What are research data? … part one

A few people have asked us recently what actually constitutes research data. There appears to be no single definition of research data and specific definitions can apply within individual disciplines – definitions I found include:

“the evidence base on which academic researchers build their analytic or other work …”  JISC Data Sharing Report
“Research data, unlike other types of information, is collected, observed, or created, for purposes of analysis to produce original research results.” University of Edinburgh
“Research data are the data, records, files or other evidence, irrespective of their content or form (e.g. in print, digital, physical or other forms), that comprise a research project’s observations, findings or outcomes, including primary materials and analysed data.” Australian National Data Service
“Research data is digital information created in the course of research but which isn’t a published reseacrh output.” data.bris project, University of Bristol
“Research data is defined as recorded factual material commonly retained by and accepted in the [research] community as necessary to validate research findings; although the majority of such data is created in digital format, all research data is included irrespective of the format in which it is created.” Engineering and Physical Sciences Research Council (EPSRC)
“The primary building block of information, comprising the lowest level of abstraction in any field of knowledge, where it is identifiable as collections of numbers, characters, images or other symbols that when contextualised in a certain way represent facts, figures or ideas as communicable information”
Pryor, G. (2011). Managing Research Data. Brighton, UK: Facet Publishing

It could be argued that all of these are correct, however it is worth noting that some definitions of research data refer to digital data only; research data can also include non-digital forms. Most researchers keep hand-written laboratory notebooks, journals and other materials which are not kept on a computer at all. These materials are at particular risk of loss – and a digitised version of these will give you valuable piece of mind and numerous other benefits including improving your funding bid success rate by fulfilling data management requirements – however they are still a vital component of research data.

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