Upskilling Liaison Librarians for Research Data Management

Andrew Cox, Eddy Verbaan and Barbara Sen explore the design of a curriculum to train academic librarians in the competencies to support Research Data Management.

For many UK HEIs, especially research-intensive institutions, Research Data Management (RDM) is rising rapidly up the agenda. Working closely with other professional services, and with researchers themselves, libraries will probably have a key role to play in supporting RDM. This role might include signposting institutional expertise in RDM; inclusion of the topic in information literacy sessions for PhD students and other researchers; advocacy for open data sharing; or contributing to the management of an institutional data repository. It seems that there are choices for each librarian to make, largely shaped by their existing role. For some, RDM may rapidly become a core part of their job. For others it may be something of which they simply need a greater awareness. New graduates entering the profession require a grounding in RDM-related knowledge and skills, but there is also a need for established professionals to update their competencies too.

In this context, JISC have funded the White Rose consortium of academic libraries at Leeds, Sheffield and York, working closely with the Sheffield Information School, in the RDMRose Project, to develop learning materials that will help librarians grasp the opportunity that RDM offers. The learning materials will be used in the Information School’s Masters courses, and are also to be made available to other information sector training providers on a share-alike licence. A version will also be made available (from January 2013) as an Open Educational Resource for use by information professionals who want to update their competencies as part of their continuing professional development (CPD). The learning materials are being developed specifically for liaison librarians, to upskill existing professionals and to expand the knowledge base for new entrants to librarianship. It is hoped to accommodate the perspectives of any information professional, but the scope is not intended to encompass a syllabus for a data management specialist role (following the distinction made by Corrall [1]).

This article summarises current thinking developed within the project about the scope and level of such learning materials. This thinking is based on a number of sources:  the literature and existing curricula and also the project vision and data collected during the project in focus groups with staff at the participating libraries.

Existing Literature

According to the literature, librarians are well positioned to play an important role in RDM [1][2][3][4][5]. They have good networks within institutions built through liaison activities. Other professional services tend not to have such far-reaching connections. They have an understanding of generic information management principles that can potentially be applied to data management. Research data management can be seen as an aspect of Information Literacy. Also, existing roles in promoting open access are linked to the open data agenda in RDM. As a well-networked profession, librarians are quick and generous in sharing knowledge, and so can play an important role in rapidly replicating good practice across the whole sector.

The White Rose Consortium

Nevertheless there are many challenges, such as the following:

  • Existing roles are demanding; to support RDM must mean down-rating other priorities.
  • Librarians often lack direct personal experience of research and so may lack a depth of insight into the motives and practices of researchers. Understanding the diversity of ‘research data’ itself, within the context of different disciplinary and sub-disciplinary cultures and varying data practices is an important aspect of the context that needs to be understood. Librarians need to understand the perspective of researchers in relation to RDM. Best practice can be best promoted in a way sensitive to the pressures on researchers and a realistic assessment of the diverse drivers and barriers.
  • Librarians may lack domain-specific knowledge.
  • Translating current library expertise and practices, such as in metadata creation to research data contexts is not straightforward.
  • There are problems engaging users, especially researchers, with LIS services, especially because their focus in the last few years has often been on supporting teaching.

Further problems relate to the scale, complexity and indeterminacy of the challenge:

  • The marked disciplinary differences in information and data practices mean that a lot of adaptation of generic advice and support will be required.
  • The complexity and scale of RDM issues in institutions is challenging.
  • Resources, infrastructure, policy and governance structures are still in flux.

The role of LIS in supporting research has to be seen in the wider context of work with other professional services, particularly the Research Office, Computing Services, University Archives, Staff Development services, as well as researchers and research administrators in departments.

As with a number of previous suggestions about how librarians’ roles will expand (e.g. into Knowledge Management) there is a risk that a role in RDM will be more written about than be realised in practice. After all, librarians are already busy. Liaison librarians, for example, have a range of existing roles, such as in collection development, information literacy training, enquiry handling, marketing, committee work, informal networking and management roles. Different individuals have quite different task sets, linked to seniority and background. These different task sets will determine to what extent individuals feel RDM sits naturally in their remit. The rather common approach of just listing sets of skills that professionals should have is limited by failing to recognise that librarians have to be able to make sense of their role as a whole, both for themselves and also in order to present a coherent image to others. So in thinking about potential roles in RDM, we have to think about how they relate to what librarians currently do, whether it is a natural expansion of existing competencies or a major change of professional identity.

