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Libraries: enacting change

13 Apr 2012

Mike Buschman, Plum Analytics

Academic libraries are inherently involved in the research creation process as well as the procurement and collection of research. Thus, they are uniquely positioned to affect change in order to provide science with more timely, open, and modern ways of scholarly communication. Libraries today are under tremendous budget pressure and are perceived as less and less integral to the research process. Therefore, libraries have a high incentive to provide lower cost access to research while at the same time supporting their institution’s researchers in more tangible ways. Two recent Ithaka surveys highlight this trend:

“Library directors envision a high-level strategic prioritization of their research and teaching support and facilitation functions in conjunction with a shift away, in some cases, from collections acquisitions and preservation.” (Ithaka S+R Library Survey 2010: Insights from U.S. Academic Library Directors)

“As our information environment continues to change, the institutions that serve scholars are challenged not only to keep up with changing attitudes and practices but also to help lead scholars, in order to best support and facilitate scholarship as well as to ensure their own continuing relevance.” (Faculty Survey 2009: Key Strategic Insights for Libraries, Publishers, and Societies)

And from 'Futures thinking for academic librarians: higher education in 2025' in Information Services and Use (2010):

“Libraries will need to reconsider what their relevance is in the research process. We need to start considering what our ‘deeper meaning’ is to researchers to ensure that we fit into this new model. I feel strongly that we will have a role – it will look different from our role now, and we need to be careful not to cling to past practice for nostalgic reasons.”

By shifting to this service model libraries will (hopefully) engender a more positive perception from the researchers they support of the value proposition of the library. Even beyond that, one of the main benefits to libraries is alignment with the revenue-producing part of the institution. When I was the Collections Management Librarian for Microsoft in the early 2000’s we would survey recent patents and match the prior art to the journal subscriptions that the corporate library managed. We would routinely see overlap in the 90th percentile — showing not only that library was buying the 'right stuff', but that the library was directly helping produce high-value corporate assets. The Lib-Value Project, and the associated JISC-sponsored survey, includes some important research into this area, including specific ways of computing ROI with regard to supporting research funding, recruitment, and retention.

Researchers’ advancement and prestige is incumbent upon being published in prominent journals and then being cited by other papers from the same or other prominent journals. It can take a long time for research to be published, and much longer than that for subsequent research to cite the original work. According to a paper from Brody and Harnad (2005), the time to publishing “may range anywhere from 3 months to 1-2 years or even longer” and “in physics, the ‘cited half-life’ of an article (the point at which it has received half of all the citations it will ever receive) is around 5 years”. This system rewards the established researcher and publication, does not keep pace with research breakthroughs, and is too often prone to manipulation and corruption. Also, much of the published research is locked behind ever more expensive subscription pay walls.

Again libraries are in a unique position to enact change. Open metrics are now available from a wide variety of sources and can now begin to be aggregated to give alternative and complementary ways of measuring impact of research output. Dubbed 'altmetrics', this growing field is providing new ways of looking at the traditional measurements of engagement and interaction in scholarly communication. PLoS (Public Library of Science) and other open access repositories publish open article-level metrics, as well as other scholarly sources such as data repositories, bookmarking sites, open access repositories (both institutional and discipline-based), code source repositories, presentation sharing sites, and many more provide different metrics of such output. These metrics are also distinguished by their immediacy. They can be tracked and collected as they happen (or shortly thereafter).

Providing such new measurements can allow for libraries to work with researchers in a way that provides real value. Researchers will easily be able to see which repositories and hosting sites provide meaningful scholarly interaction, and in addition, they can determine which promotional methods provide the greatest vehicle for engagement. For example, perhaps those researchers who use SlideShare to share their presentations and promote their research see an increase in interaction with their research (or not).

Individual researchers are not the complete story when it comes to an institution’s research output of course. The impact of labs, departments, and the institution as a whole are also very important, and providing this holistic view can add to the value proposition of the library service model. Offices of research, communications departments, and administrators are keenly interested in metrics and data that can support decision-making and marketing.

Libraries are well-positioned to help define these new alternative metrics, determine which metrics will be meaningful going forward, and provide guidance for their relative weighting in measuring impact. It’s time to look at truly new ways of what libraries can do to serve their constituents in ways that provide real value to them. The future is now.

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