A man checks the wires of a data storage device

Keep your research data organized with a management plan.Credit: Jasper Juinen/Bloomberg/Getty

Data are the alpha and omega of scientific and social research. A versatile good, they exist both as raw material for producing knowledge and, when processed and interpreted with an expert eye, the end product of the exercise.

So it might sound like a truism that researchers should conscientiously handle, preserve and — where appropriate — share the data they generate and use. The problem is that this can be hard to do.

As science produces day by day a huge volume of data, it’s a growing challenge to manage and store this information. To encourage this, many funders now ask applicants to submit a concise data-management plan with their grant proposals: effectively, a to-do list that details how they plan to collect, clean, store and share the products of their research.

Such plans are important, and are something that Nature supports. But to accelerate acceptance of what some might deem just another administrative burden, science funders and research institutions must work to streamline the process and to explain the need and benefits.

First, rigorously collected, well-preserved data sets — including meaningful descriptors or metadata — will help the data owners to reach solid, meaningful results. Second, they will help future investigators to make sense of and reuse data, thereby enhancing utility and reproducibility. Preserving comprehensive data, ideally for many years, also reduces the risk of duplicating science done by others.

Still, there is no single recipe for proper data management. The task varies according to the field of science, project size and the specific types of data in question. That makes cross-disciplinary common standards unlikely, so research agencies need to engage with different scientific communities to create formats that best serve specific disciplines. To avoid a hotchpotch of standards, formats and data protocols — undesirable in our increasingly global scientific enterprise — research agencies in all parts of the world must engage.

An initiative for voluntary international alignment of research data-management policies, launched in January by Science Europe and the Netherlands Organisation for Scientific Research, is an important step in that direction. And existing data stewardship in particle physics and genomics shows that internationally aligned data governance not only is perfectly doable, but also has a positive impact on collaborative research. NASA pioneered this approach, setting up a centre in the 1980s to specifically curate the data from the Infrared Astronomical Satellite.

The message must now be passed on to scientists who work in fields less familiar with big data. Many of these, at all career stages, are worryingly unprepared. A survey of European researchers last year revealed that many have never been asked to provide a data-management plan, and that most are unaware of policies and guidelines already in place to help them. Only one-quarter of respondents to the survey, carried out by the European Commission and the European Council of Doctoral Candidates and Junior Researchers, had actually written a data-management plan, with another quarter saying they didn’t even know what such a plan might be. There is nothing to suggest Europe is unusual in this.

Funders and universities, then, must ensure that the rationale of data management, and the basic skills of exercising it properly, become part of postgraduate education everywhere. Training and support must go further and be offered at every career level.

The laudable move towards open science — under which data are shared — makes the need for good data management more pressing than ever: there’s no point in sharing data if they aren’t clean and annotated enough to be reused. If you haven’t got a plan for your data, you need one now.