SSHRC and National Archives of Canada explore need for national data archives to support research community

Guest Contributor
October 23, 2000

A high level working group is undertaking the mammoth job of developing a national data research management strategy with the long term view of assembling a formal funding proposal in time for the 2002 federal Budget. The group's mandate of gathering evidence to make the case for a national archiving initiative is being launched amidst growing concern that Canada is faltering badly in the area just as the need for access to research data is accelerating.

Spearheaded by the Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council (SSHRC) and the National Archives of Canada (NAC), the working group initiated a national, two-phase consultation this month with an inaugural working group session followed by a meeting of key stakeholders. The intent is to determine whether there is common ground to build a solid case for proposing the creation of a national research data archive and access facility. If widespread agreement can be reached, the working group will make recommendations to SSHRC and NAC, precipitating the launch of a second phase to develop recommendations on the structure and functions of such a facility.

For SSHRC, the lack of data archiving within the disciplines it funds is something of an embarrassment, given its mandate to make publicly accessible all research data collected with its financial assistance. Lacking the necessary resources to monitor or enforce such a requirement, few universities comply with the regulations, resulting in reams of data in the social science and humanities lying essentially unused.

SSHRC does fund relevant research such as the Univ of British Columbia's work in policy development and practices for preserving electronic records. But Canadian research projects take place in isolation, with no coordinating agency to set priorities or identify knowledge gaps.

In a paper prepared for the stakeholders meeting, Canada's lack of progress in data archiving is placed in an international context.

"Canada is one of the few G8 countries that does not have a national facility for managing, preserving and accessing research data ... Canadian researchers are at a competitive disadvantage both at home and in international research programs without such a facility," states to paper. "Our ability to conduct comparative international research and participate in large-scale international research endeavours is compromised because we lack the necessary infrastructure."

Working Group Members

John ApSimon

Former VP research

Carleton University.

José Igartua

Dept of history

Université du Québec à Montréal.

Gerard Boismenu

Dept of Political Science

Université de Montréal.

Chuck Humphrey

Data Librarian

University of Alberta.

Ian Lancashire

Dept of English

University of Toronto.

Sue Bryant

Senior Project Co-ordinator

Public Key Infrastructure Secretariat

Treasury Board Secretariat

Luciana Duranti

School of Library

Archival and Information Studies

University of British Columbia.

Michael Murphy

Director of the Rogers Communications Centre

Ryerson University.

Matthew Mendelsohn

Dept of Political Studies

Queen's University

In fact, the only nations within the G-8 lacking a national data archiving facility are Canada, Japan and Russia. Other nations within the group have embraced a variety of funding models, from a stand-alone agency to the funding of activity through the university system. The UK archives system costs $43 million annually to operate.

"We have to determine whether a new agency is needed or not. The purpose is to serve the research community, but we need good solid evidence (of the need)," says Dr David Moorman, a policy analyst with SSHRC's corporate liaison and innovation branch. "This is a fundamental infrastructure issue that touches on all aspects of the knowledge-based economy."

When the initial phase is completed sometime this Spring, a decision will be made on how to proceed and whether recommendations will be made in support of a separate agency with national scope. The second phase will see the production of a full report which will include recommendations on the institutional form a national facility should take, the scope of holdings to be managed and the relationship between the new facility and existing bodies such as the NAC and the National Library of Canada.

Dr John ApSimon, former VP at Carleton Univ and chair of the working group, is leading the fact-finding process. He says the cultural differences between the SSHRC community and those in the hard sciences and health sciences leave the former's researchers at a disadvantage, particularly when compared to other G-8 nations.

"Most data sets in the sciences and health sciences have archives and are in better shape, but that's because of the nature of the beast," he says. "Findings for research must be submitted to established archives, but with the social sciences archiving is not part of the culture."

ApSimon's working group is supported by a 13-person resource group with representatives from the university, government and private sectors. Organization represented include the National Research Council, Statistics Canada and XIST Inc, an Ottawa-based information management firm.

SSHRC's Moorman says Canada has many built-in advantages to becoming a leader in research data archiving, including leading-edge research into data access systems. He also points to CANARIE Inc and its support of high-speed network infrastructure and caching, adding that CANARIE will be brought into the process during the second phase.

"We have the best pipeline for a national data archive service in the world and it's already in place," says Moorman. "At SSHRC, we have to figure out where we stand and take leadership, and people have to understand the potential such a facility holds."


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