Lewis [6] as updated by Corrall [1] identifies a number of potential roles for librarians in RDM (as do also Gabridge [3] and Lyon [5]). Focussing specifically on local institutional roles, and on those for liaison librarians in particular, the table below lists the main roles that have been proposed, and points to links in existing library practices [7][8] that may explain why the roles are appropriate both to practitioners themselves and to their users/customers.


Alignment with existing roles

Competencies required

Policy and advocacy



Lead on institutional data policy

Advocacy role e.g. in the area of open access

Strategic understanding and influencing skills

Support and training



Bring data into undergraduate research-based learning, promoting data information literacy

Information literacy training

Understanding of RDM best practices as they apply to relevant disciplines; pedagogic skills

Teach data literacy to postgraduate students

Develop researcher data awareness

Provide an advice service to researchers (and research administrators)

Eg on writing Data Management plans or advice on RDM within a project. Advice on licensing data. Advice on data citation. Perhaps measurement of impact of data sharing.

Reference and enquiry roles; producing print and Web-based guides; copyright advice.

Reference interview, knowledge of RDM principles

Provide advice as above through a Web portal

Library Web site

Knowledge of institutional and extra-institutional resources

Signpost who in the institution should be consulted in relation to a particular question

Role of library as point of enquiry and the reference interview

Knowledge of institution

Promote data reuse by making known what is available internally and externally; explaining data citation

Marketing of library resources

Knowledge of researchers’ needs, knowledge of available material

Auditing and repository management



Audit to identify data sets for archiving, create a catalogue of materials or to identify RDM needs

Metadata skills


Develop and manage access to data collections

Collection development, digital library management and metadata management

Audit interviews, knowledge of RDM principles, metadata, licensing

Develop local data curation capacity

Open access role. Preservation role.

Knowledge of RDM principles, relevant technologies and processes, metadata

Table 1: Librarians’ roles in RDM and required competencies mapped to existing roles

As the table above suggests, the different roles in RDM imply different types of knowledge, but many align with existing roles and the corresponding professional knowledge base. Any one individual may take on a number of these roles or none. Within LIS teams, one person might see RDM as about IL another as about metadata. Another person might play an expert-type role, keeping others abreast of wider developments. While all RDM activities align in some way to existing roles, some do not do so in a simple way. Effort may be needed to sell services based on such roles.

It should be noted that in addition to these various roles in RDM, Auckland [8] identifies a number of other activities related to support of research in general [7][9]:

  • offering advice on funding sources
  • embedded or support roles conducting literature reviews or current awareness alerts for research projects or groups
  • bibliometrics and impact measurement
  • support to REF
  • bibliographic software training
  • advocacy for open access and/or institutional repository
  • data analysis advice
  • advice on copyright issues
  • and advice on archiving of research records (eg correspondence)

Some of these activities are quite familiar, others are new. This illustrates that taking up the challenge posed by RDM is inter-related with a wider set of challenges in supporting research, as well as the continuing challenge to meet longstanding liaison responsibilities.

Liaison librarians are already over-taxed with many functions. There is a sense of change in many areas and therefore a need to make difficult decisions about priorities among different roles. Support for RDM is often perceived to be ‘daunting’; the area ‘undefined’.  In some sense this will be worked out in different ways by different librarians. The support they develop may indeed be offered in a variety of ways: through liaison teams, workshops, one-to-one training or even embedded roles. So it is not simply about changing roles, but it can also be about organisational change in LIS. Increasing emphasis on research, and RDM in particular, demands that we rethink the relation between library teams. Thus RDM is an organisational as well as a personal challenge.

A number of exemplars of library support of RDM already exist in UK institutions. A survey of library roles in supporting RDM undertaken by the Information School was prompted by a desire to identify best practice as well as to capture a snapshot of which of the roles identified in the table above are being most actively developed. Results of this should be published early in 2013.

Existing Curricula

Existing curricula in RDM and digital curation typically target either students of LIS, practitioners/librarians, or researchers. Comprehensive overviews can be found in previous studies [1][10][11][12][13][14][15]. Training in digital curation at UK LIS schools is sparse but a number of US institutions offer whole programmes in Data Management.

