I was interested to see a report issued by the JISC last week entitled Skills, Role & Career Structure of Data Scientists & Curators: Assessment of Current Practice & Future Needs. Written by Alma Swan and Sheridan Brown from Key Perspectives, well known for their work on Open Access and Publishing, it makes recommendations on “the role and career development of data scientists and the associated supply of specialist data curation skills to the research community”.
What are data scientists? Are they scientists who look after data? Or IT people who look after data? Or other people who look after data? Do all data scientists do the same kind of “looking after”? Do we know exactly what they do? Do we care?
I do care, though I certainly don’t know the answers to these questions. The report goes some way to providing answers, defining four varieties of data person: Data Creator, Data Scientist, Data Manager, Data Librarian. I guess these represent points along a continuum, with the focus gradually changing from “making the data do something” at one end to “ensuring the data survives” at the other end.
I was intrigued by the suggestion that research funders should require at least one member of the project team to be nominated as the project’s data scientist. I wonder how popular that will be? However, my main interest is of course in the contribution that libraries and librarians may or not have to play in this field.
I can see similarities between some work that librarians do and this new field of data curation. I’ve been wondering about data for some years. As a librarian I tried to engage with biological databanks just as sources of information, making users aware of what was available and helping them to make use of the resources. That worked for a bit, until the resources became so numerous and complex that I could not provide any meaningful assistance. Then a few years later the question “who should look after data?” came up. Well, libraries “look after” stuff, so should we also look after data? Three years ago I went along to the first Digital Curation Conference to ask the question but didn’t really get an answer and I am still not clear. I certainly wouldn’t feel ready to put on a data librarian hat any time soon. It seems I am not alone – there are apparently only five data librarians in the whole of the UK.
The report is quite encouraging, saying:
The role of the library in data-intensive research is important and a strategic repositioning of the library with respect to research support is now appropriate. We see three main potential roles for the library: increasing data-awareness amongst researchers; providing archiving and preservation services for data within the institution through institutional repositories; and developing a new professional strand of practice in the form of data librarianship.
That seems reasonable to me, bearing in mind that the data librarians would be working within a framework of data scientists and data managers. I’d be interested to hear what the data scientists and data managers think. Do you need a new breed of data librarian?
As is the way with such reports, it also sets out a series of further studies that need to be completed:
- A description of the role played by data scientists and the value of the contribution they make to research
- Examples of data science careers
- The development of a set of practices that represent good practice in data science
For those interested, there is also a workshop next month on Roles and Responsibilities for Effective Data Management, organised by the Research Data Management Forum. It’s not related directly to this report.