Less is more? A metadata schema for discovery of research data

In recent years, universities have become more interested in the data researchers produce. This is partly driven by funder mandates, in the UK in particular the EPSRC Expectations, but also by a concern about research integrity as well as an increasing awareness of the value of research data. As a result, universities are building (or procuring) data repositories and catalogues – and these require metadata.

The world is not short of metadata schemas, and yet there is no widely used standard for how research data should be catalogued (not to replace disciplinary schemes, but simply to enable universities to track their assets and others to discover potentially valuable resources). In my keynote at RDMF14 I questioned whether universities building their own data infrastructures is always the most efficient way to address research data challenges, and I suggested that as a minimum we should aim for an agreement on a simple metadata schema for research data. This would save universities the trouble of having to come up with their own metadata fields, and perhaps, more importantly, such a consensus should help us in discussions with platform vendors and other data repositories. Academics are already using a wide range of disciplinary resources as well as generic repositories, and if we want to be able to harvest, search and exchange data we need a core metadata schema. This would also reduce the burden on academics to have to re-enter metadata manually.

One of the colleagues interested in this idea was Marta Teperek from Cambridge. After RDMF we exchanged the metadata fields currently used for research data at Imperial and Cambridge, with the idea to start a wider discussion. Today Marta and myself attended the kick-off meeting of Jisc’s Research Data Shared Service Pilot where we learned that Jisc are working on a schema for metadata – and there is considerable overlap, also with other initiatives. It seems the time is ripe for a wider discussion, and perhaps even for a consensus on a what could be the minimalist core of metadata fields or research data. Minimalist, to make it easy for researchers to engage; core, to allow institutions to extend it to meet their specific requirements.
To facilitate that discussion, I am going to propose a Birds of a Feather session at next week’s International Digital Curation Conference on this topic. As a starting point I have put together a suggestion, inspired by the fields used in the data catalogues at Imperial and Cambridge:

• Title
• Author/contributor name(s)
• Author/contributor ORCID iD(s)
• Abstract
• Keywords
• Licence (e.g. CC BY)
• Identifier (ideally DOI)
• Publication date
• Version
• Institution(s) (of the authors/contributors)
• Funder(s) (ideally with grant references; can also be “none/not externally funded”)

I would be interested to hear your thoughts – in person at IDCC or another event, or in the comments below. I will update this post with feedback from IDCC.


Update, 23/03/2016: Having discussed this with colleagues at IDCC I thought it useful to clarify something. As I mentioned above there are already several metadata schemas out there, and as you will see from the fields I have proposed above this is not about introducing something new. The issue that we face is that systems either don’t include such fields or they are not mandatory. I would like to explore if we can find a consensus on what is considered the mandatory minimum for discovery and funder compliance (including reporting). For example, institutions need to know who funded an output, but a widely used schema designed for a different purpose may list funder as optional. So in that sense this is not about a new schema as such, but about agreeing what has to be implemented as mandatory in order for us to link systems, reduce duplication etc. That could result in a new schema, but doesn’t have to.


Update, 26/03/2016: Back from IDCC; we had an interesting and wide-ranging discussion. Perhaps not surprisingly, we spent most of the time agreeing on definitions and understanding the use case. Most of the participants of the session were not from the UK and therefore not familiar with UK funder requirements.UK institutions are essentially looking for a pragmatic solution that helps us track datasets, report and meet funder requirements for discoverability. Introducing the concept of discoverability may not have been helpful for the international discussion as it made the proposal sound bigger than it is. We have no plans to replace or supersede disciplinary schemas (where these exist); the aim simply is to be able to point to disciplinary or other external repositories so that someone looking at data from an institutional system can learn that there is a dataset, what it may be about and where to locate it – and, ideally, further information such as detailed disciplinary metadata.

From the discussions with this international audience I am mostly drawing two conclusions: 1) This may be, at least partly, a UK-specific issue. 2) When engaging in discussions with metadata experts there is no such thing as a pragmatic definition – speaking about funder compliance and internal track of datasets for reporting is the more useful question.

For those interested in an example of a national consensus on metadata, look at Research Data Australia, provided by the Australian National Data Service.

5 comments for “Less is more? A metadata schema for discovery of research data

    1. Thank you, Paul. Imperial is one of the institutions looking at RIOXX, although at this point the focus is on open access reporting. I’d hope that, if we get an agreement across the sector, it would fit nicely into several standards, including DataCite. I don’t see this as suggesting something new, just a pragmatic agreement to use a set of core fields with the same name and description.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *