Because good research needs good data

Future plans for DMPonline

Kevin Ashley | 11 January 2013

Data management planning is a topic of increasing importance to researchers, their host institutions and research funders alike. Increasing numbers of funders require plans as part of grant proposals; some are already assessing the quality of these plans as part of bid assessment; and some require further planning to be carried out for successful proposals and are discussing ways to monitor the execution of plans and compliance with funder requirements. The DCC has done significant work in this area for some years from the initial production of the DMP checklist, the comparison of funder data policies and the provision of the first online tool to assist in the data management planning process - DMPonline. We were very pleased to have the latter shortlisted along with the work of US colleagues on DMPTool for the DPC's Digital Preservation Awards at the end of 2012.

Despite this success we know that there's room for improvement with DMPonline. Launched nearly three years ago, the tool has had 2 major releases since then, with substantial changes to the user interface at times. Throughout its life, the DCC DMP checklist has been at the forefront of the use of the tool. Over the past few months, we've been examining DMPonline in unprecedented detail, using usability tests, focus groups, social media monitoring as well as gathering experience from our institutional engagements and JISC-funded projects aiming to customise DMPonline for institutional use. Although there is a great deal that is positive that's come out of this process, there are also some clear messages for change. We've been discussing these internally and have come to some clear decisions about the changes we want to make. This post highlights some of the more significant ones.

The biggest changes relate to the checklist itself and its relationship to the templates used by DMPonline to ask questions of those completing a plan. The checklist itself has grown over the years, partly as a result of significant external input. We now think we're in a position to rationalise it substantially, preserving the rigour but simplifying and reducing the number of questions involved. The other big change is that we will no longer use the questions in the checklist when you are creating a plan for a funder that has its own questions; you'll see the funders questions directly, plus any others that your institution or discipline-specific template may add. This should make the tool significantly simpler for researchers to use, but it has drawbacks for us. It makes it harder to collect cross-funder information about how issues are dealt with and potentially makes it more difficult to encourage funders to ask the same question when they want the same underlying information. It wasn't an easy decision for us to take, but we did so because researchers are the primary user for the tool; the other uses are secondary. The option to use the checklist questions directly won't go away, though - the changes we are proposing will add new options, not take any away.

The tool itself built on the DCC's checklist for data management planning, work on which began in the closing weeks of 2008. The initial version was released to the public in 2009 and in parallel the DCC began work on an online tool, based on the checklist, which would make it easier to create data management plans. DMPonline was launched in April 2010, and it was only then that some funders were beginning to issue specific questions about what they wanted to see in plans which were submitted to them. Our approach of mapping their requirements to our original checklist and asking questions from the checklist itself made sense to us then (and still makes sense to us now.) It would allow us to do some analysis across all funders of how people responded to particular requirements, and it would help us encourage funders to have more commonality in the questions they asked where it made sense to do so. Those are still valid aims, but we don't want them to be achieved at the expense of the researcher who has to create the plan in the first place. Hence the changes we've decided on.

We're also going to make clear the distinction between draft, test and real plans in the tool. We want to get better information on how often the tool is used in anger to create plans that accompany a grant proposal, or support an ongoing research project, and this is the only way we can see to do that. In parallel, we'll do more to ensure that exported plans conform to funder formatting requirements and warn you when they are over a maximum length.

In another area of work, we'll be revisiting the terms and conditions of DMPonline to make it clearer that we and institutions can use aggregate information from plans to aid in planning and future development of DMPonline itself and all areas related to data management planning. We'll likely do some consultation on the form of the terms but it's clear that we can't continue with those in place at the moment and we have no reason to believe that modest changes will reduce willingness to use DMPonline.

There are also a raft of user interface issues, some minor and some more substantial, that will be addressed in the coming months. They range from misplaced or miscoloured buttons to the provision of a progress meter of some sort. We're also planning to reintroduce some form of wizard to help those new to data management planning.

The big change, involving the checklist and the new question templates, is intended to happen over the next few months. I hope that we'll be able to report significant new progress by Easter.