By Ali Kzrton, Research Data Management Librarian, Geosciences Liaison, RBD Library, Auburn University
Cloud-based storage has become mainstream in the academic research community, and this is a good thing. Faculty workflows that incorporate the cloud into research data and document management have several advantages. First and foremost, easy-to-use cloud storage safeguards more research projects with redundant offsite backups. Major commercial cloud providers offer desktop OS, mobile OS, and browser-based apps that help faculty handle important data management tasks such as version control, syncing, and access permissions. Keeping documents in the cloud also makes it much easier to collaborate in real time and share finished products with a simple link. In the era of cloud computing, there is no excuse to keep just one copy of important data on a single hard drive. Librarians who offer research data services should welcome this paradigm shift – and take the opportunity to build their professional expertise in this area.
My university has contracted with a commercial cloud storage provider, Box, to provide free and unlimited storage to faculty, staff, and students using their existing credentials. When the service was introduced, it was given a “soft” rollout and little promotion. As a result, some faculty are still not aware that they can use Box, so I always ask them if they have tried the service during the course of data management consultations. Box also requires the use of two-factor authentication, an important security measure. Promotion of Box in the campus research data space has primarily fallen to me. This is unsurprising in light of libraries’ ongoing outreach efforts concerning our services, in contrast to IT departments’ predominant focus on support for specific issues. I expect that other librarians working in the data space have similar experiences and that I am not the only one taking a hands-on approach to getting faculty up and running with their cloud-based storage.
One ongoing issue I have encountered is the need to explain to faculty why the university does not support Dropbox or Google Drive, two of the most popular commercial cloud solutions. Many are not aware that the data they store in personal Dropbox or Google accounts is accessible to those companies, but some are. The problem arises when their collaborators, many of whom are at other institutions, are using one or both of those solutions. The fragmentation in cloud storage options, encompassing variation in both individual preferences and institutional subscriptions, introduces friction between researchers using different tools. One confused faculty member asked me if it was still all right to use a Dropbox folder with encryption that a collaborator at another school had set up, because their project required that level of security and were not sure what was available via our instance of Box. Although I advised them not to fix what wasn’t broken, this is one example of an issue that can arise during multi-institution collaboration, even though cloud storage is meant to make these kinds of projects easier to manage.
More generally, librarians need to be ready to give appropriate advice on the use of cloud services and prepared to start honest conversations about thorny issues of data stewardship. For instance, faculty need to be made aware of the distinction between personal and institutional subscriptions and the risks of placing too much trust in commercial services. Cloud storage provided via the usual channels is great for active research projects, but it is not ideal for preservation. We have to continue to educate faculty on how to archive research data properly so that it will still be available, and usable, years down the line. This task involves much more than choosing the right storage; it requires good organization, appropriate formatting, and extensive documentation. As librarians support faculty in their use of cloud services for research data management, we must keep the long-term fate of these datasets in mind, resisting their busy owners’ temptation to let old research languish within fancy digital file cabinets.