Collaborative research can be demanding when it comes to facilitating data sharing, transfer and storage across various partners or institutions. Virtual research environments (VREs) may offer solutions.

Researchers use a variety of methods and tools to store and share data in an active project.  These vary from using an institutionally provided virtual research environment to using online file sharing services, or simply transferring via email.

Virtual research environments

Virtual research environments can provide an encrypted shared workspace for data files and documents in group collaboration.

Users can create workspaces, add and invite members to a workspace, and each member has a privately editable copy of the workspace.  Users interact and collaborate in the common workspace which is a private virtual location. Changes are tracked and sent to all members and all copies of the workspace are synchronised via the network in a peer-to-peer manner.

If a platform is adopted, data should be encrypted to an appropriate standard and be version controlled. VREs can require significant set up and maintenance costs, and are typcally mono-institutional.

An eaxmple of a VRE is the open source system Sakai has been used by projects of the JISC virtual research environment programme and can be obtained under an educational community licence. It has an established support network and features announcement facilities, a drop box for private file sharing, email archive, resources library, communications functions, scheduling tools and control of permissions and access.

Online file sharing services

Wikis and cloud-based file sharing services may be suitable for sharing certain types of data, but they are not recommended for data that may be confidential. Users should be aware that they have little control (or awareness) of where the data are being stored.

Which to use?

The ideal solution for research groups is likely to be a system that facilitates co-operation yet is able to be adopted by users with minimal training and delivers benefits that help with data management practices.

Various open-source solutions are currently being developed at the time of writing, but are not yet user-friendly or scalable.  Institutional IT services should be involved in finding the best solution for a research project.

An example of positive data sharing in a research group

We worked closely with ESRC research centres and projects during 2010 on data management solutions as part of the Data Management Planning for ESRC Centres and Programmes (DMP-ESRC) project.

One project had good experiences using MS Office Groove (now part of SharePoint 2010) as a collaborative environment, providing a central, up-to-date and secure location to store research data and share them across the team.

Research groups used collaborative spaces with controlled levels of access to data, with project-wide access to documentation and research outputs. Access was controlled through individual accounts, making home and office access easy. Version control eliminated the need and risk of transferring draft copies of data files back and forth.