Corrall [1] identified three key issues in the teaching provision in LIS schools in the UK and US:

  1. The importance of using the digital lifecycle as a basis for the curriculum. Subsequently, simplified models are now available (e.g. as developed by the Incremental project).
  2. The importance of technologies for digital curation, although most teaching provision focuses on learning skills rather than technical skills.
  3. Practical field experience as an essential part of the curriculum.

Tendencies in current curricula are a focus on the nature of data and the nature of the research process, and the importance of data management plans as part of the curriculum [16][17][18]. Because of the varying nature of the research process and the data produced, a number of Open Education Resources with discipline- specific RDM training have been developed with funding [19]. Other teaching materials are being provided by data centres (e.g. UK Data Archive [20]). However, given their focus on the researcher perspective, it is not necessarily simple to adapt them for librarians. 

A Dutch curriculum that trains practitioners/librarians in data curation [21] not only aims to increase insight into data and the research process, but also ‘to increase the ability to advise researchers effectively’. They use a Stages of Change model to determine the kind of intervention that is needed by the data librarian, and cover arguments and conversation techniques that can be used to overcome researchers’ resistance. 

The RDMRose Project Vision

In initial project planning meetings for RDMRose and in the later focus group sessions with staff at the participating libraries, it was recognised that the area of RDM is rather forbidding for many information professionals as a set of new ideas, unfamiliar organisations and novel concepts and jargon. The learning materials were therefore to be designed to overcome LIS professionals’ fears and give them confidence to operate effectively in a challenging and changing environment. This implies the need:

  • to establish understanding of core issues such as the policy context, the diverse and complex nature of research data and theoretical concepts such as the DCC lifecycle
  • to have practical understanding of core methods and tools, such as aspects of writing data management plans or auditing
  • and to develop an understanding of how to keep one’s knowledge up to date, in a fast-moving field

It is important to understand the role of supporting RDM in the wider context of evolving library service provision and organisation in a context of changing institutional and cross-sector policy. To some degree using the learning materials RDMRose is developing could be a medium through which participants could discuss change as it happens; discussion will inevitably be open-ended. 

In the focus group sessions with staff at the participating libraries, there was also felt to be a need to move beyond abstract discussion of potential roles to gaining hands-on experience. Few focus group participants had actually ever looked at a Data Management Plan. Some participants in the project focus groups were a little frustrated by having been to many meetings to discuss possible roles in RDM; they felt the time had come to start providing real services. The learning materials will be based on principles of active learning, both through hands-on experience of using DCC tools, for example, and in seeking to support participants in reflecting on how what they are learning about RDM can be applied in their own personal role.

Lastly, the project team felt that the learning materials should have a strong element of inquiry-based and problem-based learning. This recognises, in a context of complexity and change, the value of encouraging participants to learn through active investigation of real-world experiences and examples and the exploration of complex and open-ended case study material. Consistent with this we also recognised that we would have to take a highly reflective approach. Participants need to be offered a space in which to reflect on changes around them and to think about the implications for themselves, those they work with and the organisation – rather than simplistically propounding “best practice” to researchers. Participants also need to be prompted to engage with existing institutional activity, such as identifying contacts in other support projects and local projects.


There are potentially important roles for liaison librarians in contributing to RDM as well as in supporting research more generally. Although the role and competencies required align with existing liaison librarians’ roles, there are some major gaps in current knowledge and areas where the direction of development is unclear. The theories, technical jargon and key players in RDM are unfamiliar. It is important for librarians to increase their understanding of what research data means for researchers and to understand the viewpoint of researchers towards RDM from the inside. Practical skill development (e.g. in relation to understanding relevant systems or the technicalities of metadata) must be balanced with strategic perspectives (in relation to advocacy). Because the context of policy is dynamic, much of the learning must be exploratory, discursive and reflective, providing a space in which librarians can explore developments as they relate to their individual/team role. Equally, hands-on practical activities with documents and tools in real or realistic scenarios are important. The need to work closely with other support services, especially research offices and computing services and in a context offered by university research governance, should also be discussed within the module.

