Not just semantics: supporting equity in research

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Tamir Borensztajn

Tamir Borensztajn assesses inequity in the research process and ensuring fair access to diverse information

It seems obvious that everyone should have equal opportunity to access and use the world’s scholarly research. The equally obvious reality, however, is that inequity in access to information persists. Not every user – be it a researcher, a student, a faculty member –anywhere in the world enjoys the same opportunity to take advantage of published research. While the reasons are complex and multifold, I will address how we, at EBSCO, look at inequity in the research process and our role, as a provider of research information platforms, to ensure fair access to diverse information for any user.

EBSCO has long been guided by its mission statement to provide people with relevant and reliable information. We thereby recognise that when, where and how people access, search, choose and use information depends on many different factors, to name a few: a user’s background, their language, where they are located, the device they may use, their level of expertise in a discipline, whether they are a high school student, a common researcher, a physician, or nurse. We also recognise the myriad of entry-points that people have when conducting research; they may start in different places such as the open web or their school’s learning management system or indeed the library’s website. At the same time, we firmly believe that the library is the expected destination for trustworthy content in all its different formats and manifestations. EBSCO therefore considers the many different users, the journeys they take, and the trustworthiness and diversity of content as we remove barriers to equitable access to information.

In essence, we focus on three key areas: the trustworthiness and diversity of content that we index on our platforms; the search technology and its ability to return meaningful results for any user; and the user experience, which must accommodate the many different use cases and user behaviors.

Looking at content specifically, what then do we consider trustworthy and diverse? The work here involves an ongoing curation process where we look at a set of criteria. For scholarly literature, representation of literature from across the globe in many different languages. We consider the sources that academic libraries use, which journals are indexed within key subject-specific resources or included in citation indexes. We also look at the local sources that are of relevance to libraries and their users. In short, we believe that equitable discovery of information must start with quality, trustworthy and diverse content first.

Second, we must ensure the findability of content. Here we are talking about the search technology and the ability of the search engine to return the most relevant, meaningful results for every query for any user — no matter who they are, where they are from or what language they speak. Importantly, not every user is an expert or adept ‘searcher’ in a discipline. The search engine, therefore, must be able to leverage subject labels from controlled vocabularies – to deliver expert results – yet also recognise a user’s natural language term for a given subject or topic – to deliver those expert results to non-expert users as well. To do just that, EBSCO maps subject labels from controlled vocabularies to their natural language equivalents and supports explicit relationships and inferences between topics within a semantic knowledge graph.

The third aspect of research pertains to the user experience and the many different use cases and behaviour that comprise a user journey. We look at where, with what, and how in fact users access resources. What devices do they use, how do they authenticate, from which environments do they come? How does the user go about searching for what they are looking for? What is the user’s search strategy? What kinds of tasks does the user complete with their chosen resources? As we address these questions, and develop our solutions, we remove barriers in the user journey and seek to enable a seamless experience for any user when accessing and using the library’s resources.

Ensuring equitable access to research involves maintaining a clear focus on the areas outlined above, while upholding user privacy and ethics in accordance with library values at any time. By taking a multi-pronged approach that looks at trustworthy content, the underlying search technology, and the user experience in unison, we can further address inequity and attain our objective of ensuring access to research and advancing knowledge for anyone who seeks it.

Tamir Borensztajn is vice president for SaaS and Open Strategy at EBSCO Information Services. This article first appeared on, EBSCO's online community