Abandon all hope, ye who enter dates in Excel

Big thanks to Kara Woo of Washington State University for this guest blog post!

Like anyone who works with a lot of data, I have a strained relationship with Microsoft Excel. Its ubiquity forces me to tolerate it, yet I believe that it is fundamentally a malicious force whose main goal is to incite chaos through the obfuscation and distortion of data.1 After discovering a truly ghastly feature of how it handles dates, I am now fully convinced.

As it turns out, Excel “supports” two different date systems: one beginning in 1900 and one beginning in 1904.2 Excel stores all dates as floating point numbers representing the number of days since a given start date, and Excel for Windows and Mac have different default start dates (January 1, 1900 vs. January 1, 1904).3 Furthermore, the 1900 date system purposely erroneously assumes that 1900 was a leap year to ensure compatibility with a bug in—wait for it—Lotus 1-2-3.

You can’t make this stuff up.

What is even more disturbing is how the two date systems can get mixed up in the process of reading data into R, causing all dates in a dataset to be off by four years and a day. If you don’t know to look for it, you might never even notice. Read on for a cautionary tale.

I work as a data manager for a project studying biodiversity in Lake Baikal, and one of the coolest parts of my job is getting to work with data that have been collected by Siberian scientists since the 1940s. I spend a lot of time cleaning up these data in R. It was while working on some data on Secchi depth (a measure of water transparency) that I stumbled across this Excel date issue.

To read in the data I do something like the following using the XLConnect package:

wb1 <- loadWorkbook("Baikal_Secchi_64to02.xlsx")
secchi_main <- readWorksheet(wb1, sheet = 1)
colnames(secchi_main) <- c("date", "secchi_depth", "year", "month")

So far so good. But now, what’s wrong with this picture?

##         date secchi_depth year month
## 1 1960-01-16           12 1964     1
## 2 1960-02-04           14 1964     2
## 3 1960-02-14           18 1964     2
## 4 1960-02-24           14 1964     2
## 5 1960-03-04           14 1964     3
## 6 1960-03-25           10 1964     3

As you can see, the year in the date column doesn’t match the year in the year column. When I open the data in Excel, things look correct.


This particular Excel file uses the 1904 date system, but that fact gets lost somewhere between Excel and R. XLConnect can tell that there are dates, but all the dates are wrong.

My solution for these particular data was as follows:

# function to add four years and a day to a given date
fix_excel_dates <- function(date) {
    return(ymd(date) + years(4) + days(1))

# create a correct date column
secchi_main <- mutate(secchi_main, corrected_date = fix_excel_dates(date))

The corrected_date column looks right.

##         date secchi_depth year month corrected_date
## 1 1960-01-16           12 1964     1     1964-01-17
## 2 1960-02-04           14 1964     2     1964-02-05
## 3 1960-02-14           18 1964     2     1964-02-15
## 4 1960-02-24           14 1964     2     1964-02-25
## 5 1960-03-04           14 1964     3     1964-03-05
## 6 1960-03-25           10 1964     3     1964-03-26

That fix is easy, but I’m left with a feeling of anxiety. I nearly failed to notice the discrepancy between the date and year columns; a colleague using the data pointed it out to me. If these data hadn’t had a year column, it’s likely we never would have caught the problem at all. Has this happened before and I just didn’t notice it? Do I need to go check every single Excel file I have ever had to read into R?

And now that I know to look for this issue, I still can’t think of a way to check the dates Excel shows against the ones that appear in R without actually opening the data file in Excel and visually comparing them. This is not an acceptable solution in my opinion, but… I’ve got nothing else. All I can do is get up on my worn out data manager soapbox and say:


  1. For evidence of its fearsome power, see these examples.
  2. Though as Dave Harris pointed out, “is burdened by” would be more accurate.
  3. To quote John Machin, “In reality, there are no such things [as dates in Excel spreadsheets]. What you have are floating point numbers and pious hope.”

Feedback Wanted: Publishers & Data Access

This post is co-authored with Jennifer Lin, PLOS

Short Version: We need your help!

We have generated a set of recommendations for publishers to help increase access to data in partnership with libraries, funders, information technologists, and other stakeholders. Please read and comment on the report (Google Doc), and help us to identify concrete action items for each of the recommendations here (EtherPad).

Background and Impetus

The recent governmental policies addressing access to research data from publicly funded research across the US, UK, and EU reflect the growing need for us to revisit the way that research outputs are handled. These recent policies have implications for many different stakeholders (institutions, funders, researchers) who will need to consider the best mechanisms for preserving and providing access to the outputs of government-funded research.

The infrastructure for providing access to data is largely still being architected and built. In this context, PLOS and the UC Curation Center hosted a set of leaders in data stewardship issues for an evening of brainstorming to re-envision data access and academic publishing. A diverse group of individuals from institutions, repositories, and infrastructure development collectively explored the question:

What should publishers do to promote the work of libraries and IRs in advancing data access and availability?

