A tribute to Marcia Taylor, former Director of Information and Development at ISER

The funeral service for Marcia Taylor, formerly Deputy Director of the ESRC Data Archive and Director of Information and Development in ISER, is to be held at Weeley Crematorium on Wednesday 10th April 2019 at 2.00 pm.

Family flowers only please. Donations welcome and made payable to Colchester & Ipswich Hospitals Charity Cancer Centre Campaign (Colchester) may be sent c/o R Gwinnell & Sons, 112 Ipswich Road, Colchester, Essex CO4 0AA or on this tribute page.

Marcia Freed Taylor: An Appreciation

Marcia Freed Taylor, who gave over 35 years of distinguished service both to the University of Essex and to the wider UK and international social science communities, has died at the age of 79.

She was born in North Dakota, USA, but moved to Switzerland, after her parents’ deaths when she was only ten years old, to live with her brother, then at the Basel Conservatory. On leaving school Marcia returned to the USA where, aged only 15, she won a scholarship to study for a BA in English and German Literature at the prestigious Swarthmore College in Pennsylvania. Graduating Summa Cum Laude in 1960 she then successively gained an MA in German Literature from Columbia University New York, and an MA in Architecture from Ohio State University. Marcia then moved to Calcutta, India on a Ford Foundation Architectural Award, and worked in publishing for four years. In the late 1960s she moved to the UK, first working on the conservation of York Minster for two years and then moved to Stockholm for a further two years as a translator.

Marcia first came to Essex University when she joined the then Social Science Research Council Data Archive in 1973 as Data Librarian. At that time, it was a very small organisation, established in 1967, and its staff thought of themselves as pioneers of a modern and, at that time, deeply unfashionable social science, rooted in computer-aided data analysis.

Initially Marcia’s main role at the Archive was to work with directors of academic survey-based research projects, persuading them to provide a copy of their final dataset to the Archive for dissemination to other researchers for secondary analysis; and then, once having secured a deposit, oversee the cataloguing and checking of the data, publicise its availability and ensure access. In the early 1970s this had many challenges. Many of the original researchers were concerned that secondary users might plague them with questions or dispute their own analyses; and often they knew little or nothing of the methods that had been used to create and manage these data sets as these tasks were carried out for them by contract staff now departed. They were suspicious of data ‘cleaning’ and frequently already busy with new projects. Marcia’s great initial achievement was to gently but persistently nudge researchers towards depositing their data, in order to expand the Data Archive’s holdings. During all this time she was raising her daughter, Lucy, born in January 1974.

By the mid-1970s it was already apparent that there was limited demand for access to one-off sociological or political project surveys. There was a real risk of the SSRC removing funding for the Archive. Marcia was the first to recognise the potential demand for secondary analysis of government survey and Census data, and to find a way of persuading Government officials to adopt the Data Archive as a trusted agency for archiving and preserving these data and encouraging use by academic researchers. It was this change from academic surveys to a dissemination hub for major and recurrent government data sets that subsequently assured the Data Archive’s future.

Marcia became one of the deputy directors of the Archive, and her role was crucial because what encouraged use of the Archive was the availability of these large scale annual datasets regularly added to the Archive’s collection – such as the Census and Labour Force Survey at first and then the Family Expenditure Survey, General Household Survey, British Crime Survey, and many others. Although Marcia quickly established good relationships with the Government Statistical Service and the then Office of Population Censuses and Surveys (OPCS), persuading individual government departments, who had actually commissioned the surveys and retained control over their use, to allow their release to public access, was never easy. Not only had they to be convinced that the data would be secure with no risk of confidentiality breaches, there was widespread concern that data could be ‘misused’ to challenge relevant Government policy – the potential for which was, of course, the main attraction for secondary analysts – with an insistence that departments should have prior view of any researchers’ reports and articles before publication. Marcia successfully established and sustained a relationship of trust with potential depositors while maintaining the highest archival standards. As a direct result of her work, the Data Archive was soon setting the standard for Data Archives – in particular, across Europe. Her work assured the Archive’s future and gave it its current prominent place in the national social science infrastructure.

Up until this time the Archive had lived a hand-to-mouth existence of short-term funding and the ever-present threat of its work being moved to one of the national computing centres. The rapid and substantial expansion of demand for the government datasets resulting from her efforts meant that these concerns ended. This was Marcia’s true legacy to the Archive. She ensured its standards, built up both its depositor and user bases and enhanced the Archive’s reputation both in the UK and internationally. She thus played a vital role in the University of Essex becoming the UK’s social science powerhouse.

