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A focus on… the emerging role of ‘Data Steward’ in Ireland

by Dr Deborah Thorpe

In DRI’s Repository, you can discover collections of data that range from the Cork LGBT Archive, to the Jacob's Biscuit Factory Archive, to the Irish Women at Work Oral History Project. The Repository preserves, manages and provides sustained access to this social and cultural content for the long-term future. The DRI team also collaborate with our members to showcase this digital content, working on promoting it and encouraging others to cite and reuse it. One element of our work that can cause confusion, though, is the difference between ownership and stewardship of data.

The data that you find in the Repository has a variety of data owners. These are the organisations that are responsible for the data and primarily comprise DRI’s members. As is outlined in the European Commission’s own data governance and data policy, they are the ‘business owners of data assets’, and are accountable for the quality of the assets [1]. DRI is not the data owner for the majority of the data in the Repository, with a number of notable exceptions including our own Publications and the outputs of some DRI-led research projects. Indeed, in order to ingest digital objects into the DRI Repository, an organisation must hold the rights to the data, or must show that it has the necessary permissions to publish the data (see DRI’s Collection Policy). Though DRI supports the open sharing and reuse of data where possible, depositors control the rights statements and licences attached to their digital assets. Digital preservation with DRI does not compromise the position of the data owner: the original creators retain ownership, copyright, and associated intellectual property rights of all digital objects ingested into DRI.

The term data stewardship, in contrast to ownership, is ‘a catch-all term for numerous support functions, roles and activities with respect to creating, maintaining and using research data’ [2]. DRI is a repository that provides stewardship for data in the arts, humanities and social sciences. Data stewardship is a rapidly expanding area of expertise, with new roles emerging globally. A data steward can be defined as ‘a person responsible for keeping the quality, integrity, and access arrangements of data and metadata in a manner that is consistent with applicable law, institutional policy, and individual permissions’ [3]. In a recent training session (more on that below), Joy Davidson from the Digital Curation Centre pointed out that this is an intermediary role and stewards are often the first point of contact for those who have data that they need help with [4].

But who, specifically, are these data stewards? The ‘Data steward’ is  an emerging role and there are a range of ways that their skills are becoming embedded in institutions and organisations. They are typically ‘support staff from research communities and research libraries, and those managing data repositories’ [5]. The Venn diagram below shows roles and responsibilities that are combined in data-intensive research, including data stewardship: 

[Image: from OECD, ‘Building digital workforce capacity and skills for data-intensive science’, OECD Science, Technology and Industry Policy Papers, No. 90 (Paris: OECD Publishing, 2020), https://doi.org/10.1787/e08aa3bb-en, Figure 3]

A draft report by Ireland’s National Open Research Forum (NORF) highlights the case study of the TU Delft Data Steward Model, in which each Faculty has a dedicated data steward. These individuals, each with a PhD in a subject area relevant to their home Faculty, act as ‘the first point of contact for researchers and focus on developing data management tools, data storage solutions, data sharing, DMPs, budgeting for data management and training’. Importantly, then, they possess data stewardship expertise, as well as higher-level disciplinary knowledge. This combination of expertise reflects wider recommendations around the research data lifecycle, namely that data should be deposited in certified disciplinary repositories [6].

NORF’s report points out, however, that ‘within the research ecosystem there are a range of roles and personnel who do not identify as data stewards but are involved and contribute significantly to the management of research data and FAIRification processes’. So, there are many hands involved in the transition to a FAIR ecosystem.

Data Stewards in Ireland: past, present and future

In Ireland specifically, the NORF report identifies that ‘professional, embedded or discipline-specific data stewards are not a common feature in Ireland as a central institutional resource or as members of research centres, groups and teams’. To further develop this role,  there is a need for both current and future data stewards to acquire data stewardship knowledge, skills and abilities, and to bring together existing expertise in a network or community of practice [7].

Responding to this, NORF, FAIRsFAIR and EOSC Synergy ran a three-day Data Steward Instructor Training course in July 2021 to support the development of data stewardship skills among staff in higher education institutions and other research performing organisations in Ireland. With important stewardship roles in the lifecycle of Ireland’s arts, humanities, social sciences, and cultural heritage data, DRI staff attended the workshop alongside around forty other representatives from institutions and organisations across Ireland. In addition to presentations on the role of data stewards, data management planning, responsible and open research, the Research Infrastructure Self-Evaluation (RISE) framework for assessing research data services, and more, there were a number of group discussion sessions. Speakers at the workshop shared a wealth of published resources on data stewardship, several of which have contributed to this blog post. 

I wrote the following in my feedback on the training course:

Data stewardship is an emerging role, and, as pointed out by Joy Davidson in the first session of the workshop, stewards ‘wear more than one hat’ within institutions and organisations. This workshop was an invaluable opportunity to set aside a significant amount of time to think about data stewardship and meet with others across Ireland to talk about the potential, practicalities, and challenges involved in being a data steward in an Irish context specifically. As many pointed out in the concluding session, it was a good reminder that ‘we are not alone’ in being involved and/or interested in data stewardship in Ireland. Having oversight of training within DRI, it gave me food for thought about the ways that we can support each other within this developing network of data stewards in Ireland.

[Main image: Fáilte Ireland. City Typist, Co. Dublin, Digital Repository of Ireland [Distributor], Dublin City Library and Archive [Depositing Institution], https://doi.org/10.7486/DRI.r7829119t]


I hope that you have found this blog post helpful. Do you have any comments, questions, or suggestions for future topics for the DRI blog? If so, contact me, Dr Deborah Thorpe, at: d.thorpe@ria.ie

Notes

[1] European Commission, 'Data governance and data policies at the European Commission' (2020), 13, accessed July 20, 2021, https://ec.europa.eu/info/publications/data-governance-and-data-policies...

[2] Mijke Jetten et al, 'Professionalising data stewardship in the Netherlands. Competences, training and education. Dutch roadmap towards national implementation of FAIR data stewardship' (Version 1.1) (2021), 20, Zenodo, http://doi.org/10.5281/zenodo.4623713 

[3] Mijke Jetten et al, ‘Professionalising data stewardship,’ 20

[4] See also OECD, ‘Building digital workforce capacity and skills for data-intensive science,’ OECD Science, Technology and Industry Policy Papers, No. 90 (Paris: OECD Publishing, 2020), https://doi.org/10.1787/e08aa3bb-en 

[5] Laura Molloy et al, D3.4 Recommendations on practice to support FAIR data principles (Version 1.1) (2020), 8, Zenodo, http://doi.org/10.5281/zenodo.3924132

[6] European Commission, ‘Turning FAIR into reality: Final report and action plan from the European Commission expert group on FAIR data’ (Luxembourg: Publications Office of the European Union, 2018), 26, https://doi.org/10.2777/1524. 

[7] See Mijke Jetten et al, ‘Professionalising data stewardship,’ 23.