Legacy metadata to future research – my journey to Discovery

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webinarCLOSER intern, Nicole Watson, reflects on how CLOSER Discovery can benefit early career researchers and how her time at CLOSER has shaped her own research.

Having recently completed a master’s degree at UCL’s School of Public Policy, I am about to begin a PhD at the UCL Energy Institute. My research focuses on public attitudes towards energy policies, patterns of energy usage, and the application of behavioural economics to nudge people towards more sustainable habits. More broadly, I am interested in the factors that shape environmental attitudes and behaviours, and how analysis of individual- or household-level data can shed light on wider societal trends – a challenge that longitudinal research is particularly adept at tackling.

As longitudinal studies are likely to be of value in my own work, I decided to apply for a summer placement at the home of longitudinal research. CLOSER brings together eight world-leading longitudinal studies, the British Library and the UK Data Service to help improve our understanding of key social and biomedical challenges and get to the root of  ‘wicked’ problems, such as those I hope to address through my own research.

My main task at CLOSER has been archiving metadata for CLOSER Discovery, CLOSER’s bespoke search engine. On a day-to-day basis, this involves deconstructing questionnaires into individual components, coding each element of the survey following CLOSER’s ‘Principles for Archiving Metadata’, and then entering metadata into CLOSER’s appropriately named software, Archivist. Spending three months working with the technical team at CLOSER has taught me far more than metadata entry. Most significantly, I have become aware of how using CLOSER Discovery could benefit early career researchers like myself.

CLOSER Discovery offers a range of tools for searching studies in the CLOSER consortium, including filters to help researchers track down specific questions and find data to operationalise variables for use in their research. The ability to search by variable is particularly valuable, for both early career researchers and more seasoned academics. CLOSER Discovery provides an overview of the data that CLOSER’s partner studies have collected on almost 80,000 variables. For myself and others relatively new to the field, searching in CLOSER Discovery can serve as a useful guide to what data is out there, how robust this data is, and where to find it.

Situating data in context is often just as important as sourcing the data itself. Getting to grips with each study and finding the information needed to fully understand how the data was collected can be a time consuming process, particularly for researchers who are new to working with longitudinal data. By collating important metadata in one place, CLOSER Discovery makes it simple to gain access to this information.

My search for data to use in my master’s dissertation often felt like an endless labyrinth of redirects, login pages, and datasets with more missing values than observations. If a platform like CLOSER Discovery had been available to help me find the data I needed, my research process could have been much more efficient. As CLOSER Discovery provides frequency counts and summary statistics for each variable, researchers can decide whether the available variables have sufficient statistical power for their analysis before taking the time to download the data. Whilst CLOSER Discovery does not host any data itself, in most cases it provides links to where the data can be downloaded or requested, minimising the time spent hunting for a particular dataset.

As well as introducing me to CLOSER Discovery and the technical side of data documentation, my time at CLOSER has taught me a lot about the value of longitudinal research. Working with some of the older studies has given me valuable insight into the challenges that can arise when dealing with data that spans decades and how survey design has changed (and improved!) over the years. Most importantly, working with CLOSER gave me the chance to experience working in a fantastic research community and consolidated my decision to pursue a career in research.