University Libraries at Virginia Tech Dean Tyler Walters recently discussed advancing public access to research data at Virginia Tech during his presentation at the World Library and Information Congress’s 85th Information Federation of Library Associations and Institutions (IFLA) Assembly in Athens, Greece.

The assembly brought together more than 3,500 participants from more than 120 countries to set the international agenda for the library profession. Walters’ presentation subject, making data from government-sponsored research publicly accessible, is a global trend, and the assembly’s international audience was interested in what is currently happening in the U.S. surrounding open data.

“While other English-speaking and western countries already have public or open access policies, there is great interest in the progress the U.S. is making,” said Walters. “The U.S. is the largest funder of research and in very critical subject matter. This makes access to our research data a top interest to others.”

Walters’ presentation was based on a paper he co-authored with members of the Public Access to Data Committee at Virginia Tech. The paper describes the process and need to create guidance for Virginia Tech researchers to know when government-funded data should or could be shared and when it must remain secure. This committee consists of members from areas across Virginia Tech, including the University Libraries, Office of Research Compliance, Division of Information Technology, Commission on Research, research institutes, teaching and research faculty, Graduate School, Office of Sponsored Programs, University Legal Council, and Advanced Research Computing.

“The paper’s focus is on developing a university-wide policy and involving a diverse team of stakeholders from a variety of university offices,” said Walters. “Most presentations on open data address staffing issues, usually in libraries, and technology infrastructure-building, not the art and science of crafting an institutional policy and the sausage-making that goes into it.”

Virginia Tech is an R1 research institution that supports thousands of researchers and has private contracts and federal grants totaling about a half-billion dollars. Even though providing access to Virginia Tech’s publicly funded research data is vitally important, it is a challenging and costly subject for researchers.

Andi Ogier, director of data services and paper co-author, said that Europe and Australia, for example, have open data policies set at the national level. 

“The U.S. is still looking for the right way forward to encourage the free flow of information and data while securing information and data that needs to be protected,” said Ogier. “Currently, U.S. research institutions are examining how to change the culture of research sharing at the ground level, favoring interconnected initiatives across institutions, rather than a top down national approach.”

“It’s important for faculty to have the autonomy to conduct research supported by guidance from the committee on how and when to share data,” said Mary Potter, Virginia Tech director of privacy and research data protections and member of the committee. “The goals of the committee are a perfect match with the mission of Scholarly Integrity and Research Compliance. It is our vision  to provide an infrastructure that allows Virginia Tech to secure data that must be protected and ensure access to data that we are able to share.”

“Publicly sharing government-funded data should not be a burden on researchers,” said Ogier. “Research libraries across the U.S. are developing services to support researchers who want to or are required to share their research data. Here at VT, we created this committee to explore how best to support researchers who need to comply with federal mandates on public data and to make recommendations on improving support of public data at Virginia Tech.”

This work is based on recommendations by the Association of American Universities Public Access Working Group, of which Walters is a member.

“The point of the recommendations is to help institutions from cross-unit teams develop the policy, services, and infrastructures necessary,” said Walters. “No university has the whole package yet. We are working as much as anybody to achieve this.”

Walters said that supporting researchers and providing expertise and guidelines surrounding public access to data will further Virginia Tech’s land-grant mission of using research for the public good. 

“The University Libraries is committed to providing services related to faculty research and data management planning in order to continue Virginia Tech’s commitment to serve society and shape the future,” said Walters. “The work of this committee at Virginia Tech is an important and internationally recognized step forward for consistently sharing publicly funded data for the advancement of global discovery.”

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