Designing researcher-centric library services

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Roger Schonfeld of Ithaka and Ben Showers of Jisc report on a study of how libraries can better support chemists and other researchers

When we picture a researcher using a library and its services some people might imagine a lone historian working in the archives, a humanist searching the stacks or a social scientist searching online journals. Yet, inevitably such a picture ignores the fact that for many researchers, especially those in the sciences, the role of the library is largely that of remote content provider. Indeed, with the majority of journal content available electronically, the need to visit the physical library or engage with wider library services is minimal.

So what role might the library play for these academics in supporting their research and research practices? Can libraries design next generation services that anticipate the needs of researchers?

To understand the needs of researchers and begin answering some of these questions, Ithaka S+R recently carried out a study into the research practices of academic chemists, with the support of Jisc. The objective was to identify opportunities to better support chemists’ research and the findings and recommendations were published earlier this year in a report ‘Supporting the Changing Research Practices of Chemists’.

The findings highlighted three primary areas that would benefit from new or redesigned services. Firstly, there is the area of information discovery. In particular, there is a need to support chemists in keeping up with the literature and enabling serendipitous discovery.

The second key role is research dissemination and scholarly communications. While academic chemists publish frequently, the report revealed the need for greater support in disseminating their research outputs.

Data management and preservation was the third area identified. The report acknowledged a gap in training in how to store, manage and curate the data that is collected by chemists and their labs.

To help build on this research, support institutions in meeting these needs and redesigning their services we recently convened a design workshop at Imperial College, London, UK. This included librarians from four UK universities and we collectively explored how we could create service models that would support the field of chemistry. Although the models that were developed were based on the needs of the chemists, we believe that aspects of each model could serve the needs of other fields too.

A personalised information platform

In the models developed at the meeting, the user would have their own personal feed or dashboard, which would draw together information relevant to them from a variety of sources, such as: social media platforms and blogs; canonical disciplinary sources, such as Web of Science and ChemSpider; and institutional sources such as repositories or institutional Mendeley editions.

Each user could determine how heavily populated the feed would be with each source (a user may start with more ‘trusted’ sources and slowly expand to include peer recommendations from Twitter, for example). Libraries might pre-pack such a service so that essential feeds and materials are included as a start. Over time the service would then fine-tune the feed by learning from the user’s activity data.

Activity data will allow the service to identify institutions or even individuals whose research is utilising similar or identical sources to that of interest. The service might also incorporate a ‘serendipity button’, which users can press for a selection of useful but less obviously relevant sources.

The service would enable users to highlight material of interest and promote them for discovery by others, through Twitter and social sharing. This would provide a highly-customisable current awareness service for researchers and offer a service that takes advantage of activity data, social media and cross-disciplinary discovery for a truly personalised approach. It would also allow a cross-institutional and cross-disciplinary service, but one that supports an institutional, disciplinary and individual customisation. In addition, it would position the library as a trusted curator of such a service. Its role would include pre-loading content and working with departments and available data to fine-tune content, feeds and the service.

The library as a publisher

The second aspect of the models discussed was the concept of the library as a publisher. This is not a new concept, but the ideas discussed below look to understand how new services might be layered around the institutional repository, making the library increasingly vital as a publisher.

The possibilities discussed included easy-to-use or automated article formatting tools to provide more professional design for repository content. We also discussed the need for easy-to-use or automated management tools, such as ‘Dropbox’ functionality on one’s PC through which researchers could deposit a publication and incorporate the ORCID identifiers of the authors.

An interface to the repository that highlights the researchers and their research for an audience interested in the institution and its research is also important. In addition, there is a need to use the repository to power learned society journals, overlay journals for fields of institutional strength and other mechanisms for driving publications and for common standards for citing publications contained in an institutional repository, such as citation format and digital object identifiers.

These ideas bring several benefits, including a strong support role for the library and wider institution, in helping researchers navigate the various mandates from funders, institutions and government and help  researchers to focus on their research. It would also improve impact and dissemination for research outputs, enhancing institutional research and boosting reputation and give the potential to help researchers understand their audiences and impact through the use of analytics.

Collaboration is the key

It’s clear that chemists recognise that they require better knowledge management infrastructure, systems and training. It was difficult to come up with a single solution for this problem, but two specific areas were delved into.

The first is that, while significant progress has been made, it is clear that there is often a need for policy, advisory, developmental and training services, including the development of appropriate data management plans at the institutional level. These services could be provided by the library or as part of a shared institutional service.

The second area is that there may be potential opportunities in creating a common or shared service for storage and preservation of research data, while recognising the complexities and challenges involved in such a venture.

We recognised the potential of local or institutional level training and policies, while having a wider, sector-level service in place to support those institutional decisions. Yet, within such an emerging problem space we need to articulate the problem fully before effective solutions can begin to emerge.

Ultimately, this work was an attempt to transform our knowledge into imaginative and practical service model designs for chemistry researchers. We also wanted to discover if the library can play a key role in supporting targeted groups in the future.

So what next…? Well, the ideas will of course go into helping inform service development at institutions as well as within Jisc. The workshop also provided a template for how research can help inform concrete service design on an international level – moving from issues to solutions quickly and effectively. Watch this space…

Ben Showers (@benshowers) is a programme manager at Jisc. Roger Schonfeld (@rschon) is program director, libraries, users, and scholarly practices at Ithaka. Workshop participants were: Frances Boyle, Imperial;  Michela Wilkins, Imperial; Katharine Thompson, Imperial; Mark Brown, Southampton; Jane Stephenson, Southampton;  Simon Bains, Manchester; Lynne Meehan, UCL; Roger Schonfeld, Ithaka S+R; Deanna Marcum, Ithaka S+R; and Ben Showers, Jisc