Changing landscape poses challenges for supporting effective research

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Bernie Folan reveals some findings from a meeting of academic librarians and early-career researchers late last year

At the end of 2010, at an event hosted by SAGE and facilitated by the Research Information Network, a group of academic librarians and early-career researchers came together at the British Library Conference Centre in London to discuss the provision of information services for researchers in the social sciences. The event was designed to both explore ways of improving the provision and consumption of information during the research process, and to discuss how the value of the content that researchers and librarians choose and supply could be demonstrated.

The changing information landscape has resulted in a number of changes in information-seeking behaviour, which in turn raise new challenges. One such change is a move from a browse culture to a search culture. This can potentially lead to a narrowing of discovery methods and the loss of essential browsing outside of a researcher’s own discipline. It was felt that there was a real need to improve the take-up of search and browse skills training and possibly the appointment of advocates in most institutions.

Another change recognised at the meeting is the growing variety of alternative information resources that researchers are increasingly making use of, such as blogs and Twitter. It was noted that some librarians are now getting all of their information from blogs and Twitter! It was recognised, however, that such increasingly important sources lack the high-quality filters of traditional publishing routes, such as peer review.

Information discovery is not the only problem. Access also continues to be a problem when institutions cannot afford to expand collections or they need to cancel titles. Whilst open access has the potential to solve some of these problems, it was recognised that much education is needed when it comes to the concept. There is a need to educate researchers at all levels about what open access means and how it works. Too often researchers are unaware of the difference between open access and “free”, associating open access with low quality.

If such misperceptions are to be overcome, it is essential that big names in research in the humanities and social sciences are persuaded to publish in newer open-access outlets. There is also a need for more education regarding the mechanics of open-access research funding, both at a senior level and lower down in organisations. It is feared that early-career researchers could be unable to secure funding. Devolved library budgets already pose problems for purchasing cross-disciplinary material and funding open-access submissions will surely be a challenge without better systems.

It was also felt at the meeting that e-textbooks and e-books have ‘not worked yet’, currently being too expensive and with digital rights management issues standing in the way of widespread adoption. As well as electronic versions of traditional forms of publishing, researchers are also contributing beyond journal articles and book chapters, to a greater or lesser extent depending on their discipline, and trying to get a balance between openness and traditional publishing for career-advancement reasons.

There is also an increasing need to demonstrate impact from all parties, whether this is researchers demonstrating the value of their research beyond academia or librarians demonstrating the value of the services that they provide. Usage statistics play an important part in demonstrating impact. There is a need, in addition to high-level usage statistics, for access to journal-level and article-level statistics. Finer-grained statistics allow comparisons to be made with the use of deposits within institutional repositories, and the benchmarking of resources against one another. At a time of cuts however, librarians do not necessarily have the time for detailed analysis, and publishers could do more to ease the process.

Another comment from the meeting was that library branding is too small on many publisher sites, hiding the service libraries provide to users who are accessing material from a variety of remote gateways, including Google. The mistaken assumption that research articles are free needs to be addressed.

Another key finding of the event was the need for greater communication. For librarians this could involve attending academic department meetings and explaining some of the relevant mechanics of librarianship to researchers. They also need to find ways of educating senior financial managers more effectively. Solutions needed by librarians are often IT-originated and it was felt that university IT departments are working in silos and could probably communicate more to share good innovations.

Many of the issues raised were not restricted to the social sciences and the humanities, but are equally applicable to a wide range of disciplines, and it is important that there is greater communication of good practice wherever it is found. Events such as this play an important part in the sharing of ideas and discussing challenges.

Bernie Folan is head of journals marketing at SAGE