Think twice before you begin collecting data for your research

The VU Research Data Management Support Desk would be happy to assist you in getting started.

02/24/2020 | 11:36 AM

When it was time to create a Data Management Plan for her Netherlands Organisation for Scientific Research (NWO) doctoral research project, Heleen Blommers sought advice from the VU Research Data Management Support Desk. ‘Jolien Scholten from the Support Desk gave me a bunch of useful tips. Even though I had already put a great deal of thought into how to manage my research data before I started, I still ran into some unexpected aspects. It's important to allow a lot of time for this and to seek advice from experts.’

Photos of archived documents for personal use only
For her research project entitled Deconstructing the War on Poverty: the rise of a policy failure narrative, 1964-1985 at the Faculty of Humanities, Blommers is conducting research in various archives in the United States. ‘When I go to the U.S., I take pictures of the documents I find,’ she explains. ‘I'm permitted to take those pictures for use in my own personal research, but I'm not allowed to share them with others because the archived items are property of the state. This has consequences for how I can store and archive the photos that make up my data set.’

Upload time is 'infinity'
Blommers asked the VU Research Data Management Support Desk for advice on the best way to store her data during the research phase and archive it once she was finished. ‘NWO expects you to store your data using a cloud storage service, such as SURFdrive. That was what the Support Desk recommended as well. However, when I went to upload my photos to SURFdrive after a few days of archival research in the U.S., I got a message that the “upload time is three weeks” – a little while later, it even said “upload time is infinity”!’

Three hard drives to store the data
‘I had so many and such data-heavy photos that I was forced to find another approach. Now I store everything on three hard drives: one that I actually work on, one that is always stored in the safe at VU Amsterdam and one I keep at home. I have to synchronise those three hard drives regularly. When I'm travelling, I keep my work drive in my backpack and a second one in the hotel.’

Archstore is accessible only for verification purposes
Blommers plans to archive her data in one of the three archive systems provided by the VU: Archstore. Archstore retains research data for a period of 10 years. The data it holds can only be reviewed for verification purposes.’

Systematic data storage
Storing her data properly and systematically takes a great deal of time, Blommers says. ‘You have to create extremely precise references to the source documents – photos – in which you read a particular fact, along with in what archives and in which boxes you found the documents, who wrote them and so on. This is important to ensure my thesis will have proper annotation and to establish transparency in my research. I use the repository structure to do this. It's a labour-intensive process, so I'd recommend that fellow researchers allow plenty of time for it.’

Optical Character Recognition software
Going over all the documents that have been photographed is quite time-consuming as well, which is why Blommers asked the Support Desk for advice on Optical Character Recognition software. ‘I'd like to be able to search the photos of documents based on key words. Jolien recommended Clarin's tools and expertise, and also put me on to the new free tool Transkribus. I explored all those options and found out that, in order to use the tools, I would have needed to take the photos in a particular way. To use Transkribus, for instance, you actually need a tent! This goes to show that it's important to learn as much as you can about these matters before you start your research and begin collecting data. Keep asking yourself the question, “What if...?”’

Do you have questions about putting together your Data Management Plan?
Please contact the VU Research Data Management Support Desk. The RDM specialists have helped a great many researchers before you, and they'll be happy to share all the knowledge and experience they've gained in doing so with you as well.