Data Interview with David Ellis (Part 2)

Part 2 (of two) of a Data Interview with Dr David Ellis (@davidaellis). See here for Part 1. David is a Lecturer in Computational Social Science and holds a 50th Anniversary Lectureship in Psychology at Lancaster University.

Picture from https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Opendata.png CC-BY-SA

Q: In support of Open Data what roles do Policies by funders of the University have? Are they helpful? Or is it seen as just another hurdle in the way of doing research?

David: I could be wrong but I don’t think most people just view it as just a hurdle. I think when people have to write a Data Management Plan for a grant that is a bit of a pain. But I don’t think the idea of having the data freely available is something where most people say “I can’t be bothered”. It is an additional step but it is something people should be doing anyway because if you are going to be clear on what your results are the data should be in a form that’s usable and could be easily moved between people. I think most people say that’s a good thing but maybe I’m biased…

Q: I have talked to PhD students asking if they want to share their data and they said I should have asked them three years ago because now it is so much work. I wonder why that is and if we need to change the way we teach them how to manage their data?

David: I wonder if I would have said the same thing. All the data of my PhD is still around but as I was learning my craft I probably wasn’t the most efficient, and my data wasn’t managed as efficiently as I would do now. I don’t remember going to a data management training or anything. And if someone had done that on day one of my PhD? Data should be kept in an ordered fashion etc. I created a lot of extra work for myself because I would do some analysis, close the file and end up re-doing the same things I have done multiple times. And even on that level that is not very efficient.

David Ellis

Q: Is that something we should teach students, you think?

It’s probably something students wouldn’t be too keen [on].

Q: Yes, you don’t want to patronise them.

David: And it is a bit like saying: For god’s sake back up stuff! If you look at all the horror stories [about] who loses data. It’s only when it goes wrong that it becomes a problem. I think some people are automatically super organised. I was probably somewhere in the middle, probably more organised now. I think the issue is in a lot of academia, you just figure it out as you go. And some people develop brilliant habits and some people, including myself, bad and good. And other people develop really bad habits. And that just carries on.

I sometimes look at Retraction Watch to see what’s in, and there is this really interesting example of an American paper, an American guy who posted a paper in Psychological Science whose undergraduate student collected the data and then it turns out the entire paper is wrong when someone re-analysed the data and found so many mistakes in it. Of course it has been retracted. Now the professor has said it is the student’s fault [whole story here]. But whoever taught that student data management? If that is the issue and it looks like it, they have taken the eye off the ball. And now without a doubt his other papers will be scrutinised. Clearly, there are bad habits ingrained that he’s been passed on.

And it is not just students, it is people higher up as well. The students have been informed by their own supervisors. So I say to my students: back stuff up, make sure things are organised and I can usually tell without going into their file system. What usually happens, if I ask them for something, a piece of data, it will appear quickly because they know where it is, and that is good enough for me. But if it takes ages, that’s when we end up having a talk saying “What are you actually doing with your data?” because this seems really all over the place. But not every supervisor does that, as that guy proved. He didn’t even seem to look at the data. I am not saying that can happen here; but is not only the students.

David presenting at Data Conversations

Q: What could the University do more to assist Open Data supporters like yourself?

David: I really like the fact that the Library is pushing the fact that you can upload datasets. I know there are not many people from my Department that are doing it…  I think that is really interesting. It is something that I – not necessarily challenge – but I do mention it. I don’t really get why. It is the sort of thing where you are submitting a paper you don’t even have to do it formally. There are journals that don’t have a data policy but I can still through our Pure system link data and paper together. I don’t see how that is a bad thing and that there is a huge effort needed to do that.

Maybe academics say it is just another thing to do? A colleague of mine would always say if they want the data they can always email me. Now that might be true but there are lots of cases when you email academics they never get back to you. The same colleague gets so many emails that they have someone to manage their mails. I take the point that the counter argument is that nobody actually will want to see the data and maybe they won’t. But given how random stuff is… you don’t know.  For, what you publish today it might not be important and then suddenly it is important.

So my answer to the question is I am not exactly sure. There is more support in this institution than in my other, to my memory, in terms of: “this is a place to put my dataset”. One of the courses I was on here about data management as part of the 50 Programme was really useful in the sense that I left thinking from now on I am going to put my data there [into Pure].

Q: Should there be other incentives for opening up research data rather than “doing a good thing”? Should there be more credit for Open Data?

David: Yes, probably. We are always judged, when we do PDRs every year, on how much I published and got this much money. But actually, the data output does have a DOI now and it is citable and it is a contribution that the University is getting from the academic. It is additional effort. So it would be interesting to see what happened if it went as far as maybe not a promotion thing, but … part of good practice. I think the question I would ask academics is: if your data is not there, where are you keeping it long term? Now I am working at another project where data cannot be made open and that is fair enough, but in general I do wonder where all that data is going. There is a duty where it needs to be kept for a certain length of time. I think it is easier to put in there [Pure] then I don’t need to think about it if nothing else. That gives me more comfort.

Q: Is there anything you’d like to add?

David: I am certainly in support of Open Data but I write more about data visualisation because I like pictures as much as I like data [laughs].

Thanks David for an interesting interview. We hope to do more Data Interviews soon. In the meantime, if you have any questions or comments leave them below or email rdm@lancaster.ac.uk.

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