We collected the themes and suggestions from that evening in a report: The Role of Publishers in Access to Data. The report contains a collective call to action from this group for publishers to participate as informed stakeholders in building the new data ecosystem. It also enumerates a list of high-level recommendations for how to effect social and technical change as critical actors in the research ecosystem.

We welcome the community to comment on this report. Furthermore, the high-level recommendations need concrete details for implementation. How will they be realized? What specific policies and technologies are required for this? We have created an open forum for the community to contribute their ideas. We will then incorporate the catalog of listings into a final report for publication. Please participate in this collective discussion with your thoughts and feedback by April 24, 2014.

We need suggestions! Feedback! Comments! From Flickr by Hash Milhan

We need suggestions! Feedback! Comments! From Flickr by Hash Milhan


Mountain Observatories in Reno

A few months ago, I blogged about my experiences at the NSF Large Facilities Workshop. “Large Facilities” encompass things like NEON (National Ecological Observatory Network), IRIS PASSCAL Instrument Center (Incorporated Research Institutions for Seismology Program for Array Seismic Studies of the Continental Lithosphere), and the NRAO (National Radio Astronomy Observatory). I found the event itself to be an eye-opening experience: much to my surprise, there was some resistance to data sharing in this community. I had always assumed that large, government-funded projects had strict data sharing requirements, but this is not the case. I had stimulating arguments with Large Facilities managers who considered their data too big and complex to share, and (more worrisome), that their researchers would be very resistant to opening up the data they generated at these large facilities.

Why all this talk about large facilities? Because I’m getting the chance to make my arguments again, to a group with overlapping interests to that of the Large Facilities community. I’m very excited to be speaking at Mountain Observatories: A Global Fair and Workshop  this July in Reno, Nevada. Here’s a description from the organizers:

The event is focused on observation sites, networks, and systems that provide data on mountain regions as coupled human-natural systems. So the meeting is expected to bring together biophysical as well as socio-economic researchers to discuss how we can create a more comprehensive and quantitative mountain observing network using the sites, initiatives, and systems already established in various regions of the world.

I must admit, I’m ridiculously excited to geek out with this community. I’ll get to hear about the GLORIA Project (GLObal Robotic-telescopes Intelligent Array), something called “Mountain Ethnobotany“, and “Climate Change Adaptation Governance”. See a full list of the proposed sessions here. The conference is geared towards researchers and managers, which means I’ll have the opportunity to hear about data sharing proclivities straight from their mouths. The roster of speakers joining me include a hydroclimatologist (Mike Dettinger, USGS) and a researcher focused on socio-cultural systems (Courtney Flint, Utah State University), plus representatives from the NSF, a sensor networks company, and others. The conference should be a great one – abstract submission deadline was just extended, so there’s still time to join me and nerd out about science!

Reno! From Flickr by Ravensmagiclantern

Reno! From Flickr by Ravensmagiclantern

Lit Review: #PLOSFail and Data Sharing Drama

Turn and face the strange, researchers. From pipedreamsfromtheshire.wordpress.com

Turn and face the strange, researchers. From pipedreamsfromtheshire.wordpress.com

I know what you’re thinking– how can yet another post on the #PLOSfail hoopla say anything new? Fear not. I say nothing particularly new here, but I do offer a three-weeks-out lit review of the hoopla, in hopes of finding a pattern in the noise. For those new to the #PLOSFail drama, the short version is this: PLOS enacted a mandatory data sharing policy. Researchers flipped out. See the sources at the end of this post for more background.

 Arguments made against data sharing

1) My data is my lifeblood. I won’t just give it away.

Terry McGlynn, a biologist writing at Small Pond Science argues that “Regardless of the trajectory of open science, the fact remains that, at the moment, we are conducting research in a culture of data ownership.” Putting the ownership issue aside for now, let’s focus on the crux of this McGlynn’s argument: he contends that data sharing results in turning a private resource (data) into a community resource. This is especially burdensome for small labs (like his) since each data point takes relatively more effort to produce. If this resource is available to anyone, the benefits to the former owner are greatly reduced since they are now shared with the broader community.

Although these are valid concerns, they are not in the best interest of science. I argue that what we are really talking about here is the incentive problem (see more in the section below). That is, publications are valued in performance evaluation of academics, while data are not. Everyone can agree that data is indispensable to scientific advancement, so why hasn’t the incentive structure caught up yet? If McGlynn were able to offset the loss of benefits caused to data sharing by getting mad props for making their data available and useful, this issue would be less problematic. Jeff Leek, a biostatistician blogging at Simply Statistics, makes a great point with regard to this: to paraphrase him, the culture of credit hasn’t caught up with the culture of science. There is no appropriate form of credit for data generators – it’s either citation (seems chintzy) or authorship (not always appropriate). Solution: improve incentives for data sharing. Find a way to appropriately credit data producers.

