Group of Eight Australia
Australia's Leading Universities
     Modules     Organiser  

Module 3: Conducting Research Responsibly - Protecting Yourself, Your Research, and Your University

4.5 Electronic data

You are required to store all data in a secure manner. Electronic data has particular requirements to ensure privacy is maintained. As part of your research protocols you may have made the undertaking to an ethics committee that data would be password protected, and often this may due to the sensitivity of some data which may need to be stored in an encrypted form.

In addition to privacy and security, you also need to consider using a durable format for storing your research data. Durable formats are those that will be usable for at least the lifetime of the project and the duration of any legislative and/or funding agency retention period.

For digital research data, you should adopt file formats that meet criteria such as:

  • endorsed and published by standards agencies such as Standards Australia and ISO
  • publicly documented, i.e. complete authoritative specifications are available
  • self-documenting, i.e. the digital file itself can include useful metadata
  • widely used and accepted as best practice within the researcher's discipline or another user community.

You should also consider the long-term availability of and support for any hardware and software used to create and manipulate research data. Considerations include:

  • the likely time that the hardware and software will be available
  • the size and level of activity of the developer and user communities
  • the level of technical support that is available now and in the future.

Where there is a reliance on specific software, you should consider storing the programs and any related documentation with the research data, if the terms and conditions under which you bought or licensed the software permit you to do this.

Are you in a position to adequately maintain your research data and have you sufficiently briefed your information technology personnel of your requirements?

Activity 6 (Safeguarding the Murray–Darling case study: "Who gets the data?")

Consider this situation that has arisen in the Murray–Darling project:

One of your co-project leaders indicates he has the opportunity to move to the US and will be leaving the project. You know from your research meetings that if he left the project now you do not have much of the data readily to hand and the impact of your joint findings would be considerably reduced. You ask that he begin to duplicate the data and you will create an index for easy joint retrieval. He runs out of time and proposes to take the data, which is in both hard copy and electronic form, with him. He will take out insurance on the consignment and be in a position to sort and select the data that you will need for joint publications.

What is your response?

Activity 7 (Safeguarding the Murray–Darling case study: "The data has flown")

The MDB project plans a retreat where major findings will be discussed and future research directions planned. As you will have some free time at the retreat, you load a selection of images from a photographic archive that the Basin's Indigenous elders regard as particularly sensitive and have given to you as confidential information, together with your presentation. You will have a chance to analyse the images in preparation for putting some questions to the elders on the cultural aspects depicted and why these are so sensitive. At the meeting a MDMT director leans over to ask if she can take a copy of your presentation. You hand over your memory stick and realise she is downloading the two files you brought with you. She races from the meeting to catch her flight.

What are your next actions?

Take 10 minutes to make notes of your responses to these two scenarios and bring them to the workshop for further discussion.

Questions for further reflection

You contact the MDMT director and ask her to delete the file containing photographs. You are aware of the fallout if your breach of confidentiality became too widely known, so you do not explain the nature of the files. The director forgets to delete the file and it is seen by her PA who forwards it to the publicity department. Six months later one of the photographs appears on the cover of the MDMT Annual Report.

The Indigenous elder is distressed that he has failed as a custodian of his cultural heritage.

Have you a case of research misconduct to answer?

What might you do immediately to reduce any data loss? If the project leaders allowed loss of data such as this to persist over the life of the research project, would this constitute research misconduct?

What might you implement for project-related data management to avoid any loss of data and research knowledge in the future?

< Previous Next >