The University of Malta: driving an open data culture change

The University of Malta: driving an open data culture change


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This Figshare case study aims to explore the successful implementation of a Figshare-powered data repository for the University of Malta (UM). The collaboration between the UM Library and Figshare has enabled the University to effectively support its research data management initiatives. 

The UM comprises fourteen faculties, several interdisciplinary institutes, centres and schools, and a junior college. In addition to the main campus located in Msida, UM has two other campuses; the old University campus in Valletta, and the University of Malta Gozo Campus on the neighbouring island of Gozo. The UM is committed to supporting high standards in both research and education which are pivotal elements of a knowledge-based society and assets for the prosperity of Malta’s intellectual and economic growth.

The UM Library has been responsible for implementing and promoting open science principles and practices at the University since 2014. The journey began with the setting up of OAR@UM as an Institutional Repository, which supports the sharing of research papers, electronic theses and dissertations, and other research outputs. As the open science movement gained momentum, the Library strengthened its commitment by setting up a dedicated Open Science Department in 2017, staffed by five FTEs. Building on this foundation, the UM implemented an Open Access Policy in 2019, encouraging researchers to openly share their publications. In 2021, this policy was upgraded to a mandate, formally requiring researchers to adhere to open science principles. As these core practices became entrenched within the academic workflows, and also having been inspired by the global open science movement and the evolving landscape of scholarly communication, the Library recognised the need to expand its focus beyond open access publications and include research data management. This shift demonstrates the Library's commitment to supporting researchers in making research processes more transparent and accessible, aligning with the principles of open science.

As the Library continued to lead open science initiatives across the UM, the importance of findable, accessible, interoperable, and reusable (FAIR) research data became even more pertinent. To address this need, the necessary infrastructure to support research data management was considered. Subsequently, Figshare was identified as the appropriate platform to be implemented as a data repository for the UM. The custom-branded repository, drUM, was launched in 2023, offering a robust platform for managing and sharing research data.

To engage the research community and promote the benefits of effective research data management and sharing, the Library devised a comprehensive marketing strategy. The need for a culture change in handling research data was recognised and the team therefore consistently communicated the core principles of open and FAIR data, as well as the practicalities for adhering to these principles.

The Library organized and continues to run interactive in-person and group sessions, highlighting the basics of research data management and the practicalities of sharing research data on drUM. Digital communications, such as email blasts, comprehensive documentation and how-to guides, were all part of the marketing campaign. Additionally, a prominent physical billboard was installed outside the Library entrance, complemented by roll-up banners within the Library and at various Library events.

Another notable initiative was the addition of an optional module for all PhD students, focusing on best practices for the research process, collecting research data, and disseminating research results. As part of this module, the Library team delivers sessions on open science, including research data management, and encourages best practices from the very early stages of a research project.

By actively promoting the data repository and core open data principles, it has been observed that a gradual culture shift is necessary for research data management to become the norm at the UM. Researchers remain hesitant about making their data publicly available, fearing it may be reused differently than intended, misinterpreted or used to support work that is not attributed to them.

These concerns were also evident in the results of The State of Open Data 2023, a global survey conducted by Digital Science, Figshare, and Springer Nature (now in its eighth year). In the 2023 results, nearly a third (32%) of respondents stated that they had concerns about data misuse and were unsure about copyright and data licensing.

Another concern expressed by UM researchers was the time required to properly manage and curate data, due to limited resources assigned to a research project. This was also reflected in the results of The State of Open Data 2023, with 53% of respondents stating that they needed help finding time to manage their data.

The challenges faced by the UM Library clearly align with global trends, indicating a broader cultural shift as open data becomes integral to research and publication processes. Encouragingly, the UM Library noted that the knowledge and awareness of the principles of research data management has resulted in an increase in acceptance and appreciation of open data principles. In fact, the implementation of the UM data repository and the championing of research data management at the UM has led to a gradual acceptance of research data management within the research community.

The UM Library has observed several notable use cases of drUM. One example is the use of drUM by PhD students to share their research data with supervisors. This practice is facilitated by Figshare, which allows researchers to generate private links to unpublished records and share them during the review period. This approach encourages early career researchers to consider data sharing earlier in the research process, rather than waiting until the final stages of publication.

Another instance of Figshare’s effective use was observed in a researcher who utilized the private link functionality on a funding application to demonstrate how they would share data once collected. This also indicates that research data management is being integrated as a fundamental aspect of the research process, even at the early stages of a project.

The UM Library continues to support the transition towards open data as part of its comprehensive open science strategy. To achieve this, the Library plans to create informative videos about drUM, and maintain active engagement and outreach activities with the research community. The Library is currently developing a research data management policy to support the overarching Open Access Policy, which will formalise the best practices in research data management championed at the UM. The drafting of this policy will draw from the work conducted by the SEA-EU community, an alliance of nine European coastal universities.

During the SEA-EU project, which concluded in December 2023, the UM Library was involved in steering Work Package 5: Building an Open Future: Fostering Open Science across the SEA-EU Community and Beyond. This package focused on research data management and open data and had various deliverables, including the drafting of a SEA-EU RDM Policy Framework for the SEA-EU Alliance. This framework will be adaptable by participating universities for their respective communities, further promoting open data practices.

It is both encouraging and highly commendable to see the UM Library carrying out these sustained efforts to drive and guide researchers through an open data culture change, both at the UM and by actively contributing to international collaborative initiatives, like SEA-EU.

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