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Wanted: Better Tools and Websites for Data Management Help

Posted in UC3

The Digital Curation Centre, based in the UK, has a handy section of their website on Disciplinary Metadata Standards. I was pretty darn excited to see that they took on the onerous task of helping researchers navigate the dark and stormy waters of metadata. I tweeted about it  earlier this week and had big plans for referring scientists and librarians to this site. This morning, I took some time to look over the site and was a bit… disappointed. Let me explain.

Navigating metadata is hard. We need better tools and advice. Original image (Rembrandt's Christ in the Storm on the Lake of Galilee) from Wikipedia.
Navigating metadata is hard. We need better tools and advice. Original image (Rembrandt’s Christ in the Storm on the Lake of Galilee) from Wikipedia.

First and foremost, the DCC is awesome. They have been a seemingly bottomless source of information and resources for me since I ventured into this data curation world. Everyone I’ve met from the DCC has been both congenial and helpful.

The DCC website has a list of metadata standards, broken out by discipline. There is a handy tag cloud for sussing out those in the list that might be most applicable to you. But that’s where the clarity and ease stops. Once you dig deeper into the metadata standards, there are links to websites that are completely indecipherable to the average joe (e.g., me). Jargon is abundant and navigation of these sites is, at best, based on an intimate knowledge of the metadata standard; at worst, erratic and inexplicable.

To be fair, my use case for this website might not be the one the DCC had in mind. Here is my idea for how someone might use this site: I imagine that a researcher is writing their data management plan for the NSF. They get to the question asking about what metadata standards they will use. They turn to the internet for help and end up on the DCC site. They are a hydrologist, so they go to the “Earth Science” section of the site and select “Hydrology” from the word cloud to narrow down the list. They are now faced with two links, one of which takes them to a second list of metadata standards. The links associated with the metadata standards take the researcher to external websites that are not always obviously helpful. At this point, the researcher is cranky and tired, picks one of the standards at random, and moves on to the next part of the data management plan.

In all of my use cases for this site, a researcher, research assistant, librarian, or grant writer is sifting through these standards, trying to make decisions without a very easy way to compare and contrast the potential metadata standards. I admit that there are no easy answers or solutions when it comes to many parts of data management and curation, however I don’t think that needs to be reflected in the resources that we provide.

My frustration is actually much larger than the DCC metadata website: we have no easy way for researchers to start understanding and creating metadata. I touched on this a bit in a Data Pub post last year about the communication difficulties among Nerds, Geeks and Dweebs. Basically, the folks that create the metadata and the websites housing information about the metadata are not clearly communicating to the researchers, who are in theory going to be the creators of this metadata. Furthermore, the tools available for assisting in metadata creation are generally not user-tested, buggy, and poorly documented.

I have high hopes for the libraries and curation communities to develop great tools for researchers to navigate the new-to-them world of data stewardship.  I think this DCC site is a great step in the right direction: it’s collecting disparate information into a single location and organizing that information in a sensible way. However we have a long way to go before I can say with confidence that we have “good tools available for researchers to create metadata”.

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