2) My datasets are special, unique snowflakes. You can’t understand/use them.

Let’s examine what McGlynn says about this with regard to researchers re-using his data: “…anybody working on these questions wouldn’t want the raw data anyway, and there’s no way these particular data would be useful in anybody’s meta analysis. It’d be a huge waste of my time.”

Rather than try to come up with a new, witty way to answer to this argument, I’ll shamelessly quote from MacManes Lab blog post, Corner cases and the PLOS data policy:

 There are other objections – one type is the ‘my raw data are so damn special that nobody can over make sense of them’, while another is ‘I use special software and stuff, so they are probably not useful to anybody else’. I call BS on both of these arguments. Maybe you have the world’s most complicated data, but why not release them and not worry about whether or not people find them useful – that is not your concern (though it should be).

I couldn’t have said it better. The snowflake refrain from researchers is not new. I’ve heard it time and again when talking to them about data archiving. There is certainly truth to this argument: most (all?) datasets are unique. Why else would we be collecting data? This doesn’t make them useless to others, especially if we are sharing data to promote reproducibility of reported results.

DrugMonkey, an anonymous blogger and biomedical researcher, took this “my data are unique” argument to paranoia level. In their post, PLoS is letting the inmates run the asylum and it will kill them, s/he contends that researchers will somehow be forced to use all the same methods to facilitate data reuse. “…diversity in data handling results, inevitably, in attempts for data orthodoxy. So we burn a lot of time and effort fighting over that. So we’ll have PLoS [sic] inserting itself in the role of how experiments are to be conducted and interpreted!”

I imagine DrugMonkey pictures future scientists in grey overalls, trudging to a factory to do “science”. This is just ridiculous. The idiosyncrasies of how individual researchers handle their data will always be part of the challenge of reproducibility and data curation. But I have never (ever) heard of anyone suggesting that all researchers in a given field should be doing science in the exact same way. There are certainly best practices for handling datasets. If everyone followed these to the best of their ability, we would have an easier time reusing data. But no one is punching a time card at the factory.

 3) Data sharing is hard | time-consuming | new-fangled.

This should probably be #1 in the list of arguments from researchers. Even those that cite other reasons for not sharing their data, this is probably at the root of the hoarding. Full disclosure – only a small portion of the datasets I have generated as a researcher are available to the public. The only explanation is it’s time-consuming and I have other things on my plate. So I hear you, researchers. That said, the time has come to start sharing.

DrugMonkey says that the PLOS data policy requires much additional data curation which will take time. “The first problem with this new policy is that it suggests that everyone should radically change the way they do science, at great cost of personnel time…” McGlynn states this point succinctly: “Why am I sour on required data archiving? Well, for starters, it is more work for me… To get these numbers into a downloadable and understandable condition would be, frankly, an annoying pain in the ass.”

Fair enough. But I argue here (along with others others) that making data available is not an optional side note of research: it is research. In the comments of David Crotty’s post at The Scholarly Kitchen, “PLOS’ bold data policy“, there was a comment that I loved. The commenter, Mike Taylor, said this:

 …data curation is research. I’d argue that a researcher who doesn’t make available the data necessary to reproduce his conclusions isn’t getting his job done. Complaining about having to spend time on preparing the data for others to use is like complaining about having to spend time writing the paper, or indeed running experiments.

When I read that comment, I might have fist pumped a little. Of course, we still have that pesky incentive issue to work out… As Crotty puts it, “Perhaps the biggest practical problem with [data sharing] is that it puts an additional time and effort burden on already time-short, over-burdened researchers. Researchers will almost always follow the path of least resistance, and not do anything that takes them away from their research if it can be avoided.” Sigh.

What about that “new-fangled” bit? Well, researchers often complain that data management and curation requires skills that are not taught. I 100% agree with this statement – see my paper on the lack of data management education for even undergrads. But as my ex-cop dad likes to say, “ignorance of the law is not a defense”. In continuation of my shameless quoting from others, here’s what Ted Hart (Staff Scientist at NEON) has to say in his post, “Just Get Over Yourself and Share Your Data“:

Sharing is hard. but not an intractable problem… Is the alternative is that everyone just does everything in secret with myriad idiosyncrasies ferociously milking least publishable units from a data set? That just seems like a recipe for science moving slowly and in the dark. …I think we just need to own up to the fact being a scientist these days requires new skills, and it always have. You didn’t have to know how to do PCR prior to 1983, but now you do. In the 21st century to do science better, we need more than spreadsheets with a few rows, we need to implement best practices for data management.

More fist pumping! No, things won’t change overnight. Leek at Simply Statistics rightly stated that the transition to open data will be rough for two reasons: (1) there is no education on data handling, and (2) the is a disconnect between the incentives for individual researchers and the actions that will benefit science as a whole. Sigh. Back to that incentive issue again.

