Advising Alfred – Applying the "data perspective"

In the novel “Beyond Sleep” the search for the aerial photographs did not go smoothly for the protagonist, the doctoral candidate in geology Alfred Issendorf. Let’s assume that for his fieldwork grant a data management plan would be required and Alfred would get advice in the planning stage of his research.

Advising Alfred – Applying the "data perspective"

As shown in the blog post “Beyond Sleep” – The search for the aerial photographs, the fictional fieldwork case that features in the novel Beyond Sleep - originally in Dutch as Nooit meer slapen, by W.F. Hermans in 1966[1] - does not include any data management planning and supervisor’s guidance on this subject. How could one explain to Alfred or an existing doctoral candidate the need and use of a data management plan?

Looking at a new project idea from the “data-perspective” at an early stage and plan for the management of the research data is important for the acceptance of a grant proposal and the success of a project. Planning before the start helps to prevent delays and unforeseen expenses in the project, or even the loss of the data and legal issues. Transparency and good method documentation are part of responsible research and required for reporting/accountability towards funders and the own institution. Even in the media the methods used and availability of data, e.g. for peer review, become an issue in public discussions.

The fictional character Alfred – not unlike new doctoral candidates today - has never thought about his project in the light of data management; he followed general practice based on information from academic courses, publications in his field, examples of colleagues or his own intuition and preferences. What does this kind of approach to research entail?

When approaching the use of a research method from a “data-perspective”, researchers are, on the one hand thinking ahead and considering different options in the practical set-up and planning of the research and, on the other hand asking new questions. The "data perspective" includes practical aspects in how data will be generated, collected, documented, organized and protected, but also legal and technical aspects.

As the previous blog post focused on the aerial photographs, they are also being used as an example to illustrate the types of questions that you could ask for other data-sets as well. Data management aspects with regard to the other datasets that Alfred will create or collect are being addressed in other blog posts in this series.

If you would be in the position of advising Alfred, what kind of questions could you ask from a “data-perspective” at this point in the research process?

  • What is the source of these aerial photographs?
  • Is there any information about the creation or collection of these photographs available?
    • Who took them, when, where and under which conditions?
    • Who developed them?
    • Are these photographs unique or are there more copies?
    • If there is documentation, is it available in a language that I can read?
  • Aerial photographs – are these raw, processed or analysed data?
    • What are the differences between these datasets (e.g. negative or developed photograph)?
    • Are the negatives available?
  • If there are several datasets, which one would I need for my research?
  • Do I need to process raw data myself?
    • If yes, what kind of equipment would I need?
    • If not, do I need to have access to documentation about the data processing (e.g. choices made in developing the photographs or other technical details about the material)?
  • Are there any legal or contractual restrictions for the reuse of these aerial photographs?
  • Could the photographs and the documentation contain information about a living person? How can I determine if it is (sensitive) personal data? What would that mean in practice?
  • Is there a person or organisation holding intellectual property right of the photographs? Who has the authority to grant access?
  • What would be the conditions for reuse and are there any fees involved?
  • How would I be allowed to access and use the photographs? Consult at the location? Receive originals to take with me? Receive copies to take with me?
  • If I would receive these photographs, what would be the greatest risks when handling and transporting them (fire, water, theft, other types of accidental damage…)? What could I do to mitigate these risks?
  • What is the size of this collection of photographs? How many, which format? How could I store them during my fieldwork? Do I need to buy extra storage containers? How would I organize them?
  • Are there any rules on what I should do with these photographs after the end of my project? Am I allowed to decide on a storage location after the end of my project?
  • If yes, should I keep them myself and can I take good care of them during ten or twenty years? For how many years would these photographs actually stay in the current condition? Do they change colour with time etc.? Is there anything that could be done about it? Would it be better if a curation expert would take care of the photographs?
  • Maybe I or another researcher will need these photographs again in the future. Are these photographs already part of an archival collection?
  • How could I find out if these aerial photographs are suitable to help me answer my research question? Is there the possibility that I need to look further or have to create my own data?

Did you make it till here? A dazzling list?

Pixabay Question Mark Grey 1481601 1920

Would you like to learn slowly, step-by-step how to look at your own project from the “data perspective”? 

But where to start?

As a first step you could check out the information provided by the research data support services from your university or faculty, your library catalog for available resources on data management and other publications relevant for your field as well as the information provided by leading data archives (repositories) in your country or discipline.

Pixabay Support 2355701 1920

Researchers at Leiden University will find relevant information and links to resources on the website of the Centre for Digital Scholarship. One of the resources they recommend is the Expert tour guide on data management by CESSDA ERIC (Consortium of European Social Science Data Archives European Infrastructure Consortium), that guides researchers through the different data management topics. The original target group is social scientists, but it is also worth reading for legal scholars, especially those who, for instance, also conduct interviews or use statistical data in addition to their legal analysis.

This blog post is part of the series “Research in fiction through the lens of data management”.

How to cite this blog post (Harvard style)

Boom, M.S. (2018) Advising Alfred – Applying the "data perspective". Available at: (Accessed [date]).


[1] For international readers this blog post refers to an English translation Hermans, W.F. (2007). Beyond Sleep. (I. Rilke, Trans.). New York, NY: The Overlook Press. (Original work published 1966, translation of the 27th impression published in 2003 by De Bezige Bij).