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‘Keep the data protocol short and approach it with a sense of humour´

23 March 2016

'Despite having inflicted great damage on the field of Psychology, the Stapel affair also yielded certain benefits’, suggests Jaap Murre, professor of Theoretical Neuropsychology.

‘The scandal generated a great deal of worldwide support for thorough data management. The UvA's Psychology department had already been working to professionalise its research activities and data storage procedures before the Stapel affair. At the time, however, many researchers felt the efforts were “a good idea, but too time-consuming”.'

Murre worked with colleagues from the Academic Advisory Council to prepare a data protocol for the Psychology department. ‘Once the Stapel affair hit, we got widespread support and were able to introduce the new protocol, which became compulsory for our researchers from January 2015 onwards. In addition to secure storage, we aim to achieve three goals: responsibility, efficiency and data sharing.’

The dog ate my USB drive

'Our data protocol forces researchers to store their data in two different physical locations. They are also required to save their data on the Psychology department's Big Brother server within one month after publication. In other words, from now on there's no getting away with excuses like “I'd love to show you my amazing research results, but the dog ate my USB drive”. We don't have any rules on the actual data storage location. As a result, our research data is scattered across all sorts of storage mediums, such as hard disks, cloud servers and Dropbox. Things are still a bit messy. In many cases – such as MRI research data – the files are extremely large. Our storage facilities for large data volumes are continually improving. All data generated in our own research lab is automatically stored, and there are regular software updates in order to ensure continued accessibility.'

Responsibility for dataset shared by two researchers

'According to the protocol, two researchers must be responsible for each dataset. We also encourage researchers to accurately describe their codes and the structure of their data files. In addition to making life easier for other researchers, at a later stage this will also help you to remember what you did. Although we tend to think we'll remember, this frequently turns out to be a wrong assumption. You can save time by organising things effectively in advance.'

Sharing data at multiple levels

'We strongly encourage everyone to publish data online through repositories such as those provided by DANS or the Open Science Foundation. A growing number of journals are actually demanding it. Data can be shared at multiple levels, ranging from sharing via email upon request to the full release of all research data. Many researchers had to get used to the idea of data sharing at first. They are free to decide whether they wish to share their data, and – if so – at which level.'

Random inspections

'We organised a symposium and a series of lectures to coincide with the introduction of the data protocol. These events were well attended. Our current challenge is to to make sure our researchers remain aware that the data protocol is still mandatory. The issue has been placed on the agenda for all annual consultations. The Integrity Committee will also be conducting random inspections to check whether researchers are abiding by the protocol. Although no sanctions system has been put in place, we will be holding researchers to account. We hope this will also help raise awareness amongst all our colleagues. I get the impression that most researchers have already taken some steps towards improved data management. Some research groups have developed a more stringent protocol.'


'I felt it was important to keep the protocol short and insert some humour to make sure people actually read it. I also focused on preparing an appealing presentation. We appointed two confidential advisers to help researchers with any doubts or questions on the ethical handling of research data. These advisers consist of an emeritus professor and a young researcher. We wanted to make sure they were accessible: one reason the Stapel affair got so out of hand was that people had to report to the rector. Finally, we support the concept of pre-registration, whereby you report the particulars of your experiment in advance. This will ensure that there is no opportunity to adjust the hypothesis at a later stage, something that researchers quite often do without even being aware of it.'

Interview: Anneke de Maat

Published by  RDM support