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Course teaches grad students how to manage their data

Sarah Wright
Jason Koski/University Photography
Sarah Wright leads a summer workshop for undergraduate biology students in Mann Library.

Starting in graduate school, students begin compiling mountains of research data – but they often have no formal training in how to efficiently keep track of it, share it or organize it so that it can be preserved and used in the future.

Sarah Wright, data librarian, and Cliff Kraft, associate professor of natural resources, aim to change that.

Through a grant from the Institute of Museum and Library Services (IMLS), Wright and Kraft are teaching a course to help graduate students learn to manage their data. Kraft, Wright and Camille Andrews, learning technologies and assessment librarian, make up Cornell’s component of the IMLS collaboration, which also includes Purdue University, the University of Minnesota and the University of Oregon.

“We’re helping students create a data management plan and describe their research, but on a broader level, we want them to understand why it’s important,” Wright said. “We want them to be able to describe their data life cycle and think about best practices at the outset, in order to avoid mistakes down the road.”

As part of the grant, each school has one data librarian, one subject specialist and one faculty collaborator who work together to create a data-management workshop for their students. Cornell’s class, which centers on ecology, is the only one students can take for credit and that runs for six sessions.

Cornell students see a clear need to expand their data-management skills, according to Wright and Kraft.

“More people have been interested than we possibly imagined,” Kraft said. “I was thinking five or six [students], but now we have 27 or 29. The room isn’t big enough to fit them all.”

Participating students are studying natural resources and social sciences, and they range from first-year graduate students to researchers finishing their Ph.D.s. The instructors split teaching duties; Wright introduces research techniques and best practices, and Kraft puts the tools into a research context.

Real-life examples are key to the class, and Kraft pulls data from his research on long-term changes in Adirondack fish populations. The class was prompted in part by Kraft’s experience managing data in his own research group, as well as his previous work with graduate students.

“This is a subject that’s crept up on all of us. ... Every scientist is faced with this challenge, and everyone’s reinventing the wheel and figuring it out on their own,” Kraft said. “I figured that, as an educational institution, we should try to educate students how to do this instead of everyone having to figure it out on their own.”

Wright introduces the students to a range of best practices, from initial steps like using consistent file names, to creating “readme” directory files and managing complex data documentation. Classroom instruction is a major – and often overlooked – part of librarians’ jobs, particularly in educating students about data and research techniques.

“You can’t teach step-by-step directions with complicated subjects like data management, but we’re teaching these students that resources exist to help them, and libraries will help them find these best practices,” Wright said. “We’re helping them start the conversation and hoping it continues so that they can continue to work on this for the rest of their careers.”

Gwen Glazer is the staff writer/editor at Cornell University Library.


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