Highlights & Takeaways

At risk of making this blog post way too long, I want to showcase a few highlights and takeaways from my deep dive into the #PLOSfail blogging world.

1) The Incentives Problem

We have a big incentives problem, which was probably obvious from my repeated mentions of it above. What’s good for researchers’ careers is not conducive to data sharing. If we expect behavior to change, we need to work on giving appropriate credit where it’s due.

Biologist Björn Brembs puts it well in his post, What is the Difference Between Text, Data, and Code?“…it is unrealistic to expect tenure committees and grant evaluators to assess software and data contributions before anybody even is contributing and sharing data or code.” Yes, there is a bit of a chicken-and-egg situation. We need movement on both sides to get somewhere. Share the data, and they will start to recognize it.

2) Empiricism Versus Theory

There is a second plot line to the data sharing rants: empiricists versus theoreticians. See ecologist Timothée Poisot‘s blog, “Of the value of datasets and methods in open science” for a more extensive review of this issue as it relates to data sharing. Of course, this tension is not a new debate in science. But terms like “data vultures” get thrown about, and feelings get hurt. Due to the nature of their work, most theoreticians’ “data” is equations, methods, and code that are shared via publication. Meanwhile, empiricists generate data and can hoard it until they see fit to share it, only offering a glimpse of the entire suite of their research outputs. To paraphrase Hart again: science is equal parts data and analysis/methods. We need both, so let’s stop fighting and encourage open science all around.

3) Data Ownership Issues

There are lots of potential data owners: the funders who paid for the work, the institution where the research was performed, the researcher who collected the data, the principle investigator of the lab where the researcher works, etc. etc. The complications around data ownership make this a tricky subject to work out. Zen Faulkes, a neurobiologist at University of Texas, blogged about who owns data, in particular, his data. He did a little research and found what many (most?) researchers at universities might find: “I do not own research data I generate. Neither do the funding agencies. The University of Texas system Board of Regents own research data I generate.” Faulkes goes on to state that the regents probably don’t care what he does with his data unless/until they can make money off of it… very true. To make things more complicated, Crotty over at Scholarly Kitchen reminded us that “under US law (the Bayh-Dole Act), the intellectual property (IP) generated as the result of federal research funds belongs to the researcher and their institution.” What does that even mean?!

To me, the issue is not about who owns the data outright. Instead, it’s about my role as an open science “waccaloon” who is interested in what’s best for the scientific process. To that extent, I am going to borrow from Hart again. Hart makes a comparison between having data and having a pet: in Boulder CO, there are no pet “owners” – only pet “guardians”. We can think of our data in this same way: we don’t own it; we simply care for it, love it, and are intellectually (and sometimes emotionally!) invested in it.

4) PLOS is Part of a Much Bigger Movement

Open science mandates are already here. The OSTP memo released last year is a huge leap forward in this direction – it requires that federally funded research outputs (including data) be made available to the public. Crotty draws a link between OSTP and PLOS policies in his blog: “Once this policy goes into effect, PLOS’ requirements would seem to be an afterthought for authors funded in this manner. The problem is that the OSTP policy seems nowhere near being implemented.”

That last part is most definitely true. One way to work on implementing this policy? Get the journals involved. The current incentive structure is not well-suited for ensuring compliance with OSTP, but journals have a role as gatekeepers to the traditional incentives. Crotty states it this way:

PLOS has never been a risk averse organization, and this policy would seem to fit well with their ethos of championing access and openness as keys to scientific progress. Even if one suspects this policy is premature and too blunt an instrument, one still has to respect PLOS for remaining true to their stated goals.

So I say kudos to PLOS!

In Conclusion…

I’ll end with a quote from MacManes Lab blog post:

How about this, make an honest effort to make the data accessible and useful to others, and chances are you’re probably good to go.

Final fist pump.


  1. Timothée Poisot, Ecologist. Of the value of datasets and methods in open science.
  2. Terry McGlynn, Biologist. I own my data until I don’t. Blog at Small Pond Science @hormiga
  3. David Crotty, publisher & former researcher. PLOS’ bold data policy Blog at The Scholarly Kitchen @scholarlykitchn
  4. Edmund Hart, Staff Scientist at NEONJust Get Over Yourself and Share Your Data. @DistribEcology
  5. MacManes Lab, genomics. Corner cases and the PLOS data policy.
  6. DrugMonkey, biomedical research. PLoS is letting the inmates run the asylum and it will kill them. @DrugMonkey
  7. Zen Faulkes, Neurobiologist. Who owns data. Blog at NeuroDojo @DoctorZen
  8. Björn Brembs, biologist. What is the Difference Between Text, Data, and Code? @brembs
  9. Jeff Leek, biostatistician. PLoS One, I have an idea for what to do with all your profits: buy hard drives Blog at Simply Statistics. @leekgroup

Twitter feed for #PLOSfail


Finding Disciplinary Data Repositories with DataBib and re3data

This post is by Natsuko Nicholls and John Kratz.  Natsuko is a CLIR/DLF Postdoctoral Fellow in Data Curation for the Sciences and Social Sciences at the University of Michigan.

