Making use of RDM support requests to inform planning activities

I’ve written previously about the support requests that LSHTM’s RDM Service receives each year. In my first post on this topic I wrote about the decisions that need to be made on defining the boundaries of a support request, while the second explored the themes raised in support requests. For this blog post, I will reflect on how the source of an RDM query and questions raised are informing planning work that is currently taking place.

Number and frequency of RDM support request
Researcher demand upon the RDM Service has grown slightly over the past year, increasing from 88 unsolicited support requests in 2013 to 120 during 2014. Although I’ve noticed the time required to process each query has grown (see below), these numbers continue to be easily handled by one person as a subset of their day-to-day work.

A comparison of monthly figures for 2013 and 2014 do not show any correlation in the number of requests submitted in specific months, beyond a recognition that fewer people get in touch at the end of term. However, there is a noticeable increase in support requests during months where dissemination activities are organised (lunchtime seminars in Jan, Feb, April and Oct 2013, a drop-in session during June 2014, and half-day workshop in Nov 2013/14). External factors, such as funding calls or data-related announcements are also a factor – the majority of queries during March 2014 were prompted by growing awareness of the PLOS Data Policy, whereas many of the May 2014 requests focused upon a MRC funding call.
No. of RDM queries per month
An examination of the source of each request reveals that the Epidemiology and Population Health (EPH) faculty continue to be the largest group of researchers to contact the RDM Service, submitting almost half of support requests (57). Fewer researchers in Infectious and Tropical Diseases (29) and Public Health and Policy (19) got in touch via email/telephone with a question. Although this is an increase over the previous year, the difference in contact numbers is an area of concern that I intend to investigate further. Anecdotal feedback from a small group of researchers suggests that they contact specific people in their department for domain-specific advice and consult web based resources. However, I’m concerned that some are unaware of the RDM Service as a source of advice. To address this, I intend to perform more outreach activities in specific departments and

Topics raised in an RDM Support request
To identify common trends in support requests received in 2014, I assigned a topic label to each query. As previously noted, it can be difficult to classify a query under a single label – correspondence may cover a range of areas, including data storage, security, sharing and licensing, among other areas. In many cases, these wide-ranging discussions may be classified under the umbrella of a funder Data Management Plan. For those that cannot, I’ve classified them according to the researcher’s primary concern or topic that took the largest amount of time.
No. of queries received, organised by type
The creation of funder-specific Data Management Plans continues to be the most common issue raised by researchers when they contact the RDM Service. Since the launch of the RDM website in early 2014, I’ve been able to save time in handling these queries by directing them to specific guides and worked examples for basic queries, but there remains a need for tailored advice and feedback on draft DMPs. Queries on data sharing have also risen in the past year to become the second most common topic, as a result of the PLOS Data Policy. These queries often cover several areas, such as deciding whether it’s appropriate to make data available, locating a suitable data repository, and expectations for data sharing. The analysis also reveals a growing need for advice on developing data sharing agreements for use within a project or when making data available to a wider audience.

It remains difficult to predict the average time that must be spent on a support request. Basic requests can be handled in 5-10 minutes by pointing them to a relevant webpage, while queries that require project-specific advice can take 30 minutes to 3 hours to handle. At the upper scale of complexity, support requests related to database development or producing Data Manager job descriptions and participating in interview panels, can take up to 20 hours of time.

Use in planning activities
The analysis of support requests provides insight into the needs of your researchers at a specific time – information that can feed into the creation of work plans for the next six months. Queries on the Wellcome Trust Data Management Plan and PLOS Data Policy have already been used to inform the creation of summary guides, while the theme of a half-day workshop in November 2014 was changed to focus upon specific challenges associated with sharing health data in response to support requests. In principle, this should reduce the likelihood that several people will get in touch with the same question and, if they do, reduce the time that must be spent on the task. It will also save the researchers’ time, enabling them to consider more advanced issues related to these topics. In practice, I suspect it will increase demand for subject-specific guidance. Future work is likely to focus upon creation of case studies that explore the challenges and approaches taken by projects working in specific subject domains.

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