In Service of Digital Stewardship: Collaborating with Researchers and Building Trust

Megan Potterbusch
Megan Potterbusch

Megan Potterbusch is a National Digital Stewardship Resident (NDSR) at the Association of Research Libraries for 2016–2017. Her NDSR project involves integrating digital stewardship—defined as the convergence of scholarly communication, collection development, and long-term preservation, access, and use—into the scholarly workflow. The overarching goal of her work, like that of the Association, is to help make knowledge more open and accessible to all. To accomplish this, in partnership with several research teams from diverse disciplines at The George Washington University (GWU), Potterbusch is using the Open Science Framework (OSF). The OSF is a free, collaborative project tool that supports the life cycle of research, from data collection and analysis to access and use.

In my archives courses in graduate school, we regularly discussed the importance of connecting archives to the digital life cycle of documents early, in order to properly steward the documents into long-term preservation and access. Librarians and archivists face many barriers to connecting with materials for preservation, such as proprietary formats, publisher or system lock-in, and gaining researchers’ trust. In my work as a National Digital Stewardship Resident this year, the biggest challenge has been the latter: gaining researchers’ trust. Perhaps because librarians are typically seen as supplying access to and services around published resources, the researchers with whom I spoke did not immediately associate us with active research-data management. Building trust and collaboration between researchers and librarians would increase word-of-mouth dissemination of information about our services and allow us into researcher conversations that would in turn help us better understand their needs. Early archival intervention requires embracing and investing in the service aspects of stewardship.

As librarians we need to remember that researchers do not consider many digital stewardship practices to be part of the research life cycle. Even an aspect of stewardship that they often do care about, research data management, may not be recognized by researchers as a task with which they need support.

With this in mind, the Open Science Framework (OSF) was selected as a core piece of my residency project. The OSF facilitates improved digital stewardship behind the scenes while helping researchers accomplish aspects of research they do care about, such as dissemination, reproducibility, open science, and general project management. The OSF is designed to adaptively support researchers’ workflows without being prescriptive.

Some appealing aspects of the OSF from a digital stewardship perspective are:

  • It is entirely open source.
  • It provides full access to uploaded materials and project structure through an application programming interface (API), which supports changing platforms in the future without being trapped in a proprietary-format bubble.
  • It mints digital object identifiers (DOIs) and provides unique identifiers for all files and pages within the system.

A significant feature for digital preservation in the OSF is “registration” creation. An OSF registration is a preservable snapshot of the entire research workspace, including all the supplementary materials from a given research project. It is always, eventually, publicly accessible. I see registrations as an application of the archival principle of “respect des fonds” for research projects (instead of families, departments, or other acquisitions); this concept is essentially the guidance to maintain the original context of the materials in order to preserve their relationships and the value they provide one another. Another way to understand this is as a combined consideration of provenance and original order. OSF registrations retain the context of supplementary research objects without requiring researchers to add related identifiers and relationship types, which many researchers do not take the time to add to records.

By connecting researchers into a system like the OSF, I believe that we as librarians and archivists have a much better chance of preserving the whole picture of research. This will be especially true once the developers at Johns Hopkins University are able to move their Fedora integration with the OSF out of beta and into general use, because this tool will allow librarians to connect OSF projects to Fedora-based digital repositories for additional preservation and curation activities to take place.

While OSF is just one of many tools that can be used to share and archive the research process at all stages, the mission driving the Center for Open Science (COS), which creates and manages the OSF, is to “increase openness, integrity, and reproducibility of research,” which I believe is a mission libraries share. This makes COS a great partner for us as librarians. Additional alignment in values comes in the commitment of COS to advancing the future of scholarly communication and their acknowledgement of librarians as curators and data management experts. The partnership between COS and the Association of Research Libraries (ARL) on the SHARE project, which is building an openly accessible database of metadata describing both research product and process, means that librarians also contribute to how these supplementary research materials are discovered.

The OSF provides an open source, nonproprietary way to connect with researchers’ workflows, as well as other added values for librarians (such as facilitating remote consultations). However, at the end of the day, the most important thing to me is the resulting digital stewardship and access improvements, in the form of research objects being accessible and preserved after the research itself is complete. Thus, remember that there are other workflows that researchers may be using that can also meet at least some of these goals—certainly goals regarding modern scholarly communications if not collection development and long-term preservation.

As librarians, I believe that we are not in the business of selling products or dictating appropriate research practices. We are here to improve literacy, be that around open scholarship, reproducibility, preservation, or digital stewardship in general, and to provide services to our users. By collaborating with researchers on the projects they care about, meeting them where they are, and anticipating/addressing future needs through expanded services, we can begin to offer more integrated research support. This in turn builds researchers’ trust in librarians and allows us to facilitate good digital stewardship practices, because we are already part of the conversation.