If ever there was a time when the value of collaborative global research was starkly evident, surely that time is now, as every nation in the world grapples with COVID-19 and, from Siberia to Antarctica, the long-predicted shifts in climate patterns begin to clearly manifest as increasingly wild weather.
Given the compelling need to collaborate and the increasing use of digital research infrastructure, there is value in building our infrastructure in Australia the same way it’s being built overseas, says Andrew Treloar, Director of Platforms and Software at the Australian Research Data Commons (ARDC).
“There are two ways we can do this,” says Andrew. “We can do it by taking an international standard, for example, and adopting it—and we do some of that—[but the risk is that] it may not meet our needs. Or we can get involved in [setting those] international standards so we are adopting things that have our ‘DNA’ in them, and are therefore more likely to meet our needs.”
The latter approach has seen Australia influence the design of global standards and models such as:
- CoreTrustSeal – A set of criteria used by the Research Data Alliance and the World Data System to jointly certify how trusted a data repository is. We have helped several Australian institutions achieve certification; for example, the CSIRO Data Access Portal and the Australian Data Archive (a social science data archive).
- The FAIR data maturity model – A way of assessing how FAIR (findable, accessible, interoperable, reusable) your data is, and from which we have developed FAIR guidelines for ARDC-funded projects in our National Data Assets initiative.
- The Data Description Registry Interoperability Model – A model for connecting datasets in multiple repositories which makes it easier for researchers to find data in other countries.
- 23 Things: Libraries for Research Data – A series of training modules to help librarians help researchers find data, which has been hugely successful in Australia.
The Research Data Alliance
A common thread running through these examples is the Research Data Alliance (RDA)—an international network of almost 12,000 academics and researchers whose mission is to build the social and technical bridges that enable open sharing and re-use of data.
Established in 2013 by the Australian Government, the European Commission and the US Government, RDA is a bottom-up, self-organised alliance where anyone can start or join a working group to tackle a specific issue. The work is overwhelmingly done by volunteers. In Australia, the federal government allocates funds through the ARDC to contribute to the running costs of the RDA secretariat and to our in-kind support of the part-time role of RDA Director of Operations, currently held by Stefanie Kethers.
Andrew Treloar was one of the people who worked to set up RDA and was co-chair of its technical advisory board for 5 years. He says that Australia has always contributed strongly to the leadership and direction setting of RDA.
“Per head of population, Australians are over-represented in 96 RDA working groups, both in leadership and membership, which places us in a strong position to influence international data issues,” he says.
“This high level of representation means that international standards developed by RDA are more likely to meet the needs of Australian researchers,” he adds.
“[Without RDA], we wouldn’t have been able to make the international connections we have nor have the international leverage we have.”
Doing research in an international context
Data strategist and ARDC collaborator Lesley Wyborn is also a long-time active member of RDA: “Since its embryonic stage, I could see its value in getting the global context,” she says.
“For global [research], we’ve got to know that what we’re doing fits in and RDA lets you do that. Having that group of almost 12,000 people all playing in the one space, we know what everyone else is building.”
Australia’s spending on research data infrastructure is about 10% of what the US spends and about 1% of what Europe spends, she adds, but a condition of their funding is that, wherever possible, the work is open source and open access, and only closed where necessary.
“We’d be insane not to look at what they’re doing [in the US and Europe],” she says. “If you don't know what everyone else is doing, how do you know if you're world class? RDA enables us to effectively benchmark ourselves [against other countries].”
An example of the opportunities that collaboration and scale create is the ambitious goal of RDA to coordinate a Global Open Research Commons (GORC) —a global marketplace for data and services by country, continent, discipline and sector. It would include the ARDC, the European Open Science Cloud, the African Open Science Platform, open government portals, and initiatives outside traditional research contexts. Andrew Treloar co-chairs the RDA special interest group for GORC.
“GORC is the absolute gem of RDA,’” says Lesley. “Groups are working together, looking at what everyone else is building in open research commonses. We’ll know where we’re ahead, we’ll know where we’re behind, and we know the groups that can get us up to speed.”
Getting the benefit of other countries’ experience
For Australian researchers, RDA is not just a lens for looking out to the world. Countries that are spending big on research data infrastructure, including China, are joining the RDA working groups, and contributing their knowledge and expertise to solving problems that are also pertinent to Australia.
The FAIR data maturity model is a good example. NCRIS requires that all Australian research data generated from NCRIS facilities be FAIR, but it was an RDA working group that first achieved international consensus on what constitutes a FAIR dataset, and subsequently developed the FAIR data maturity model, with core criteria for assessing the implementation of the FAIR data principles.
“ARDC then generated a first-rate document on how to best meet the international FAIR data principles and guidelines,” says Lesley. “We can now benchmark against these core criteria and make our research outputs FAIR within an international context.”
ARDC’s involvement in the RDA has led to better outcomes for Australian researchers through international benchmarking, ensuring our digital research infrastructure is truly world class.
RDA Virtual Plenary 17
The RDA Virtual Plenary 17 was held in April 2021, and ARDC was strongly represented, speaking at and convening numerous sessions.
RDA regional events in Australia are being held in May 2021 by the ARDC team. See the schedule.
The ARDC is funded through the National Collaborative Research Infrastructure Strategy (NCRIS) to support national digital research infrastructure for Australian researchers.