The problem: finding a repository

Everyone tells researchers not to abandon their data on a departmental server, hard drive, USB stick , CD-ROM, stack of Zip disks, or quipu– put it in a repository! But, most researchers don’t know what repository might be appropriate for their data. If your organization has an Institutional Repository (IR), that’s one good home for the data. However, not everyone has access to an IR, and data in IRs can be difficult for others to discover, so it’s important to consider the other major (and not mutually exclusive!) option: deposit in a Disciplinary Repository (DR).

Many disciplinary repositories exist to handle data from a particular field or of a particular type (e.g. WormBase cares about nematode biology, while GenBank takes only DNA sequences). Some may be asking if the co-existence of IRs and DRs means competition or is mutually beneficial to both universities and research communities, some may be wondering how many repositories are out there for archiving digital assets, but most librarians and researchers just want to find an appropriate repository in a sea of choices.

For those involved in assisting researchers with data management, helping to find the right place to put data for sharing and preservation has become a crucial part of data services. This is certainly true at the University of Michigan—during a recent data management workshop for faculty, faculty members expressed their interest in receiving more guidance on disciplinary repositories from librarians.

The help: directories of data repositories

Fortunately, there is help to be found in the form of repository directories.  The Open Access Directory maintains a subdirectory of data repositories.  In the Life Sciences, BioSharing collects data policies, standards, and repositories.  Here, we’ll be looking at two large directories that list repositories from any discipline: DataBib and the REgistry of REsearch data REpositories (re3data.org).

DataBib originated in a partnership between Purdue and Penn State University, and it’s hosted by Purdue. The 600 repositories in DataBib are each placed in a single discipline-level category and tagged with more detailed descriptors of the contents.

re3data.org, which is sponsored by the German Research Foundation, started indexing relatively recently, in 2012, but it already lists 628 repositories.  Unlike DataBib, repositories aren’t assigned to a single category, but instead tagged with subjects, content types, and keywords.  Last November, re3data and BioSharing agreed to share records.  re3data is more completely described in this paper.

Given the similar number of repositories listed in DataBib and re3data, one might expect that their contents would be roughly similar and conclude that there are something around 600 operating DRs.  To test this possibility and get a better sense of the DR landscape, we examined the contents of both directories.

The question: how different are DataBib and re3data?

Repository overlap is only 19%Contrary to expectation, there is little overlap between the databases.  At least 1,037 disciplinary data repositories currently exist, and only 18% (191) are listed in both databases.  That’s a lot to look for one right place to put data, because except for a few exceptions, most IRs are not listed in re3data and Databib (you can find  a long list of academic open access repositories).  Of the repositories in both databases, a majority (72%) are categorized into STEM fields. Below is a breakdown of the overlap by discipline (as assigned by DataBib).


Another way of characterizing repository collections by re3data and Databib is by the repository’s host country. In re3data, the top three contributing countries (US 36%, Germany 15%, UK 12%) form the majority, whereas in Databib 58% of repositories are hosted by the US, followed by UK (12%) and Canada (7%). This finding may not be too surprising, since re3data is based in Germany and Databib is in the US.  If you are a researcher looking for the right disciplinary data repository, the host country may matter, depending on your (national-international/private-public) funding agencies and the scale of collaboration.

The full list of repositories is available here .

The conclusion: check both

Going forward, help with disciplinary repository selection will be increasingly be a part of data management workflows; the Data Management Planing Tool (DMPTool) plans to incorporate repository recommendations through DataBib, and DataCite may integrate with re3data. Further simplifying matters, DataBib and re3data plan to merge their services in some as-yet-undefined way.  But, for now, it’s safe to say that anyone looking for a disciplinary repository should check both DataBib and re3data.

Institutional Repositories: Part 2

A few weeks back I wrote a post describing institutional repositories (IRs for short). IRs have been around for a while, with the impetus of making scholarly publications open access. However more recently, IRs have been cited as potential repositories for datasets, code, and other scholarly outputs. Here I continue the discussion of IRs and compare their utility to DRs. Please note - although IRs are typically associated with open access publications, I discuss them here as potential repositories for data. 

Honest criticism of IRs

In my discussions with colleagues at conferences and meetings, I have found that some are skeptical about the role of IRs in data access preservation. I posit that this skepticism has a couple of origins:

  • IRs are often not intended for “self-service”, i.e., a researcher would need to connect with IR support staff (often via a face-to-face meeting), in order to deposit material into the IR.
  • Many IRs were created at minimum 5 years ago, with interfaces that sometimes appear to pre-date Facebook. Academic institutions often have no budget for a redesign of the user interface, which means those that visit an IR might be put off by the appearance and/or functionality.
  • IRs are run by libraries and IT departments, neither of which are known for self-promotion. Many (most?) researchers are likely unaware of an IR’s existence, and would not think to check in with the libraries regarding their data preservation needs.

