The practicalities of data management for agricultural researchers

By  Andrea Powell, Chief Information Officer, CABI, UK

A report published in June 2017 by Ithaka S+R called “Supporting the Changing Research Practices of Agricultural Scholars “ made for very interesting reading here at CABI.   After all, we have spent over 100 years providing the world’s agricultural research community with current awareness databases and links to the most up-to-date information within our subject domain.   We know that our users’ needs are changing and that we have to keep up-to-date with their information discovery and consumption habits, otherwise our products will soon become obsolete and irrelevant.  We also know that agricultural researchers are also authors, producers of much of the original research which is then cited in our databases for others to discover.

The Ithaka S+R report summarised the findings of in-depth interviews with 233 researchers at 19 agricultural universities in the USA, and came to some interesting conclusions. Firstly, that, generally, researchers have no problems with digital discovery systems and that they are able to acquire most of the information they need to do their research. They are able to use free search tools like Google Scholar and more specialist ones like our own CAB Abstracts, the Web of Science or Scopus, which provide user-friendly interfaces and good coverage of their subjects of interest.   They do not need the help of a librarian to get the search results they expect and they know how to navigate their way to the documents retrieved.   However, the next finding was that opportunities for data discovery lag way behind opportunities for discovering other forms of content such as journal articles or conference papers, and that this is a growing concern for the researchers questioned.

Managing the data produced from research is an ongoing concern for agriculture scholars, not only the data they generate themselves but also the increasingly cross-disciplinary and complex data which is needed in modern scientific techniques. Agriculture scholars rely on a variety of forms of data produced by others, such as employment statistics, weather and rainfall data, genome sequences, crop yields, field trial results, interview transcripts and so on. Added to that, more and more funders of research are demanding that all datasets generated during the course of a research project must be made available as Open Data and must be deposited in an Open Data repository.   This is a natural follow-on from the requirement to make research publications Open Access, but knowing how to manage and deposit Open Data adds a level of complexity for most researchers which they are not yet equipped to handle.

The GODAN (Global Open Data for Agriculture and Nutrition) initiative is trying to address this skills gap by producing best practice guides and boilerplate policy frameworks, and on 21st July launched an e-learning programme on open data to help strengthen the capacity of data producers and data consumers to manage and use open data in agriculture and nutrition. Such practical toolkits should help to fill a gap in the data management practices of researchers, encouraging the adoption of standards and avoiding the current reliance on idiosyncratic and inconsistent methods for organizing and storing the data which could prevent advances in scientific discovery.

For an information business like CABI, this also presents an opportunity to transform our products from straightforward information discovery engines into information management platforms which can support agriculture scholars over the course of their careers. Providing the tools to manage, curate and preserve research datasets and then to make them openly available for others to discover, reproduce and build upon will satisfy the demands of research funders and help to make solving the world’s problems in sustainable food production ever more achievable.

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