Data sharing agreements are critical to conducting research in education. They allow researchers to access data collected by state or local education agencies to examine trends, determine the effectiveness of interventions, and support agencies in their efforts to use research-based evidence in decision-making.
Yet the process for obtaining data sharing agreements with state or local agencies can be challenging and often depends on the type of data involved, state and federal laws and regulations regarding data privacy, and specific agency policies. Some agencies have a research application process and review timeline available on their websites. Others may have a more informal process for establishing such agreements. In all instances, these agreements determine how a researcher can access, use, and analyze education agency data.
What are some guiding principles for successfully obtaining data sharing agreements?
Over several years of managing projects that require data sharing agreements, I have learned a few key principles for success. While they may seem obvious, I have witnessed data sharing agreements fall apart because one or more of these principles were not met:
- Conduct research on a topic that is a priority for the state or local education agency. Given the time and effort agencies invest in executing a data sharing agreement and preparing data, researchers should design studies that provide essential information to the agency on a significant topic. It can be helpful to communicate exactly how and when the findings will be shared with the agency and possible actions that may result from the study findings.
- Identify a champion within the agency. Data sharing agreements are often reviewed by some combination of program staff, legal counsel, Institutional Review Board staff, and research or data office staff. An agency staff member who champions the study can help navigate the system for a timely review and address any internal questions about the study. That champion can also help the researcher work with the agency staff who will prepare the data.
- Be flexible and responsive. Agencies have different requirements for reviewing data sharing agreements, preparing and transferring data, securely handling data, and destroying data upon study completion. A data sharing agreement often requires some back-and-forth to finalize the terms. Researchers need to be prepared to work with their own offices and staff to meet the needs of the agency.
- Work closely with the data office to finalize data elements and preparation. Researchers should be able to specify the sample, timeframe, data elements, and whether they require unique identifiers to merge data from multiple files. I have found it beneficial to meet with the office(s) responsible for preparing the data files in order to confirm any assumptions about the format and definitions of data elements. If the study requires data from more than one office, I recommend having a joint call to ensure that the process for pulling the data is clear and feasible to all staff involved. For example, to link student and teacher data, it might be necessary to have a joint call with the office that manages assessment data and the office that manages employment data.
- Strive to reduce the burden on the agency. Researchers should make the process of sharing data as simple and efficient as possible for agency staff. Strategies include providing a template for the data sharing agreement, determining methods to de-identify data prior to transferring it, and offering to have the agency send separate files that the researchers can link rather than preparing the file themselves.
- Start early. Data sharing agreements take a lot of time. Start the process as soon as possible because it always takes longer than expected. I have seen agreements executed within a month while others can take up to a year. A clear, jointly developed timeline can help ensure that the work starts on time.
What resources are available on data sharing agreements?
If you are new to data sharing agreements or want to learn more about them, here are some helpful resources:
Written by Jacqueline Zweig, Ph.D., Research Scientist, Education Development Center. Dr. Zweig is the Principal Investigator on an IES-funded research grant, Impact of an Orientation Course on Online Students' Completion Rates, and this project relies on data sharing.