Data steward – an emerging and constantly changing role

Published: 2023-05-10

SND’s first network meeting in 2023 brought together around 80 participants over two sunny days in Gothenburg. The theme of the meeting was the concept of data steward, which is an emerging role in Swedish higher education institutions.

In an increasingly data-driven economy, data steward has become a well-established title in the industry and business sectors. In recent years, the academic world has also seen an increased demand for people with competence in data management, although the role and duties of a data steward at Swedish HEIs can vary significantly. During the network meeting, members of the SND network outlined some key components of the role through examples from their HEIs and an international perspective.

Data steward
SND’s training coordinators, Karin Westin Tikkanen and David Rayner, opened the second day with the theme “What is a data steward?”

General and domain-specific knowledge

A common reflection was that the role of data steward requires both general competence and domain-specific knowledge to successfully meet the diverse needs around research data management in Swedish HEIs. Local needs often govern, and the role of a data steward can include anything from strategic policymaking, project-specific planning, and support to the development of technical tools and services for research data management.

“Different fields of research have completely different requirements for knowledge and subject-specific competence. A challenge for data stewards today is therefore the different expectations that are built into the role,” said Merlijn de Smit, Data Steward at Stockholm University Library.

Balance between technical and social skills

The balance between technical and social skills was emphasized as a key factor for success in the role of a data steward. Mattias Persson, Analyst at Örebro University, highlighted how important it is to work close to research in order to build long-term relationships and collaborative work methods with researchers and data-driven infrastructures that require support.

“Trust is essential if we want to collaborate with researchers. It can be challenging to join a project from a central function, and it’s essential to be responsive to their needs and to work together to develop effective work methods,” says Mattias Persson.

A growing national network

Kristin Halverson, Data Steward Coordinator at KTH, also stressed the need for networking among data stewards to exchange knowledge and experiences. Together with some colleagues, she has started a network for data stewards in Sweden.

Merlijn, Mattias, and Kristin
From the left: Merlijn de Smit, Mattias Persson, and Kristin Halverson.

“We’re an informal but growing network of data stewards who, among other things, discuss practical matters and operational work. It’s particularly important to create points of contact between us who work in the field to understand the development in different directions, especially considering how varied the role of data steward can be,” says Kristin Halverson.

Anyone who works with research data-related issues in Swedish HEIs and is interested in exchanging experiences is welcome to join the network. To become a member, e-mail Kristin Halverson at

International outlook

In Europe, some HEIs have succeeded in formalizing the role of data steward more clearly than in Sweden. For example, at the Dutch university TUDelft, they have invested in domain-specific data stewards who essentially have an overall support function and placement at faculty level. At Aalto University in Finland, they have instead focused on data stewards who are already employed within various research groups at university departments. The advantage of this model is that there is an established contact with the research group, which makes it easier to work together. The disadvantage is that it often leads to a short-term and project-specific solution that doesn’t always meet the overall needs of the university.

In other words, there is not yet a universal model for how to solve the competence supply around research data-related matters at European HEIs. One challenge in attracting the right expertise is that there are few formal educations or clear career paths for those who wish to work as data stewards.

Major investments within the EU

The future need for competence supply and coordination in research data-related matters has been identified at the EU level. Through the three-year project Skills4EOSC, the European Commission is now making a major investment in a shared system of educational resources to raise the level of competence among those working with open science and open data in a European context.skills4eosc

One of the important tasks for the project is to develop common standards for the various competencies that are needed in the field of open science and open data. This work includes to create a common methodology, curriculum, and training materials, both for those who are completely new to this field of work and to experienced professionals.

44 European stakeholders from 18 countries take part in the project, led by the Italian Consortium GARR. From Sweden, SND (via the University of Gothenburg) is participating along with Chalmers University of Technology, Karolinska Institutet, and Umeå University.

An introductory course to data stewardship through SND

SND is also investing in competence development for data management professionals in the course “An Introduction to Data Stewardship”. The course is under development and will be conducted online in English. It will consist in a total of four half-days, where each part focuses on a specific theme:

  1. Structuring Data Management   
  2. Data Sharing   
  3. IT Solutions   
  4. Legal Frameworks  

If you would like to know more about the course or stay updated on its development, please contact SND’s training coordinator David Rayner (

The presentations from the network meeting on 2–3 May in Gothenburg are accessible on our website.