The learning needs analysis process concluded that the learning outcomes of the proposed learning materials will be for learners to develop the ability to:

  1. explain the diverse nature of research across academic disciplines and specialities and discuss different conceptions of research data
  2. analyse the context in which research data management has become an issue
  3. discuss the role of a range of professional services, including libraries, in RDM
  4. reflect for themselves as individuals and for information professionals in general on the role and priority of supporting research data management
  5. explain and apply the key concepts of research data management and data curation to real world case studies and professional practice
  6. and understand how to keep knowledge acquired on the module up-to-date

Appendix 1 lists the content for the course, as planned in eight four-hour long sessions. Flexibility about which aspects to emphasise in any particular delivery of the material will allow the learning to be customised to local needs, both at Sheffield and for other information sector learning providers. Versions to enable full-time learners to catch up will also suit delivery to self-supported CPD. For the CPD version, in addition to the option to move through the material session by session, pathways through the material based on each library role as identified in the table above will be created in the form of an index. This will allow professionals to update their skills selectively, as required.

Version 1 of the learning materials will be released in late January 2013. The second phase of the project will be working with librarians at Leeds and York to refine and improve the learning resources further. A workshop for Information sector learning providers, such as Information Studies departments, will be held during the summer of 2013. The authors invite readers to comment on the current plans summarised here and, after the material is released, to use (and reuse) it. Further information is available from the RDMRose Project Web site [22].


  1. Corrall, S. Roles and responsibilities: libraries, librarians and data. Managing Research Data. Ed. G. Pryor. London: Facet, 2012, pp. 105-133.
  2. Alvaro, E., Brooks, H., Ham, M., Poegel, S. and Rosencrans, S. E-science librarianship: Field undefined, Issues in Science and Technology Librarianship, 2011, Summer No. 66
  3. Gabridge, T. The last mile: Liaison roles in curating science and engineering research data. Research Library Issues, August 2009, 265, pp.15-21.
  4. Henty, M. Dreaming of data: The library’s role in supporting e-research and data management, Australian Library and Information Association Biennial Conference, Alice Springs, 2008
  5. Lyon, L. The informatics transform: Re-engineering libraries of the data decade, The International Journal of Digital Curation, 2012, 7 (1) pp.126-138.
  6. Lewis, M. Libraries and the management of research data, in Mcknight, S. (ed), Envisioning future academic library services: Initiatives, ideas and challenges. London: Facet, 2010, 145-168.
  7. Brewerton, A. ‘... and any other duties deemed necessary:’ an analysis of subject librarian job descriptions. Sconul Focus, 2011, 51, pp.60-67.
  8. Auckland, M. Re-Skilling for Research: An Investigation into the Role and Skills of Subject and Liaison Librarians Required to Effectively Support the Evolving Information Needs of Researchers. London: Research Libraries UK, 2012   
  9. Garritano, J.R. and Carlson, J.R. A subject librarian’s guide to collaborating on e-Science projects, Issues in Science and Technology Librarianship, 2009, Spring No. 57
  10. Digital Curation Centre. Data management courses and training, 2012
  11. DigiCurV  Training Opportunities, 2010
  12. Digital Curation Exchange. University of North Caroline, Chapel Hill, 2012
  13. Keralis, S. Data curation education: a snapshot. L. Jahnke, A. Asher & S.D.C. Keralis. The Problem of Data. CLIR Publication 154. Washington, D.C.: Council on Library and Information Resources, 2012
  14. Bailey Jr, C.W. Digital Curation Resource Guide.  Digital Scholarship, 2012
  15. Pryor, G. & Donnelly, M. Skilling up to do data: whose role, whose responsibility, whose career? International Journal of Digital Curation, 2009, 4 (2), pp. 158-170.
  16. Borgman, C. Why data matters to librarians – and how to educate the next generation. The Changing Role of Libraries in Support of Research Data Activities: A Public Symposium, 2010
  17. Borgman, C. IS289 Data, Data Practices, and Data Curation. Los Angeles: Department of Information Studies, University of California, 2012
  18. McLeod, J. DATUM for Health. Research Data Management Training for Health Studies. Northumbria University, 2011
  19. JISC Research data management training materials (RDMTrain), 2010
  20. UK Data Archive, Create & Manage Data: Training Resources. University of Essex, 2012
  21. UT3. Datacentrum, Data Intelligence 4 Librarians, 2012
  22. RDMRose Project

Author Details

Andrew Cox
Information School
University of Sheffield

Web site:

Andrew Cox is a lecturer at the Information School, University of Sheffield and leads the RDMRose Project. His research interests include virtual community, social media and library responses to technology. He is the School's Director of Learning and Teaching. He co-ordinates Sheffield's MSc in Digital Library Management.