These are all viable issues associated with many of the existing IRs. But there is one huge advantage to IRs over other data repositories: they are owned and operated by academic institutions that have a vested interest in preserving and providing access to scholarly work. 

The bright side

IRs aren’t all bad, or I wouldn’t be blogging about them. I believe that they are undergoing a rebirth of sorts: they are now seen as viable places for datasets and other scholarly outputs. Institutions like Purdue are putting IRs at the center of their initiatives around data management, access, and preservation. Here at the CDL, the UC3 group is pursuing the implementation of a data curation platform, DataShare, to allow self-service deposit of datasets into the Merritt Repository (see the UCSF DataShare site). Recent mandates from above requiring access to data resulting from federal grants means that funders (like IMLS) and organizations (like ARL) are taking an interest in improving the utility of IRs.

IRs versus discipline-specific repositories

In my last post, I mentioned that selecting a repository for your data doesn’t need to be either an IR or discipline-specific repository (DR). These repositories each have advantages and disadvantages, so using both makes sense.

DRs: ideal for data discovery and reuse

Often, DRs have collection policies for the specific types of data they are willing to accept. GenBank, for example, has standardized how your deposit your data, what types and formats of data they accept, and the metadata accompanying that data. This all means that searching for and using the data in GenBank is easy, and data users are able to easily download data for use. Another advantage of having a collection of similar, standardized data is the ability to build tools on top of these datasets, making reuse and meta-analyses easier.

The downside of DRs

The nature of a DR is that they are selective in the types of data that they accept. Consider this scenario, typical of many research projects: what if someone worked on a project that combined sequencing genes, collecting population demographics, and documenting location with GIS? Many DRs would not want to (or be able to) handle these disparate types of data. The result is that some of the data gets shared via a DR, while data less suitable for the DR would not be shared.

In my work with the DataONE Community Engagement and Education working group, I reviewed what datasets were shared from NSF grants awarded between 2005 and 2009 (see Panel 1 in Hampton et al. 2013). Many of the resulting publications relied on multiple types of data.  The percentage of those that shared all of the data produced was around 28%. However of the data that was shared, 81% was in GenBank or TreeBase – likely due to the culture of data sharing around genetic work. That means most of the non-genetic data is not available, and potentially lost, despite its importance for the project as a whole. Enter: institutional repositories.

IRs: the whole enchilada

Unlike many DRs, IRs have the potential to host entire collections of data around a project – regardless of the type of data, its format, etc. My postdoctoral work on modeling the effects of temperature and salinity on copepod populations involved field collection, laboratory copepod growth experiments (which included logs of environmental conditions), food growth (algal density estimates and growth rates, nutrient concentrations), population size counts, R scripts, and the development of the mathematical models themselves. An IR could take all of these disparate datasets as a package, which I could then refer to in the publications that resulted from the work. A big bonus is that this package could sit next to other packages I’ve generated over the course of my career, making it easier for me to point people to the entire corpus of research work. The biggest bonus of all: having all of the data the produced a publication, available at a single location, helps ensure reproducibility and transparency.

Maybe you can have your cake (DRs) and eat it too (IRs). From Flickr by Mayaevening

Maybe you can have your cake (DRs) and eat it too (IRs). From Flickr by Mayaevening

There are certainly some repositories that could handle the type of data package I just described. The Knowledge Network for Biocomplexity is one such relatively generic repository (although I might argue that KNB is more like an IR than a discipline repository). Another is figshare, although this is a repository ultimately owned by a publisher. But as researchers start hunting for places to put their datasets, I would hope that they look to academic institutions rather than commercial publishers. (Full disclosure – I have data stored in figshare!)

Good news! You can have your cake and eat it too. Putting data in both the relevant DRs and more generic IRs is a good solution to ensure discoverability (DRs) and provenance (IRs).


It’s been over a year since the DataUp tool went live, and we figure it’s time for an update. I’m co-writing this blog post with Susan Borda from UC Merced, who joined the UC3 DataUp project a few months ago.

DataUp Version 1

We went live with the DataUp tool in November 2012. Since then, more than 600 people have downloaded the add-in for Excel, and countless others have accessed the web application. We have had more than 50 submissions of datasets to the ONEShare Repository via DataUp, and many more inquiries about using the free repository. Although the DataUp tool was considered a success by many measures, we recognized that it had even more potential for improvement and expanded features (see our list of suggested improvements and fixes on BitBucket).

"Going Up". From Flickr by vsai

“Going Up”. From Flickr by vsai

Unfortunately, development on DataUp stopped once we went live. The typical reasons apply here – lack of staff and resources to devote to the project. We therefore partnered with DataONE and requested funds from the National Science Foundation to continue work on the tool (full text of the grant available on eScholarship). Shortly after receiving notice that we received the requested grant, the UC3 team met with Microsoft Research, our original partners on DataUp. We discovered that our interests were still aligned, and that Microsoft had been using in-house resources to continue work on DataUp as an internal project titled “Sequim”. Rather than work in parallel, we decided to join forces and work on DataUp Version 2 (see more below).

In the interim, we published our work on DataUp Version 1 at F1000Research, an open access journal that focuses on rapid dissemination of results and open peer review. In this publication, we describe the project background, requirements gathering including researcher surveys, and a description of the tool’s implementation.

DataUp Version 2

The NSF grant allowed us to hire Susan Borda, a librarian at UC Merced with a background in IT and knowledge of the DataUp project. She has been serving as the project manager for DataUp Version 2, and has liaised with Microsoft Research on the project. Susan will take over from here to describe what’s on the horizon for DataUp.

The new version of DataUp will be available after February 24th, 2014. This version will have a new, clean web interface with functionality for both users and administrators. A DataUp administrator (i.e., repository manager), will be able to define the file-level metadata that will be captured from the user upon data deposit. In addition, an administrator will be able to activate the  “Data Quality Check”, which allows the DataUp tool to verify whether user’s uploaded file meets certain requirements for their repository. The “Best Practices” and file “Citation” features from DataUp version 1 are still available in version 2.

Note that we will be phasing out DataUp version 1 over the next few weeks, which means the add-in for Excel will no longer be operational.

Dying to see the new tool?

Microsoft Research will be at the International Digital Curation Conference (#IDCC14) in San Francisco at the end of February, demoing and discussing their suite of research tools, including DataUp. Susan will also be at IDCC, demoing DataUp version 2 more informally during the poster session with the goal of getting feedback from delegates.

Institutional Repositories: Part 1

If you aren’t a member of the library and archiving world, you probably aren’t aware of the phrase institutional repository (IR for short). I certainly wasn’t aware of IRs prior to joining the CDL, and I’m guessing most researchers are similarly ignorant. In the next two blog posts, I plan to first explain IRs, then lay out the case for their importance – nay, necessity – as part of the academic ecosphere. I should mention up front that although the IR’s inception focused on archiving traditional publications by researchers, I am speaking about them here as potential preservation of all scholarship, including data.

Academic lIbraries have a mission to archive scholarly work, including theses. These are at The Hive in Worcester, England. From Flickr by israelcsus.

Academic lIbraries have a mission to archive scholarly work, including theses. These are at The Hive in Worcester, England. From Flickr by israelcsus.

If you read this blog, I’m sure you are that there is increased awareness about the importance of open science, open access to publications, data sharing, and reproducibility. Most of these concepts were easily accomplished in the olden days of pen-and-paper: you simply took great notes in your notebook, and shared that notebook as necessary with colleagues (this assumes, of course geographic proximity and/or excellent mail systems). These days, that landscape has changed dramatically due to the increasingly computationally complex nature of research. Digital inputs and outputs of research might include software, spreadsheets, databases, images, websites, text-based corpuses, and more. But these “digital assets”, as the archival world might call them, are more difficult to store than a lab notebook. What does a virtual filing cabinet or file storage box look like that can house all of these different bits? In my opinion, it looks like an IR.

So what’s an IR?

An IR is a data repository run by an institution. Many of the large research universities have IRs. To name a few, Harvard has DASH, the University of California system has eScholarship and Merritt, Purdue has PURR, and MIT has DSpace. Many of these systems have been set up in the last 10 years or so to serve as archives for publications. For a great overview and history of IRs, check out this eHow article (which is surprisingly better than the relevant Wikipedia article).

So why haven’t more people heard of IRs? Mostly this is because there have never been any mandates or requirements for researchers to deposit their works in IRs. Some libraries take on this task– for example, I found out a few years ago that the MBL-WHOI Library graciously stored open access copies of all of my publications for me in their IR. But more and more these “works” include digital assets that are not publications, and the burden of collecting all of the digital scholarship produced by an institution is a near-insurmountable task for a small group of librarians; there has to be either buy-in from researchers or mandates from the top.

The Case for IRs

I’m not the first one to recognize the importance of IRs. Back in 2002 the Scholarly Publishing and Academic Resources Coalition (SPARC) put out a position paper titled “The Case for Institutional Repositories” (see their website for more information). They defined an IR as having four major qualities:

  1. Institutionally defined,
  2. Scholarly,
  3. Cumulative and perpetual, and
  4. Open and interoperable.

Taking the point of view of the academic institution (rather than the researcher), the paper cited two roles that institutional repositories play for academic institutions:

  1. Reform scholarly communication – Reassert control over scholarship, reduce monopoly power of journals, and bring relevance to libraries
  2. Promote the university – Serve as an indicator of the university’s quality; showcase the university’s research; demonstrate public value and increase status.

