Because good research needs good data

Data stewardship – current international activities and national challenges

Angus Whyte, Patricia Herterich, Ryan O'Connor | 23 July 2021

After a pause in hosting RDMF - we were busy with IDCC and the RDA Plenary - we brought RDMF back in a virtual setting. The virtual format allows for a wide range of speakers highlighting a range of international cases and approaches in the keynotes and lightning talks as well as insights from participants in the discussion sessions.

The topic this time around was data stewardship in research institutions, and we ran the event over two half days. The idea that institutions need central coordination of efforts to manage research data properly is of course nothing new in the UK. DCC has been championing that for many years. Many institutions have people doing this and we were fortunate to have their participation in this event.

But is ‘data stewardship’ about reaching parts of the academic community that people in central support roles find difficult or time-consuming to reach? Some early adopters of RDM in the UK have been recently augmenting their teams in this area. In DCC we thought it timely to bring together RDM coordinators from across the world working in national or regional contexts to put data stewardship in place.

Data stewardship approaches – from national programmes to discipline specific support

On each day, the scene was set by a keynote. Dr Mijke Jetten presented the first keynote on day one, giving a detailed overview of data stewardship developments in the Netherlands. Data stewards work in a complex landscape and specialisation is needed to focus on three core topics for stewardship they identified, namely policy, research and infrastructure. As a lot of the processes and policies data stewards are trying to implement require radical change, so people in these roles need to be comfortable pushing for change. One of the key messages from this keynote was that due to their complexity these roles need to be properly recognised with adequate salaries and career paths.

The lightning talks gave an insight into the detailed experiences of data stewards in two institutions. First up was Dr Lisa Otty from the Edinburgh Centre for Data, Culture and Society who introduced how they balance central RDM requirements at the university with local discipline specific support for SHAPE subjects (Social Sciences, Humanities and the Arts for People and the Economy). This connective role is key; for a researcher in a department, central services may seem really far away and difficult to navigate, so building a local community and helping especially Early Career Researchers with advice and training is crucial.

The final speaker for day 1 was Paul van Schayck from Maastricht University, who combines the roles of data stewards and research software engineers in his institution. He introduced the role of data stewards in the agile approach they take to develop various RDM services: data stewards join agile sprints and add the view of researchers in the design processes and setting of priorities.

Discussion on day one started off in breakout rooms, with attendees reflecting on how they used case studies and policy developments to leverage changes for data stewards within their institution.

The keynote on day 2 was given by Dr Graham Parton from the Centre for Environmental Data Analysis, one of the data centres supported by NERC, the UK’s Natural and Environmental Research Council He gave an overview of the work of the RDA Interest group on Professionalising Data Stewardship. This includes a task group reviewing the various models that organisations are using to offer support on data stewardship. Graham then talked through the challenges for a domain data repository in supporting data stewardship throughout the research data life cycle. NERC data centres have long-established history of coordinated effort to support data management planning, from the start of a research project to deposition in the relevant domain repository. Despite this they face similar issues to institutional support, competing demands on researchers and gaps in communication across the lifecycle make it challenging to connect researchers to their services at the most suitable moment.

The second talk came from Dr Myriam Mertens who shared lessons learned from setting up a data stewardship group at the University of Ghent. Drivers for setting up the central team were a desire to professionalise their institutional RDM support and ensuring that they can support any discipline specific needs. She highlighted that recruiting people to these new roles is challenging. It is unclear which formal qualifications are needed to fill these posts, and which training will prepare you for the day-to-day talks.

Day 2 had more time for discussions and the breakout groups talked through how data stewards are involved in developing infrastructure, and which gaps a community of practice for data stewards could fill.

What’s next for data stewardship in the UK?

The final talk was from Jisc’s Helen Clare, who presented several opportunities for those involved in UK research support to nurture a community around data stewardship. One of these is the Digital Research Community, a forum Helen coordinates to bring together practitioners from various backgrounds. Another is a newly re-launched Open Research Competences Coalition, an initiative that aims to relate the skills needed in data stewardship to others needed for Open Research.1

Wrapping up RDMF21, DCC’s Angus Whyte identified several themes in the intermediary roles that had been described in the talks, which complement central RDM service functions in institutions. Some of this intermediary work is about amplification – amplifying the services available as inputs to data management, or the data-rich outputs that researchers produce. Intermediary roles also involve filtering the options available and summarising needs and solutions. More concrete role descriptions need clarification and coordination at national and international levels.

Should institutions in the UK look to the national or international level for strategies on skills and training that can help RDM services make the case for more investment in data stewardship? Both are useful – towards the RDA and EOSC (European Open Science Cloud) for useful models and approaches, and towards UKRI (UK Research and Innovation) for national strategy. One space to watch is the EOSC Association and its Task Forces on ‘Research Careers and Curricula’.2 The projects working to create the EOSC, such as FAIRsFAIR, also have recommendations and guidance on policy, practice, and curricula for data stewardship. And at national level, UKRI can be expected to follow up on its promises to lead strategy on data access and clarify how they expect different professional groups to sustain research infrastructures.3

If this summary has piqued your interest, join some of the communities highlighted throughout RDMF. The RDA nterest group on Professionalising Data Stewardship is always looking for interested members. Its various task groups are revisiting their workplans ahead of the next plenary, so it is a good time or you to get involved and shape some of the outcomes.

Slides from the talks are available on our zenodo community at .

You can also always follow up with the DCC team on any RDM related topics at

1 Open Research Competences Coalition:


3 See the UKRI Infrastructure roadmap report (2020) -