Always on My Mind: Sustainability and Data

by Patricia Hswe, Andrew W. Mellon Foundation

Since it’s “Love Your Data Week,” I feel it’s appropriate to kick off this blog post with lyrics from a love song made popular by Willie Nelson, “Always on My Mind.” Most of its first stanza – but, admittedly, not much more – could easily be about a researcher and her data:

Maybe I didn’t love you
Quite as often as I could have
Maybe I didn’t treat you
Quite as good as I should have
If I made you feel, oh, second best . . .[1]

A key motivation behind the outreach and engagement encompassed by “Love Your Data Week,” however, is to head off regrets and misgivings about data, which for many researchers constitute the heart of their work. Loving data means learning to be mindful and responsible about the integrity of your research, not to mention, as well, your future researcher self. Even a few days from now, do you really want to be playing “detective” with your data, ferreting them out from your hard drive, or from the cloud? Or trying to parse them, because you put off labeling and describing them in meaningful yet standardized ways? Or, worse yet, trying to salvage them because of server failure or a security breach?

It’s well known that many federal funding agencies require a data management plan (DMP) from their grantees, a mandate intended to decrease, if not eliminate, scenarios like the ones posed in passing above. In my previous position as an academic librarian managing user services for the campus’s institutional repository, I had a leadership role in providing research data management guidance and support. It would not be an exaggeration to say that on some days, data was always on my mind. Now, as a program officer for scholarly communications at the Mellon Foundation, I work on the funder side of things – although I am no less concerned about data longevity and use.  One factor to note is that we make grants for scholarly communications projects that are grounded in the humanities; these efforts typically do not produce data on the scale that projects funded by other organizations, such as the National Science Foundation, routinely generate and strive to support. Nonetheless, a cursory search in our grants database shows that, over the course of several years, scholarly communications has made 40 grants, totaling $19.21M, that address or involve some aspect of data (e.g., data privacy, data curation, a data dashboard) or different types of data pertinent to humanities fields (e.g., archaeological data, linked open data, annotations).

While we do not require grantees to submit a DMP, we do ask them in our guidelines (PDF) to address the issue of sustainability. Grantees are asked to give, “[a]s appropriate, an account of how the organization will ensure the longer-term sustainability of project results and/or institutional changes supported by Foundation funding.” Our guidance for the intellectual property section of the proposal also addresses sustainability, asking “how the organization will ensure the long-term sustainability of the digital and/or software products.“ The language in our sustainability prompt is non-prescriptive because of the wide range of project possibilities, and because much depends on the context of the proposal and the aims and deliverables of the project. At the same time, a grantee might view the statement as an invitation to be more intentional about the sustainability of a project’s accomplishments from the very start, taking into account – as relevant – any data, workflows, software, and other data-intensive or data-dependent outputs that are produced. Where possible, we encourage open sharing of research outputs. Active usage of project deliverables, such as data and technology, especially if well documented, can create a demand that, in turn, helps sustain them. As with strong DMPs, a strong sustainability section evidences that the grantee has thought through the future prospects of the work, perhaps confirming continuing engagement, support, or collaboration of some kind, or the resolve to seek such as part of the industry of the project. Of course, some projects, being small or restricted in scope, may not need to continue past a certain point, making sustainability considerations less burdensome; an assertion of such is not unlike an NSF proposal in which a DMP is deemed unnecessary by the grantee, who must state so and why.

If the sustainability section gives grantees pause, then I view the reflection as favorable – and the prompt a success up to that point. The last thing I would wish upon grantees is the regret that infuses “Always on My Mind”: “Little things I should have said and done / I just never took the time.” In other words, say and do those little – even big things – and please take the time!  Your data users and re-users will thank you.

[1] Willie Nelson. “Always on my mind.” Always on My Mind, Columbia, 1982, Spotify, https://open.spotify.com/track/2xYQTU2bbg6WVAmpY1eae4.

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