In general, IRs are run by information professionals (e.g., librarians), who are experts at documenting, archiving, preserving, and generally curating information. All of those digital assets that we produce as researchers fit the bill perfectly.

As a researcher, you might not be convinced by the importance of IRs given the  arguments above. Part of the indifference researchers may feel about IRs might have something to do with the existence of disciplinary repositories.

Disciplinary Repositories

There are many, many, many repositories out there for storing digital assets. To get a sense, check out re3data.org or databib.org and start browsing. Both of these websites are searchable databases for research data repositories. If you are a researcher, you probably know of at least one or two repositories for datasets in your field. For example, geneticists have GenBank, evolutionary biologists have TreeBase, ecologists have the KNB, and marine biologists have BCO-DMO. These are all examples of disciplinary repositories (DRs) for data. As any researcher who’s aware of these sites knows, you can both deposit and download data from these repositories, which makes them indispensable resources for their respective fields.

So where should a researcher put data?

The short answer is both an IR and a DR. I’ll expand on this and make the case for IRs to researchers in the next blog post.

Data Publication Practices and Perceptions

Surveyors working

Credit: Captain Harry Garber, C&GS. From NOAA Photo Library

Today, we’re opening a survey of researcher perceptions and practices around data publication.

Why are you doing a survey?

The term “Data publication” applies language and ideas from traditional scholarly publishing to datasets, with the goal of situating data within the academic reward system and encouraging sharing and reuse. However, the best way to apply these ideas to data is not obvious. The library community has been productively discussing these issues for some time; we hope to contribute by asking researchers directly what they would expect and want from a data publication.

Who should take it?

We are interested in responses from anyone doing research in any branch of the Sciences or Social Sciences at any level (but especially PIs and postdocs).

What do you hope to learn?

  • What do researchers think it means to “publish” data? What do they expect from “peer review” of data?
  • As creators of data, how do they want to be credited? What do they think is adequate?
  • As users of published data, what would help them decide whether to work with a dataset?
  • In evaluating their colleagues, what dataset metrics are most useful? What would be most impressive to, for instance, tenure & promotions committees?

What will you do with the results?

The results will inform the CDL’s vision of data publication and influence our efforts. Additionally, the results will be made public for use by anyone.

What do you want from me?

If you are a researcher, please take 5-10 minutes to complete the survey and consider telling your colleagues about it.

If you are a librarian or other campus staff, please consider forwarding the link to any researchers, departments, or listservs that you feel are appropriate. The text of an email describing the survey can be found here.

The survey can be found at:



Link to survey

If you have any questions or concerns, email me or comment on this post.

My picks for #AGU13

Nerds come in many flavors at the AGU meeting. From Flickr by Westfield, Ma

Nerds come in many flavors at the AGU meeting. From Flickr by Westfield, Ma

Next week, the city of San Francisco will be overrun with nerds. More specifically,more than 22,000 geophysicists, oceanographers, geologists, seismologists, meteorologists, and volcanologists will be descending upon the Bay Area to attend the 2013 American Geophysical Union Fall Meeting.

If you are among the thousands of attendees, you are probably (like me) overwhelmed by the plethora in sessions, speakers, posters, and mixers. In an effort to force myself to look at the schedule well in advance of the actual meeting, I’m sharing my picks for must-sees at the AGU meeting below.

Note! I’m co-chairing “Managing Ecological Data for Effective Use and Reuse” along with Amber Budden of DataONE and Karthik Ram of rOpenSci. Prepare for a great set of talks about DMPTool, rOpenSci, DataONE, and others.

Session Title





Translating Science into Action: Innovative Services for the Geo- and Environmental- Sciences in the Era of Big Data I GC11F Oral Mon 8:00 AM
Data Curation, Credibility, Preservation Implementation, and Data Rescue to Enable Multi-source Science I IN11D Oral Mon 8:00 AM
Data Curation, Credibility, Preservation Implementation, and Data Rescue to Enable Multi-source Science II IN12A Oral Mon 10:20 AM
Enabling Better Science Through Improving Science Software Development Culture I IN22A Oral Tue 10:20 AM
Collaborative Frameworks and Experiences in Earth and Space Science Posters IN23B Poster Tue 1:40 PM
Enabling Better Science Through Improving Science Software Development Culture II Posters IN23C Poster Tue 1:40 PM
Managing Ecological Data for Effective Use and Reuse I ED43E Oral Thu 1:40 PM
Open-Source Programming, Scripting, and Tools for the Hydrological Sciences II H51R Oral Fri 8:00 AM
Data Stewardship in Theory and in Practice I IN51D Oral Fri 8:00 AM
Managing Ecological Data for Effective Use and Reuse II Posters ED53B Poster Fri 1:40 PM

Download the full program as a PDF

Previous Data Pub blog post about AGU: Scientific Data at AGU 2011