European national OS policymakers discuss data stewards
The Council of National Open Science Coordinators (CoNOSC) met in June 2022 for a face-to-face meeting at the inspirational Delft University of Technology. National policymakers from over ten countries came together to discuss national Open Science (OS) policy updates before taking a deeper dive into how to fund OS policy. The next morning saw CoNOSC members focussing the discussion around the topic of data stewards in smaller groups. The topic of data stewardship was identified by the majority of stakeholders as an area of priority in interviews conducted by SPARC Europe for CoNOSC earlier in the year.
What can national OS coordinators do to introduce and support data stewards and to embed research data management in their countries? For example, what skills, funding or policy measures are necessary? These were some of the questions that were addressed that day.
Below you will find a summary of that discussion.
Top-down national OS policy efforts are well complemented by networks of data professionals and / or data stewards who organise and support research data management more from the bottom up.
Chief Data Officers (CDOs) are placed centrally in academic institutions and are involved in driving good research data management (RDM). Whilst one could start discussing data stewardship with them, they are usually not part of the faculty and thus not as close to the needs of various subject domains. This is why data stewards need to support them and their researchers from within the various academic communities. It is important to make measured decisions on where to instate data stewards in the institution, and it is essential to create, build and connect research data communities both inside and outside the institution.
RDM is often organised decentrally at institutions, but more might be done on a national level to help accelerate the implementation of FAIR research data across a nation. Some countries are in the early stages of implementing Open Science, and data stewards, in a more structured national way. At this stage, government, research funders and other coordinators can fund pilot projects to introduce and foster networks of data champions, as done by a regional government in Belgium together with its universities. Other countries such as the Netherlands are more advanced and already have data steward programmes and have plans in place on how to sustain these over a longer period of time.
Networks of data professionals and/or data stewards need to discuss research needs and share good practices to build on what works. They can give research data management courses to doctoral candidates, for example, and co-design open education material for the broader benefit of researchers, teachers and students. Tools such as wikis can help them communicate with one another and with their communities. But one question remains: how does one attract the right data stewards? Good education, recognition and rewards are prerequisites for this.
Some policymakers felt strongly that the term “data steward” needs to be recognised as a profession in its own right. One needs to move away from data stewards carrying out their jobs as an extra temporary task based on good will, making data stewardship a core competence in the organisation. Data stewardship needs to be more clearly defined, recognised and rewarded at the institution, and needs to be part of the job retention scheme. Determining the just salary scale is challenging since data stewardship is new and calls for a range of skills and important competences.
A curriculum for data stewards would be valuable, if not essential to be able to certify and reward skills. It was pointed out that it was important to discuss the key skills and competencies for strong data stewards on a national level: think Bachelor or Masters studies in data stewardship / RDM. Further incentives for more action in this area could range from introducing legislation to regulate RDM and data stewardship in some countries to national OS prizes – as seen in France.
With regard to the costs of data stewards, some policymakers said that data stewards did not necessarily need to cost more, whereas others disagreed. Networks of champions, data ambassadors or stewards can act as volunteers as part of other positions or they can be new dedicated positions; this can also depend on the maturity of research data management, policy and funding and other factors at the institution. Policymakers agreed that more commitments are needed to dedicate time and resources for data stewards to more fully support research data management needs in future.
This funding area raised the most questions; they were very contextual in nature. 1) Before determining the cost, how does one decide on how many data stewards are needed? And 2) How is (extra) funding sourced to introduce and then embed data stewards in the organisation? It is often difficult for funders to know what costs they can or should cover. Central funding is needed to train trainers. What costs can cover RDM? Does this come from project funds or from elsewhere? Can data stewards feed into the work of EOSC?
National coordinators are keen to accelerate the transition to a more open and FAIR research data environment. Nations could agree on indicators or KPIs to ensure that specific measures are taken together to drive more access to research data and its reuse through data stewards. These could include numbers of data stewards, investment in RDM/data stewardship, etc. However, at the end of the day, it will be important for research institutions as research data creators and curators to think about how to embed the important work of data stewards in their organisations in the mid to long term together with government and others. This is why the involvement of senior research institution/university leadership in this conversation is so vital. Being more aware of the data steward profile can help them consider securing the future of a network of data stewards. National rectors’ conferences can serve as a forum to discuss this important topic.
Last but not least, policymakers, data stewards and other related stakeholders need to work together to progress most effectively: regionally, nationally and internationally. A number of interest groups for data stewards already exist on national and international levels, e.g. RDA has a Professionalising Data Stewardship IG, EOSC has a Task Force for Data stewardship curricula and career paths. A new EU project, Skills4EOSC will start in September 2022; one of its objectives is to build communities of data professionals across Europe. Together we can achieve more.
Marin Dacos: “We are excited about building a network of “data management clusters” (“ateliers de la donnée”), including data stewards, since they are essential to implement the promise of Open Science.”
Karel Luyben: “Data Competence Centres (DCCs) are the building blocks of the network. Each Research Performing Organisation (RPO) should consider having such a DCC to coordinate the data stewards in their organisation.”