Having worked in academic libraries for nearly twenty years I’ve seen many trends come and go. I’ve lived through Pinterest, library services offered via Second Life, social tagging in cataloguing and more 23 Things programmes than I want to think about. However, in this time I’ve also seen many developments that people thought were just the latest fad become an integral part of the library landscape. Research support is definitely one of the developments in the second category and an area that I have been heavily involved in over the last few years, initially by training library staff and now by supporting researchers in the physical sciences.
What is research support?
One of the main issues in trying to raise awareness of this area is the lack of agreement on what we’re actually talking about! Different institutions will refer to research support, scholarly support or scholarly communication depending on their own interpretations and the services they offer. Whatever name you give it, it’s hard to deny that it is becoming increasingly more common in academic libraries. The early 21st century has seen enormous change in the ways researchers produce and share their work. The widespread adoption of open research practice, the increase in publication choices and the culture of constant assessment have all combined to create an administrative burden on researchers as they work to comply with mandates from funders and institutions. At the same time these changes offer information professionals opportunities to use their skills to help researchers navigate this new landscape.
Most research projects follow a basic lifecycle which goes from planning the work and securing funding, through collecting and writing up to promoting and assessing the value of finished outputs. Within each of these stages there are a range of tasks which need to be carried out alongside actually doing the research project. Policies from research funders and institutions around Open Access and data sharing mean that researchers have to prepare their work in a way they never did before. A quick recap at this point - Open Access is the principle that publicly funded research outputs should be available for the public to read for free, usually online, at any point. Data sharing goes hand in hand with this approach. Whilst having access to research outputs is great, what’s better is the chance to see the data which underpins them. This allows others to build upon existing work and also means that any claims can be checked for accuracy before they are released to the world. In an era increasingly defined by fake news this is an incredibly important step.
So, what is research/scholarly support/communication? However you define it locally it is simply the act of information professionals using their skills and knowledge to help researchers address the new demands of working in an open research world. This support can range from work around general advocacy through to practical steps such as helping researchers to publish their work openly, running an online repository, advising on selecting the right format for publication and adding metadata to data being shared to make it discoverable.
Why does this matter?
As with most things one of the main drivers of this increase in support for the research community is money. In the UK, much of the research which is conducted is funded through grants which have been raised at least in part from public taxation. Every few years institutions such as universities must submit examples of their best research outputs to something known as the REF (Research Excellence Framework). The analysis looks at the quality of the work that has been done and the impact that it has had both on academia and wider society, for example has it been used to inform government policy or medical protocols? The better that the research is perceived to be, the more money that institution/department is awarded for more research. Academia is a competitive environment at the best of times so anything which can offer an increase in funding is welcome. For the next REF in 2021, all research outputs must be made openly available in order to count towards assessment. This means that a researcher could produce a career defining piece of work which had a wide impact but this would count for nothing in REF terms if the output was not publically accessible.
But before we get too cynical we should remember that there are other reasons why open research and the accompanying support are needed more than ever. A great deal of scholarly research published in journals is kept behind a paywall where a subscription or one-off charge is needed to access it. Traditionally the main users of these articles have been other academics who will have some level of access through their institution. However there are many people who are missing out. This could be members of the public who want to educate themselves on a particular topic (and have partially paid for the work through their taxes) or it could be practitioners such as doctors, lawyers and teachers who might have uses for the knowledge but no access to it. Making research outputs openly accessible can help those actively involved on the ground to offer effective, informed interventions in a range of areas. Global situations such as the Coronavirus and Ebola outbreak offer a timely reminder that those who could make the most use of information are not always those who have time to go to the library.
How can you get involved?
Librarians can help their research community in many ways with the processes involved in making outputs accessible, just as they would help students looking to submit an assignment. There is a need for advocacy around the benefits for those who see it as an undue burden. In many cases the researcher will be forced to participate in open research as part of the rules of their funding but librarians have a role to play in educating them on the wider benefits so we can help to create more open researchers in the future. This is something that sometimes requires a great deal of diplomacy but it is nothing librarians haven’t tackled before with unpopular changes. Perhaps one of the biggest things librarians can do to support researchers is to provide training on the practicalities, both to groups and on a one-to-one basis. As with most topics the questions will vary each time but this is a good way to find out exactly what the main areas of concern are and develop support which can address them. It’s also important to learn about the different services which are likely happening across your institution to help researchers. You will probably find that there is lots going on already and so you won’t have to reinvent the wheel but instead plan how to get the library involved in existing activity. Even if you are not directly involved in research support in your current role it’s important to develop an awareness of this area so that you can direct library users when they come to you. If there is one thing that I have learnt in my years working in scholarly communication it’s that librarians are often doing huge amounts in this area without realising it. Don’t let terminology put you off. My challenge to you would be to think about how you would define scholarly support in your own context and then look at the existing skills you use within this area. I bet you will be surprised at how involved in this area you already are!
Claire Sewell is Research Support Skills Coordinator in the Office of Scholarly Communication at Cambridge University Library. She is a qualified CILIP Chartered librarian, Conference Coordinator for the SLA Europe Board and Associate Editor of the New Review of Academic Librarianship. She regularly contributes to the professional press including book reviews, commissioned case studies and opinion pieces and peer reviewed scholarly articles.
The No-nonsense Guide to Research Support and Scholarly Communication by Claire Sewell is available now from Facet Publishing