SSHRC’s Research Data Archiving Policy and Historians

Whenever I even think about archival trips, my back pre-emptively aches. It involves sitting or standing near documents, taking digital photographs. And I know that if I looked around the archive, chances are that nine out of ten of my colleagues are doing something similar (and yes, because the plural of an anecdote is not data, Ithaka S+R has reported on this widespread trend in historical research).

When we all travel home to our universities, those historians who are travelling on SSHRC’s dime will surely deposit their research data (photos?) after a reasonable amount of time with their organization’s institutional repository or on some other sharing website, right, to make sure their publicly-funded research is made accessible? SSHRC just wants “qualitative information in digital format,” so maybe our photos, or just our notes, right? </sarcasm>

I wager – unscientifically, based only on anecdotal conversations at the Canadian Historical Association, on Twitter, and in hallways – that the vast majority of historians in Canada would be opposed to the very idea, even if their work was generously funded. The value of our work is too wrapped up in the scarcity of sources themselves, rather than just the narratives that we weave with them.

But what we’re supposed to be doing is all here in SSHRC’s Research Data Archiving Policy:

All research data collected with the use of SSHRC funds must be preserved and made available for use by others within a reasonable period of time. SSHRC considers “a reasonable period” to be within two years of the completion of the research project for which the data was collected.

They’re flexible, in that ethics are respected (i.e. TCPS 2), but has a laudable goal: to enhance progress within fields of research, avoid duplication of primary collection of data (emphasis mine), as well as support the expansion of inter-disciplinary research. It can be built into grant applications, although there’s so little publicity of this requirement that I hope the peer reviewers know this.

I reflected about this on Twitter:

The reaction from a historian was that they’d never heard of this – which is also the reaction of all colleagues that I’ve mentioned this to – whereas librarians, both on Twitter and at the Research Data Management conference I was attending, were surprised that historians would even hesitate if they could share their research data.

Yes, there’s problems around copyright and reproducing archival documents, but I think historians have a more fundamental opposition: it’s our data, we collected it, and if somebody else wants the data, they should collect it themselves.

All fine (or not), but how many trips to Ottawa could be saved if we took this injunction to heart, and began sharing our research notes at a minimum. Rather than dozens of us all flying to Library and Archives Canada, taking our own photographic record of RCMP/CSIS records, say, wouldn’t it better if we cooperated more? If we “avoided duplication of primary collection of data” as SSHRC accurately puts it?

As data management plans become mandatory components of research proposals, maybe we should start looking out for what historians will be doing with their notes and research data? It’d be a potential to really kickstart historical research, speed up some research, increase efficiency (time for me to duck), and help decrease PhD completion times. Not a magic bullet, but … maybe 10% of one?

As the University of Waterloo begins to launch a newly expanded institutional repository, I know I’m looking forward to depositing my data. Maybe other historians will cite it, I’ll put it on my annual review – or maybe even my CV – and we can slowly start having a professional shift here in Canada.

5 thoughts on “SSHRC’s Research Data Archiving Policy and Historians

  1. I think provision of academic incentive is key here. If we can find a way to make the deposition of datasets something that is equivalent in importance, say, to a peer reviewed article, I suspect the compliance rate would be much higher. I agree that there is tremendous resistance within our profession to sharing data, in part because we have competitors, and I think we all chafe at the idea of letter colleagues ride free on our labour.

  2. Ian,

    I find your post interesting and worthwhile. The secretiveness is also unusual to historians and might originate in a field whose defining methodology is finding new sources rather than statistical methods or theory. Many of these things are already standard practice in other fields, as economists routinely use faculty websites to post data sets for the use of others. I also understand that UBC expects all data collected to be securely stored for five years after publication on the university network.
    One important question that comes up in this process is whether it is the research notes/spreadsheets that should be kept or the digital images. Does the next scholar want to redo all of my data entry or just perform new calculations on the same data? In addition to the privacy concerns, there are some technical questions about storing digital images of documents. I recently had some experience with this and was reminded that in the scale of data preservation, historians images of documents present weird challenges. The digital images that I have taken are generally around 1Mb and a full day of photographing documents generally produces between 2,000 and 3,000 images. These are not big data but a research trip by a photographing historian produces a particularly large number of medium sized files. This is different than scholars in other fields whose data has fewer files but which are often much larger. To preserve digital images of documents in a usable way will require dialogue between historians and university IT people about the unique practices of the field. I wonder if this has began.

    David Zylberberg

  3. Hi John –

    Great comment, and I completely agree. I think as universities respond (some are further along than others) to the increasing importance of data management plans, we’re going to see places for scholars to deposit their data – and be assigned DOIs, metadata, etc. All of which should make it easier to cite data… and, hopefully, slowly move towards recognizing the importance of this in tenure/promotion/hiring/prestige, etc.

    I think there’s some movement within our profession towards thinking of the creation of data as a genuine research contribution, so hopefully SSHRC can help push us along too.

  4. Hi David –

    Yes, I think there’s something about history too. Physicists, for example, routinely share their research data and results – whereas I’d hesitate to e-mail a colleague and ask them for all their research notes from an archive trip (I suspect they’d ignore my e-mail or find some other polite way to tell me to leave them alone).

    I think if we can get scholars credit for this, all of the above are important – the finished spreadsheets would be especially useful!

    As for the technical challenges, librarians and archivists are on it. Most libraries are or are working towards being very well equipped to store all these files – they’ve got fantastic platforms that facilitate use, digital preservation, etc. is a good example, to use an example that’s familiar to both of us.

    Thanks for writing!

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