In 1990 Marcia transferred to ISER, initially to take on the role of Director of Information and Development, responsible for IT, research support and dissemination, as well as research outreach to the public and private sectors. Marcia, along with David Rose, Tony Coxon, Jackie Scott, Iain Noble, Randy Banks and others, was thus one of the ‘first parents’ of ISER and the British Household Panel Survey (BHPS). It is difficult to appreciate now, when longitudinal methods of both data collection and data analysis are so well established, just how adventurous and precarious those initial years from 1989 were. Certainly, there was at the time considerable scepticism among social science researchers, both academic and more widely, about prospects for the BHPS. There was scepticism about whether a relatively large scale general population sample of all adults in households – as opposed to a special population such as parents of new-borns – could be persuaded in sufficient numbers to enter a longitudinal study of unspecified length and diverse subject matter. Further there was widespread doubt about whether or not such samples could be sustained through subsequent waves, without serious depletion and the development of critical biases through sample attrition.

Significant doubts also existed as to whether there would actually be any kind of serious and sustainable ‘intellectual market’ for the data. Not least there were also concerns that there was insufficient relevant expertise and experience among UK social researchers to implement and maintain such a study. Panel studies were thought by many such researchers, to be a potential career dead-end: useful perhaps for experience, but offering little scope for career development. There were, at the time, many people who thought that the (by then) Economic and Social Research Council had made a serious strategic error in funding the Essex Centre. Marcia played a critical role in bringing things together, helping all staff to work in a common direction, which enabled those misgivings to be shown as mistaken.

In her work at ISER, drawing on her Archive experience, she set new standards in clarity for all surveys in putting together the BHPS documentation. This was the fundamental key to the subsequent success of the BHPS. Existing longitudinal study datasets, both in the UK and elsewhere, were often difficult to access and use, because of inadequate, incomplete or confusing documentation and overly complex data structures, restricting the potential pool of users to experienced specialists. Her ideas, developed in the Archive, on metadata, data access and usable documentation made BHPS data both readily accessible and, crucially, suitable for non-specialists and so helped ISER consolidate as an institution.

Marcia was also an important participant in various European social science networks seeking to improve cross national comparisons, data harmonisation and comparability, as well as the training and mobility of researchers. Her networking, organisational and diplomatic skills, combined with her deep knowledge of information science, contributed greatly to their success. The first of these was her role as scientific secretary to the ISER-created European Science Foundation Scientific Network of Household Panel studies which brought together all the national panel studies in Europe to discuss matters of common concern and to develop best practice in both research and data management. Out of this work came a book and a special issue of a journal as well as over sixty working papers.

In 1996 Marcia established the European Centre for Analysis in the Social Sciences (ECASS) based in ISER. This was a research infrastructure for European research and data analysis, supported by the European Commission Access to Research Infrastructures Programme. It was created to promote the mobility of European researchers and, through this, the development of pan-European research networks, by assisting access to facilities at the University of Essex via travel and subsistence support for short-term research visits. Over its 14-year existence ECASS supported nearly 500 visitors from all over Europe, sharing 22,000 days of access to ISER resources and expertise. Its last visitor left in March 2010. ECASS was one of only four EU-funded European Large-Scale facilities (later renamed Major Research Infrastructures) in the social and economic sciences, and it enabled the establishment of many informal networks that persist to this day.

In addition, Marcia worked on secondment for three years at CEPS/INSTEAD in Luxembourg on the Panel Comparability project (PACO); and acted as Coordinator of the European Panel Users Network and the Network of Economic and Social Science Infrastructures in Europe (NESSIE). The latter was built on Marcia’s experience of large-scale facilities activity. Funded by the EU, this was a network of social sciences data resource centre operators and users, designed to facilitate the co-ordination and sharing of services, information and data, of research infrastructures in the social sciences.

Marcia thus played key roles in both the Data Archive and ISER, contributing in major ways to the success and current leading international standing of both organisations. She also had a major part in creating the conditions by which researchers, both in the UK and elsewhere, have benefited, personally and professionally, through support for their work. In addition, she also co-ordinated and led activity across Europe to improve both data comparability and access to the benefit of the wider European research community.

After retiring, Marcia co-ran a project, and co-drafted a book, which will be dedicated to her, interviewing artists and documenting the important artistic community in Wivenhoe, where she had lived for over 45 years.

The underlying reason for Marcia’s success in all these activities was not simply her in-depth knowledge of the underlying substantive issues; her personal attributes were also equally important. All those who worked with her and for her can testify to her inspirational leadership, her capacity for friendship, her generous nature and, above all, her wicked sense of humour. She was a great raconteur and a wry observer of human frailties, a kind, elegant and fiercely intelligent woman. She will be greatly missed by her wide circle of friends and former colleagues. We all owe her more than we can say.

Iain Noble and David Rose

We are grateful to John Brice, Ivor Crewe, Jonathan Gershuny, Heather Laurie, Howard Newby and Lucy Taylor for providing us with various details of Marcia’s life and work.