Eddy Verbaan
Research Associate
Information School
University of Sheffield


Eddy Verbaan is the Research Associate on the RDMRose Project. His main interests are digital library management, research practices in past and present, and didactics. He has published on early modern geography and urban history writing, pedagogy, and on the history of Dutch Studies in the UK. Previously, Eddy worked as a university teacher in Dutch Studies at the Universities of Leiden (NL), Paris-IV Sorbonne, Nottingham and Sheffield. He has a PhD in history.

Barbara Sen
Information School
University of Sheffield


Barbara Sen is a Lecturer at the Information School, the University of Sheffield and on the RDMRose Project Board. Her main areas of interest are strategic management of information services, and continuing professional development including the use of reflective practice to support learning.  Prior to coming into HE, Barbara worked in a number of sectors including health, special libraries, and the academic sector.

 Appendix 1

Session 1: Introductions, RDM, and the role of LIS

The first session will introduce the module, discuss RDM basics, and explore the role of LIS professionals in RDM.

  1. A module overview and learning outcomes
  2. RDM basics
  3. RDM and the role of LIS
  4. An introduction to reflection

Session 2: The nature of research and the need for RDM

The second session is planned to focus on the nature of research, and the place of data in the research cycle. It then discusses the need for RDM, including funders’ mandates and university policies. Finally, research data audits and interviews are discussed, and the module’s overarching activity is introduced: preparing an interview with a researcher.

  1. The nature of research and the need for RDM
  2. Research, information practices and data
  3. The RDM agenda, including Funders’ mandates and university policies
  4. Research data audits and interviews, and investigating a researcher

Session 3: The DCC curation lifecycle model

In the third session the DCC’s curation lifecycle model will be introduced, followed by an exploration of Data Management Plans, and an activity to reflect on advocating data management planning to researchers and supporting them.

  1. Exploring the DCC lifecycle
  2. Data Management Plans
  3. Advocacy of data management planning

Session 4: Key institutions and projects in RDM

The fourth session will be devoted to the different ways of keeping up to date on research data management. This includes an introduction to the DCC, the DCC Web site, and an activity to design Library Web pages with RDM support for researchers, based on an exploration of similar Web sites at other institutions.

  1. Keeping up to date
  2. Introducing the DCC and mapping the DCC Web site
  3. Designing Library Web pages with RDM support for researchers
  4. Investigating a researcher 2: preparatory desk research and interview schedules

Session 5: What is data?

The topic of the fifth session will be data: the findings of the preparatory desk investigation of a researcher are to be discussed with emphasis on data and data management issues. Also, a framework will be presented that outlines different ways of looking at data, and a number of research data case studies are discussed.

  1. Researchers and their data
  2. Investigating a researcher
  3. Presenting the findings of the preparatory desk research
  4. Looking at data
  5. Reflecting on research and research data

Session 6: Managing data

The sixth session will be devoted to the management of research data. This includes practical data management guidelines for researchers (such as file naming conventions and backing up files), issues around finding, depositing and managing data in repositories, general metadata issues, and data citation.

  1. Practical data management guidelines
  2. Subject and institutional repositories
  3. Metadata issues
  4. Data citation

Session 7: Case study: Research Projects

Session 7 introduces a number of case studies that taken together follow the processes of research and handling research data through the whole research and data curation lifecycles: from project proposal, initial data management plan and the application for ethical approval, via the reuse of existing datasets, to publishing research outputs and depositing relevant data.

Session 8: Case study: Institutional Context, and Conclusions

Session 8 is to explore the viewpoints of the different RDM stakeholders within HE institutions, such as the library, research office, computing services, and staff development unit, by analysing a set of institutional case studies using strategic methodologies such as SWOT (Strengths, Weaknesses, Opportunities, Threats), gap or stakeholder analysis. The session and the module are concluded with an activity that focuses on planning for the future, as well as reflecting on the implications of RDM for one’s own role.

Date published: 
Friday, 30 November 2012
Copyright statement: 

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