Sharing is caring, but should it count?

The following is a guest post by Shea Swauger, Data Management Librarian at Colorado State University. Shea and I both participated in a meeting for the Colorado Alliance of Research Libraries on 11 July 2014, where he presented survey results described below.


 

 Vanilla Ice has a timely message for the data community. From Flickr by wiredforlego.

Vanilla Ice has a timely message for the data community. From Flickr by wiredforlego.

It shouldn’t be a surprise that many of the people who collect and generate research data are academic faculty members. One of the gauntlets that these individuals must face is the tenure and promotion process, an evaluation system that measures and rewards professional excellence, scholarly impact and can greatly affect the career arch of an aspiring scholar. As a result, tenure and promotion metrics naturally influence the kind and quantity of scholarly products that faculty produce.

Some advocates of data sharing have suggested using the tenure and promotion process as a way to incentivize data sharing. I thought this was a brilliant idea and had designs to advocate its implementation to members of the executive administration at my university, but first I wanted to gather some evidence to support my argument. Some of my colleagues, Beth Oehlerts, Daniel Draper, Don Zimmerman and I sent out a survey to all faculty members as to how they felt about incorporating shared research data as an assessment measure in the tenure and promotion process. Only about 10% (202) responded, so while generalizations about the larger population can’t be made, their answers are still interesting.

This is how I expected the survey to work:

Me: “If sharing your research data counted, in some way, towards you achieving tenure and promotion, would you be more likely to do it?”

Faculty: “Yes, of course!”

I’d bring this evidence to the university, sweeping changes would be made, data sharing would proliferate and all would be well.

I was wrong.

Speaking broadly, only about half of the faculty members surveyed said that changing the tenure and promotion process would make them more likely to share their data.

While 76% of the faculty were interested in sharing data in the future, and 84% said that data generation or collection is important to their research, half of faculty said that shared research data has little to no impact on their scholarly community and almost a quarter of faculty said they are unable to judge the impact.

Okay, let’s back up.

The tenure system is supposed to measure, among several things like teaching, service, etc., someone’s impact on their scholarly community. According to this idea there should be a correlation between the things that impact your scholarly community and the things that impact you achieving tenure. Now, back to the survey.

I asked faculty to rate the impact of several research products on their scholarly community as well as on their tenure and promotion. 94% of faculty rated ‘peer-reviewed journal articles’ at ‘high impact’ (the top of the scale) for impact upon their scholarly community, and 96% of faculty rated ‘peer-reviewed journal articles’ at ‘high impact’ upon their tenure and promotion. This supports the idea that because peer-viewed journal articles have a high impact on the scholarly community, they have a high impact on the tenure and promotion process.

Shared research data had a similar impact correlation, though on the opposite end of the impact spectrum. Little impact on the scholarly community means little impact on the tenure and promotion process. Bad news for data sharing. Reductively speaking, I believe this to be the essence of the argument: contributions that are valuable to a research community should be rewarded in the tenure and promotion process; shared research data isn’t valuable to the research community; therefore, data sharing should not be rewarded.

Also, I received several responses from faculty saying that they were obligated not to share their data because of the kind of research they were doing, be it in defense, the private sector, or working with personally identifiable or sensitive data.  They felt that if the university started rewarding data sharing, they would be unfairly punished because of the nature of their research. Some suggested that a more local implementation of a data sharing policy, perhaps on a departmental basis or an individual opt-in system might be fairer to researchers who can’t share their data for one reason or another.

So what does this mean?

Firstly, it means that there’s a big perception gap on the importance of ‘my data to my research’, and the importance of ‘my data to someone else’s research’. Closing this gap could go a long way to increasing data sharing. Secondly, it means that the tenure and promotion system is a complicated, political mechanism and trying to leverage it as a way to incentivize data sharing is not easy or straightforward. For now, I’ve decided not to try and pursue amending the local tenure system, however I have hope that as interest in data sharing grows we can find meaningful ways that reward people who choose to share their data.

Note: the work described above is being prepared for publication in 2015.

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