Office of the Vice-Principal (Research)

Office of the Vice-Principal (Research)
Office of the Vice-Principal (Research)

From Bones to Bits: Saving the Raw Material of Research


For more than five decades, Nancy Ossenberg has been taking stock of skulls. Now a professor emeritus in the School of Medicine, she devoted her entire career to gathering and analyzing skull measurements from North America and beyond. Since 1960, she has amassed records for more than 8000 skulls, noting dozens of distinctive physical features for each and applying those data to describe the ebb and flow of various populations around the world.

In the mid-1990s, she had the foresight to have some 15 boxes of print records transcribed into electronic form. However, only recently did she work with the Research Data Centre of Queen’s University Library (QUL) to convert these 27 data files – stored in the venerable Borland Paradox database format on a vintage personal computer – into a single, well-documented database that is now available in a publicly accessible archive.

“That information was right on the cusp of being lost,” says Jeff Moon, QUL Data Librarian. “Getting it cleaned up required Dr. Ossenberg to answer questions about things that we would never have been able to decipher. We would have been lost without that.”

Painting of Hamlet with Yorick's skull

Yorick's skull provided the inspiration for one of Prince Hamlet’s famous monologues, but scholars should learn a great deal more from the Queen's University Library database compiled by Professor Nancy Ossenberg using some 8,000 skulls from around the world.

This is just one example of how the Research Data Management Service is preserving the original materials from a project so that others can continue to study them. Moon can point to 11 of these completed archives, along with 15 more that are underway, spanning disciplines from nursing and biomedical sciences to law, economics, and sociology.

“Queen’s Library, in partnership with others at Queen’s and beyond, is well positioned and experienced to support researchers with this kind of research data management,” he explains. “Collaboration has been a key part of our success, and we work with a number of champions here on campus, including University Research Services, IT Services, the university librarian, the chief information officer and the vice-principal of research.”

Moon, who has spearheaded this initiative at Queen’s for several years, regularly approaches researchers who have acquired treasure troves of data that could be of wider scholarly interest. Another outstanding example involves the Globalization of Personal Data Project, conducted by the university’s Surveillance Studies Centre. Data from this major international, multi-disciplinary, and collaborative research initiative have been documented, archived, and made available to the world for further study.

“Ideally, researchers would think about the life cycle of their research from the outset of a project, and work to collect, document, and ultimately deposit their data for current and future researchers,” says Moon, who suggests that new funding requirements could mean there are many more of these projects to come.

The country’s three federal granting councils, NSERC, SSHRC, CIHR, as well as the CFI (collectively the TC3+), in collaboration with Genome Canada, have completed extensive consultations on a digital scholarship study (Capitalizing on Big Data: Toward a Policy Framework for Advanced Digital Scholarship in Canada) in anticipation of a policy requiring researchers to develop plans for the long-term management of their data.

“I think the floodgates could open on this,” concludes Moon, who eagerly awaits more information from the granting councils on their vision for data management plan requirements.

This transition is also likely to be accelerated by the fact that younger researchers invariably start their work with electronic sources. Sharon Murphy, who heads QUL’s Academic Services Division, says university libraries across Canada and abroad are regularly sharing their visions and best practices for making sure this on-line environment includes the richest possible source material.

She adds that QUL works closely with the Ontario Council of University Libraries, including the Dataverse Project and the Canadian Association of Research Libraries, the latter of which is spearheading the development of a national research data management network.

“The growth of digital scholarship presents us with new opportunities,” observes Murphy. “We have had a vibrant Social Science Data Centre for 27 years and we’re ideally situated to take part in this growth with our partners on campus and elsewhere.”