Data management plans in collaborative research: you might own your data – but are you in control?

Data management plans are increasingly submitted as part of grant applications, and the University of Bath Research Data Policy requires that one be written for all new projects. Whilst this might seem, at times, like a bureaucratic headache, the reality is this: data arising from projects are Foreground Intellectual Property (IP). The data management plan therefore offers a mechanism by which this IP can be controlled, protected and exploited to maximise impact.

However – in the context of collaborative projects involving multiple institutions leading on different work packages, data ownership and the right to decide how they are used both during and after the project are not always synonymous.

Data Controller

Whilst data protection legislation applies only to personal data, it is perhaps wise, in the context of research data as IP, to take note of the definitions and powers that the Information Commissioner’s Office provide for the role of Data Controllers. Data (IP) ownership does not immediately make you the data controller in a collaborative project. If you use data from human participants in your research, understanding the differences between the rights and responsibilities of data owners (assigned in collaboration contracts under the IP clauses) and data controllers is vital in order to understand who can and cannot make decisions about how data are shared, either within the project team or with third parties in the future. The bottom line is that the data controller may have more power and influence in these decisions than the data owner, and this is where the importance of a detailed data management plan cannot be over-emphasised.

road-closed-sign-2079685_1280Whilst all projects benefit from data management plans, they are particularly important documents for collaborative projects and should be agreed to by all parties. They should be reviewed at least annually throughout the course of a project.

The process of discussing and writing a data management plan will ensure that collaborators are clear about their roles and responsibilities. It also provides an opportunity to find out whether collaborators agree on matters like which data archive will be used and whether the data will be shared with a third party. By identifying such philosophical, practical and legal issues early on, the hope is that these types of roadblocks are less likely to arise in the latter stages of the project and stall completion.

For advice and support on writing data management plans, or on any aspect of research data management, see our webpages or email

Data controller definition and responsibilities: Information Commissioner’s Office: Data controllers and data processors: what the difference is and what the governance implications are. 2014

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