Stepping up to the DMP challenge

The Scholarly Communications Team in the University of Sheffield Library has been supporting Research Data Management for several years, and the summer of 2019 presented the team with a new challenge.

Blue data graphic

From October 2019, all new postgraduate research students would be required to create a data management plan (DMP) for their research project.

While faculties would be given some flexibility with regard to the details of the process, every student would need to submit a DMP as part of their confirmation review at the end of their first year.

This was a welcome development, which would reinforce our work of assisting and encouraging Sheffield researchers in their data management strategies and practices.

We knew, however, that we would need to make some significant changes in order to help students meet this new mandate.

Developing our support service

With research data management becoming a bigger priority, and after a brief staffing hiatus, the small RDM team was re-established to provide support for the University’s students and staff.

With an objective to engage with as many PGR students as possible, we met with a range of faculty staff, to tell them about the new DMP mandate and the support our team could offer.

We also introduced the Library’s Faculty Engagement Team to DMPOnline – a resource offering DMP templates and guidance – so they could better promote the help available to students.


Our groundwork certainly seemed to pay off, as when we advertised the first RDM training sessions through the University’s Doctoral Development Programme, almost all of the available places were booked, with some sessions having a waiting list.

Building on the excellent existing training provision, we set about revamping our cross-faculty training sessions and tailored departmental workshops to cover both managing research data and writing a data management plan.

This would be quite a challenge, especially as more than 30 students could potentially be involved, all with their own questions to ask and specific concerns about managing their data.

After the success of the well-attended first sessions, we realised we should extend our offer throughout the academic year.

We also realised that we would need at least two RDM staff to run each session, sharing presenting roles and interacting with students.

Using a mixture of presentation and group participation, we used the first part of the session to introduce issues including data storage, security, archiving and sharing.

Then with the concepts of data management still fresh in students’ minds, we introduced them to DMPOnline and encouraged them to start writing their own data management plans.

Most students were eager to begin their DMP and found DMPOnline straightforward to use, leaving RDM staff free to focus on answering more complex questions.

As some students had quite involved queries about data management – and others were reticent about asking questions in a large group – we decided to offer individual advice sessions for students.

Again, these proved popular and often led to follow-up emails and conversations in particularly complex cases.

We also organised group training and advice sessions for supervisors, for whom the new DMP mandate was equally new, and who seemed to very much appreciate our help and reassurance.

Restructuring for remote working

Of course, things changed for us all in March of this year, the University library sites closed as we all moved to working from home and delivering services digitally.

While much of the team’s work was already done online, our busy training schedule had to be briefly paused and transformed into a completely online offering.

We had recently produced several short videos covering the basics of RDM and DMPOnline, so we were able to take ideas from these and existing presentations to create new training sessions using Blackboard Collaborate, the University’s virtual learning platform.

These were a little nerve-wracking for the team, who were presenting online and responding to ‘chat’ questions for the first time, but the sessions were well attended and students were happy to participate in the virtual versions of our usual group activities.

We also managed to successfully arrange advice sessions through Google Meet, which made it easier to give the time and attention required by individual students.

DMPOnline and reviewing DMPs

While we recommend rather than stipulate the use of DMPOnline, reflecting the University’s light-touch policy with regard to the DMP format, we have seen a considerable increase in the use of DMPOnline compared to previous years.

After a brief lull at the start of the COVID-19 crisis – which usage statistics showed to be consistent with other vacation ‘dips’ –, Sheffield researchers currently create around a hundred new plans each month.

Indeed, the summer months were particularly busy as the September deadline for confirmation reviews approached.

Whether working on campus or online, this customised resource has proved valuable for researchers and the RDM team, enabling us to offer a range of templates and guidance tailored to the University’s requirements.

The flexibility of the system has allowed us to improve and build upon existing templates, providing helpful tips and pointers for each section of the DMP.

We also enhanced our guidance for researchers who generate minimal digital data, particularly those in the Arts and Humanities, where data management plans are a relatively new – and not always straightforward – requirement.

A significant number of our researchers – both students and staff – take advantage of the option to request Library feedback on their plan.

Providing constructive feedback on DMPs across a wide range of disciplines can be demanding, but we generally respond to requests within one or two days.

This swift response has been facilitated by the creation within the team of detailed but easy-to-use documentation.

Not only does this help us to provide timely feedback, but it will also be a vital resource for future members of the RDM team.

Where capacity allows, we also employ a ‘dual’ review system, where initial feedback is read by an RDM colleague and added to as required, ensuring a consistent and comprehensive response. 

Looking back – and into the future

In the first full year of the mandate, we talked to well over 600 researchers, supervisors and support staff either face to face or online, and information was disseminated through them to many more of their colleagues.

As well as there being a visible increase in the number and quality of DMPs that we see, our students tell us the training we give is valuable.

From the feedback we receive, 96% of attendees would recommend the sessions and rate the content as good or very good.

We haven’t rested on our laurels, however, and have updated our visual resources to a more accessible format, which should further improve our offer to researchers when we resume our online training schedule in late October.

We are working with Research Services to improve the connection between ethics processes and data management planning, so expect even more engagement with research staff in the coming months.

We are also hoping to devote more time this year to promoting and enabling open research.

So with the new academic year underway and a new cohort of postgraduate students about to embark on their Sheffield careers, the RDM team will be busier than ever, and it’s another challenge we are certainly looking forward to.

Helen Foster – Scholarly Communications Librarian
Beverley Jones – Scholarly Communications Librarian
Rosie Higman – Research Data Manager

For more like this, check out out Open Research blog posts!

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