Meet Nina Exner: New research data librarian brings 20 years experience and offers best practices in managing research studies

March 27, 2018
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New to VCU Libraries in spring semester 2018, Nina Exner brought with her more than 20 years experience as a practicing librarian in academic and health sciences libraries to VCU Libraries. As the Research Data Librarian, she brings to bear vast teaching interests and knowledge of best practices in managing research studies. She concentrates on graduate student and faculty support through teaching, consultation, scholarly communications and collaboration with sponsored research professionals. Her expertise and teaching experience include grant writing. Her own research interests center around the organizational and information effects on developing researchers. She is a doctoral candidate in library science at the University of North Carolina-Chapel Hill. Her dissertation study is on the development of research skills and competencies by academic librarians. She holds a Masters of Arts in Liberal Studies with a certificate in global studies from the University of North Carolina–Greensboro as well as a Masters of Library Science from North Carolina Central University in Durham. As an undergraduate, she had a biology major and a chemistry minor for her Bachelors of Science degree from UNC-Chapel Hill. More on her credentials and her CV

What strengths/capacities do you bring to VCU that will help you serve students and faculty?   

My main focus is on data handling and data planning, and how the data process integrates with the rest of the research process. I’ve been working with students, faculty and research administrators for several years. I’m especially used to working with graduate students and new faculty who are just working with data management the first time. So, I can help them with making sense out of data, writing a Data Management Plan, or figuring out how to work data security and organization into the rest of their research work, or making other choices about working with quantitative, qualitative, and multimedia data.

What are your goals for 2018 spring semester, your first at VCU?  

I’m trying to reach out to people to find out what the needs and gaps are. VCU is such a vibrant and diverse community, there are lots of different great groups and projects going on. I want to find out who has needs for research and data support or who wants to partner to boost data instruction.

What are the most common questions or problem areas researchers face with managing data?

New researchers usually have trouble balancing between learning to apply tools with low barriers to entry versus tools that allow them to do everything they need. So, it’s fairly easy to use Excel or Google Sheets, but they don’t have a lot of the options for preservation, description, and analysis that researchers might want. For them, keeping things accessible but still powerful enough for what they need usually drives their questions.

More established researchers have a different balancing act. They have to figure out how to deal with issues of rigor, ethics, funding, reputation, engagement, reproducibility, management, changing mandates, and scholarly growth, all in a limited time. So figuring out ways to juggle everything in a practical workflow is their most common question.

How do you hope to become actively engaged with faculty?/Grad students?

VCU libraries already has some really strong relationships, so I want to work with the librarians who are currently experts with the different departments. In addition, the are other units on campus like ORI and IT and the Grad School and so many others that have already figured out key data services. I’m talking to the ones I know about and finding units that are new to me to ask them what their stakeholders’ needs are and look for ways to help those units. And of course, I’m always available to meet with anyone about their needs or about establishing training or classroom instruction.

Are there particular services or opportunities VCU Libraries provides that you want to stress?

Everyone knows the VCU Libraries has great physical, electronic and archival resources. But I think the most important thing is the human assistance here. Sometimes it’s something the researcher or student knows how to do, but we can do much faster because we do it all the time. Other times, we have expertise with media or organization or technology that our scholars forget, because even when they know we offer more than books it’s still easy to fall into that trap of thinking of the library in terms of shelving. We do that, but also so much more. And of course, that includes data!

What ideas do you want to share, specifically, with hard science researchers regarding data management?

Manage your data for your future self. Today’s study may be the base of tomorrow’s big longitudinal project, but only if you can still use that data that you’re gathering now. So it’s important to document and back-up all of your current protocols, operationalization, scripts, everything as if you might put it aside and then unexpectedly want it five or ten years down the line. You never know which one will be the key to a future project!

What ideas do you want to share, specifically, with faculty in the humanities about how to think about “data” in their fields?

Data management thinks of “data” in the broadest sense: comprehensive of any sources and contextual factors used in scholarship. It’s not about numbers, it’s about the sources of scholarship. Humanistic sources are just as important, maybe even more important, to manage and preserve. But there are fewer rules on how to do it, so it can feel harder. Humanistic researchers should think archivally about their research and creative materials, so they can work with them in the future and share them with scholars following in their footsteps.

How can you assist faculty who are writing proposals for grants or seeking funding for their work?  

I do a few things, but the top one is data management plans (or DMPs) and data sharing plans! NSF and NIH researchers are already familiar with these compliance requirements, but the agencies have changed their guidance and the program officers want constant improvement. I keep up with those things and help faculty write to the current expectations. For faculty funded by other agencies, the DMP guidance is pretty recent, and the discussion of what goes in a DMP is evolving constantly. I can help make a plan that meets the current guidance in a given agency, as well as help with post-award DMP or data sharing compliance and reporting.

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