Guest blog post from the University of Bristol Research Data Service (data.bris.ac.uk), describing a recent investigation into retention of thesis data in Russell Group universities.
Thesis data at the University of Bristol
The University of Bristol research data repository, data.bris, has been running since 2014, and has been core funded since 2015. Use of the repository is becoming well-integrated into the research cycle, but whilst we accept deposits from postgraduate researchers (PGRs) as well as academics, the vast majority of these are data underpinning journal articles. Increasing the intake of data relating to other types of publications is an obvious next step.
Currently, Bristol PGRs may only deposit a hardbound copy of their thesis with the University Library; supporting data may be attached in physical storage media, but there is no requirement to make this available (in any format) as part of the final deposit process. Similarly, the University’s Research Data Management and Open Data Policy applies to PGRs and research staff, but doesn’t specifically address retention of thesis data. An investigation into how electronic final deposit of theses may be managed is underway, and we wanted to both support the wider investigation and increase use of the repository by extending the data.bris remit to data underpinning PhD theses.
We wanted to understand how peer institutions across the UK handled thesis data, in order to see whether we could adopt an existing policy and/or infrastructure model. I was tasked with finding out whether relevant institutions had policies on thesis data retention, and if so, how this was managed and enforced. For brevity, I focussed my query on Russell Group universities.
Some work had already been done in this area – the Unlocking Thesis Data (UTD) project  phase 1 survey included a question on depositing thesis data:
Q4. “If supplementary data files relating to the thesis are also deposited, where are these held?”
The survey results included responses from thirteen Russell Group universities , including Bristol, which have been summarised in the infographic [Figure 1]. Most respondents indicated that thesis data could be deposited alongside the thesis itself, with some institutions having multiple storage locations both linked and unlinked to the thesis record. At the time of the survey, no Bristol PGRs had attempted to deposit thesis data; we now have a number of PGR data deposits in the repository but as noted above, these are linked to journal articles rather than theses. Whilst UTD was a very useful starting point, it focussed largely on the thesis as an information object, rather that the data underpinning it. More information was needed.
Twenty of twenty-three other Russell Group (RG) universities responded to an informal email enquiry on their thesis data deposit policies. Their responses are summarised in the infographic [Figure 1] and are discussed below. Anonymised aggregated results are shown in [Figure 2].
Of the eleven universities with an explicit or implicit policy on thesis data, five had optional deposit of thesis data, and six mandated deposit (thesis data ‘should’, ‘must’ or ‘is expected to’ be retained in a suitable repository for a minimum time). However, the majority of universities with a mandatory retention policy reported that the policies were unenforced and compliance was very low, and/or that there was no infrastructure for retention in an institutional repository. Seven universities had policies on management of thesis data, either as an explicit part of their general RDM policy, their good research practice policy, or a separate thesis submission policy. Four universities indicated that their general research data policies were intended to cover thesis data although this was not explicitly mentioned in the policy text. Nine had no policy on thesis data.
There is little uniformity across RG institutions in their approach to thesis data retention. In particular, there is a discordance between policy and the infrastructure required to support it. When both exist, only a minority of institutions report that the policy is enforced, meaning that in this instance there isn’t a great deal of sector knowledge to draw upon! However, many institutions reported that they were, like Bristol, actively considering the topic, so it seems likely that this situation will change over the next year or two.
As noted previously, we are currently investigating ways to facilitate electronic deposit of theses at Bristol. Alongside this, we’re also looking to pilot a process for depositing thesis data and are planning to assess requirements for this based on the input of departments participating in the trial. Both projects are in their infancy at the moment, but I hope to provide further updates as they progress.
With thanks to colleagues at responding institutions and the Unlocking Thesis Data project for supporting information.
 Grace, Stephen and Whitton, Michael and Gould, Sara and Kotarski, Rachael: Unlocking Thesis Data phase one. DOI: 10.15123/PROJECT.15
 Cardiff University, Durham University, King’s College London, London School of Economics and Political Science, University of Birmingham, University of Bristol, University of Cambridge, University of Edinburgh, University of Liverpool, Newcastle University, University of Oxford, University of Southampton, University of Glasgow