see the information they're paying to collect. This isn't a new concept: information and data that passes through the Government of Canada have long been subject to the Access to Information Act, which requires federal offices to perform search and release information upon request, baring that which is classified or imposes on individual right to privacy. With the Statement of Principles on Data Management, government transparency is officially extended to research approved by federal institutions and carried out by public funds. In other words, be prepared to hand it over: unless the project is marked top-secret from the start, the data can and will be shared with interested parties.
2. Implement best practices for privacy, security and compliance right away.
“Researchers should also consider whether any ethical, legal or commercial obligations prohibit sharing or preserving the data, and whether any of the data need to be de-identified or made available with restricted access.”
Simply put, if you’re going to collect data that, once in your hands, could put the subjects or elements of your study at risk, take security into account. Privacy and data protection should not be afterthoughts. Where is the data being held, and who will be able to view, modify or edit in the system? Should it be encrypted? Are there ways to better protect the study subjects, such as using k-anonymity, or data minimization principles to lower risk in the first place? Given that the most of the data collected is subject to public inspection, as noted above, is there information that should not be released without safeguards, and can you identify it immediately if asked?
3. Want your research to be funded? Better have a data management plan on board.
Under responsibilities of research funders, the statement includes the responsibility for “developing policies and requirements that enable and recognize responsible data management, in accordance with the principles outlined above.”
It makes sense: best practices and principles are followed more closely when there’s money on the line. By telling federal funding agencies that data management should be a requirement, the Statement of Principles on Data Management develops better teeth. "This isn't just a nice to have," the statement suggests, "this is important if you are asking federal institutions to pay for your research." If you’re planning to make a request for grant funding, make data management part of your plans from the get-go.
4. Don’t keep it all: be conscious of what data you keep.
“All data need to be managed, but not all data need to be shared or preserved – costs and benefits of doing so should be considered in the data management planning process.”
Too often when it comes to data, the opinion is everything must be recorded and kept. It makes sense: you'd hate to miss a variable when evaluation your findings, and sure, after examination that side information collected has no value now, but what about the future? What about preserving data for future studies? The catch-22 is that in the age of Big Data we're collecting everything, with more detail than ever before. System space might be less expensive per Gigabyte than it use to be, but that doesn't mean costs aren't rising: memory might be less expensive, but as our demand for data grows so too does file size, and that's without considering other costs. Transferring data from obsolete systems to avoid decay, wasted time performing search through excess data, not to mention the growing switch to cloud computing, where you pay per month based on storage need: why pay to hold on to data that has no known value?
The key here is determining, upfront, what will be collected, how it will be used, and for how long: is it safe to delete the data after 10 years? 20? Or is there cause to believe the data may have enduring value, wand should be held by Libraries and Archives Canada? The Statement of Principles on Data Management is not intended to limit data collection, but instead to request the research community consider what data it collections wisely, so that funds are spent with care and are available for future research.
5. Finally, an organized approach to data is a must!
“Governments and research funders across the globe are becoming increasingly aware of the value of digital research data, the importance of fostering reuse of digital research data and the need for policies to enable excellence in data stewardship.”
If nothing else, the Tri-Agency Statement of Principles on Data Management shows that the Government of Canada is serious about making researchers accountable for the data they collect. It reflects an international attitude of recognition that the information and data collected in the study can be just as valuable as the study’s results, and in order to maintain that value researchers need a strategy on what they will do with the data. Improving accountability, efficiency, quality and transparency within the project, a data management plan is indispensable. By developing the Statement of Principles on Data Management, the Canadian government stresses that we need to look after our research data now, because:
“the ability to store, access, reuse and build upon digital research data has become critical to the advancement of science and scholarship, supports innovative solutions to economic and social challenges, and holds tremendous potential for Canada’s productivity, competitiveness and quality of life.”