I recently read an article, by Cox, Pinfield and Smith1, which attempted to analyse research data management (RDM) as a “wicked problem”. The concept of a wicked problem has been around for a little while in the context of social policy, but this is the first I’ve heard of it.

What, then, is a “wicked” problem?

Cox et al invoke a full 16 properties of wicked problems (drawing on the work of earlier authors), but put simply a problem is wicked if it is so difficult to define that they can only ever admit of an imperfect, compromise solution. Many different, often contradictory, perspectives on such a problem exist, each suggesting its own solution, and any intervention “changes the problem in an irreversible way”, so that gradual learning by trial and error is impossible.

Many truly wicked problems affecting society as a whole, such as child poverty or gender inequality, are unlikely to be satisfactorily solved in our lifetimes (though we should, of course, keep trying). For RDM though, I feel that there is some hope. It does display many aspects of wickedness, but it seems unlikely that it will stay this way forever. Technology is evolving, cultures and attitudes are shifting and the disparate perspectives on research data are gradually coming into alignment.

In the meantime, “wickedness” provides a useful lens through which to view the challenge of RDM. Knowing that it shows many wicked features, we can be more intelligent about the way we go about solving it. For example, Cox et al draw on the literature on wicked problems to suggest some leadership principles that are appropriate, such as:

“Collective intelligence not individual genius – turning to individuals to solve problems through their individual creativity is less successful than people working together to develop ideas.”

Far from getting disheartened about the difficulty of the task ahead, we can accept that it is necessarily complex and act accordingly. I look forward to following up some of the references on strategies for dealing with wickedness — hopefully I’ll be able to share more of what I learn as I go along.

  1. Cox, Andrew M., Stephen Pinfield, and Jennifer Smith. 2014. “Moving a Brick Building: UK Libraries Coping with Research Data Management as a ‘wicked’ Problem.” Journal of Librarianship and Information Science, May, 0961000614533717. doi:10.1177/0961000614533717.