From librarian to information consultant

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Modern information professionals are required to be information controllers, organisers, advisers and consultants, as Hervé Basset reports from the Pharma-Bio-Med conference

Last November more than 200 delegates met together at the Pharma-Bio-Med meeting in Seville, Spain, to discuss the role of information professionals in a time of budget and staff cuts.

Whatever the size of their organisation, info professionals tend to share the same pressures and challenges. The phrase ‘to do more for less’ is becoming the unwritten motto of many organisations. Information professionals are expected to deliver a greater value internally and to support more business functions than ever before, as budgets, services and staff are cut.

For instance, at the conference there were several discussions around medical information services, where information professional directly answer customers’ calls. ‘There is a trend towards globalisation of resources and expertise to drive better consistency of the responses, but we lack the ideal tool to ensure this globalisation,’ commented Sandrine Louis, medical information and documentation manager of biotechnology company Genzyme. Local language issues are numerous, and information professionals also need to know about and take into account local regulations.

Another trend is that many librarians have had to become expert hunters. Their marketing departments rely on them to identify the opinion leaders who will support the next product campaign, and this demands a huge amount of time. Apart from the traditional bibliometric indicators, there is a lack of helpful resources for this so information professionals have to invent their own criteria and dive into Web 2.0 to search for new criteria.

In some cases information professionals are also taking on the role of information controllers. Some strategic sources (such as resources about clinical trials and drug pipelines) are not accurate and exhaustive enough to ensure that top management are given safe information so information professionals are being called on to double-check that decisions are being made based on trusted data. According to some information scientists, to rely on such databases can lead to false predictions about competitors and market conditions. No one drug pipeline database is the ideal tool; there are problems such as varying editorial policies, missing or delayed data, and lack of functional tools to analyse data.

What’s more, the role of internal copyright advisors could also be added to information scientists because of the importance of making their companies aware of copyright issues.

Assisting research

End users are more and more ‘sources agnostic’; they do not rely on a couple of key journals in their field like they might have done 10 years ago. What they want is to access the content, whatever the source and whatever the publisher. This means that information professionals have to master the publisher packages, kill the costs and sort the best journals in their end users’ fields to select the most appropriate titles. They must also organise the flow of information.

‘I was struck by the recurrence at the conference of the theme of better workflows in the use of the scientific literature,’ commented Malcom MacKenzie, president of QUOSA. ‘In some cases this spoke to workflow automation tools and in others more to making it really simple for end users to acquire the full-text from external searches and alerts, to tag and save articles into shared spaces, to produce reports, and to find articles already seen and annotated by others. I see this drive to efficiency and an essential impatience to get to the valuable articles and the value in those articles as a definite trend.’

Google’s ‘a short list is enough’ model is no longer acceptable. So many users are overwhelmed by information, sometimes to a point of a certain incapacity to absorb it and to keep up the daily flow of data. They need to be provided with tools to analyse this information or with guidance to qualitative resources. This represents a golden opportunity for information scientists who have the skills to tailor the information that is relevant to users. The challenge is now to move beyond data gathering. In this phenomenal but complex digital age where information professionals cannot pretend any longer to be the information gatekeepers, the key has become trust. Researchers rely on information professionals to provide them with trusted sources and efficient tools.

The information consultant

Especially in the pharmaceutical industry, corporate information centres constantly need to re-define the functions that are required to fulfil the tasks of fostering innovation, enabling access to internal and external knowledge, and integrating content into the workflow of corporate knowledge workers. Therefore, a group of information professionals within the Pharma Documentation Ring (P-D-R) decided to start working on a blueprint for an ‘Ideal Corporate Information Center’. This is a clear move away from traditional librarian roles.

Among the 12 building components that Oliver Renn, director of the Scientific Information Center at the pharmaceutical company Boehringer Ingelheim Pharma, presented was information consulting. This function ensures that knowledge workers and their projects benefit from the existing resources and information solutions or even from tailor-made solutions being developed. To be successful, deep scientific expertise in the particular research field that the information consultant is taking care of is mandatory – in addition to being aware of any information resources and tools in his/her field of expertise.


Similarly, at a time where 20 per cent of science articles are accessible free of charge on the web, the traditional model of ‘peer-reviewed journal + congress’ could be shaken up. That would put pressure on publishers’ shoulders and reshape relationships between academic and corporate research organisations and STM information vendors.

Publishers seem to realise the presence of upcoming new models. With the economic recession and budget cuts, return on investment (ROI) calculations are very much on the radar of major providers. Springer and Elsevier, for example, are developing methods and tools to help their customers. These are primarily based on usage statistics but also on estimations of side costs that might affect the research workflow when indispensable services are discontinued.

The 2009 Outsell ROI study – completed on behalf of Springer – concluded that ROI analysis is important to corporate librarians, but still remains an abstract and difficult concept. No standard formula seems to exist, and not everyone is able to measure ROI in an effective way. The cost on the research workflow of not having access to the science for a research-based company is difficult to measure. However, it was estimated recently (in a 2010 Akel study for Elsevier) that this would represent 15 per cent of the average research budget of an organisation. Collaboration between information professionals and vendors on these ROI issues will be certainly be a future challenge.

Technology specialist

The last role for modern information professionals might be the information technology specialist; information technology (IT) and information science (IS) are really two sides of the same coin and IS is often located in IT departments. Most collaborative technologies need intermediates to facilitate knowledge enhancement. If it is true that the next decade will not be about technology but about usability, then the ability of information scientists to facilitate knowledge retention will help meet their organisations’ requirements. Information scientists have the invaluable experience of the scientists’ culture and a natural knowledge of their behaviour. They know how to simplify technologies and how to get the right balance between human input to indexing and automatic indexing.

In addition, there are various ways to exploit and to present results of searches, such as: semantic tools, data mining, clustering and visualisation. At the frontier of technology and science is bioinformatics. ’Bioinformatics functions are dealing with an increasing amount of information ranging from molecular information (for example, sequences and expressions) to more textual data such as literature or electronic health records. Simple and open-source computational tools such as Cytoscape offer the opportunity to integrate this diverse data and visualise it with various network views that are useful for scientific communication,’ the head of the computational biology service at a big pharmaceutical company observed at the meeting.

Getting the most out of Web 2.0 services to enhance the knowledge will be another future challenge of information professionals. It is obvious that these services are struggling to demonstrate a real efficiency within companies. Whatever the situations are, the clear challenge is always the same: ‘Don’t let the tools become a barrier to communication.’

More and more professionalism

To do the same job (or more) but with a different mindset is one of the best ways for information professionals to gain more confidence in their role within their organisation. Some presentations and workshops in Seville advocated that they use marketing methods in their daily business. ‘Information professionals are often reluctant to actively market and promote their products, their services and indeed themselves to their internal or external users and stakeholders,’ said Shaida Dorabjee of SD Information Services, a consultant specialising in pharmaceutical information services.

Developing a marketing plan articulated using the famous 4 Ps method (product, pricing, place, promotion) and based on a platform of evidence is a challenge that all information professionals should address. In this way, marketing becomes a natural way of working, and is one of the many essential competencies that they possess.

Globally, to deliver professional content, information professionals have to use professional methods and tools. The so-called free services from Web 2.0 have so far rarely demonstrated great value to scientific organisations. Recent studies (Akel, 2007 and 2010) have shown that science 2.0 does not really compete with similar paid services provided by STM publishers. As a demonstrative example, to collect meaningful data in Google Scholar takes 30 as much as time as it would to do the same process in Thomson Web of Science, and 15 more time than in Elsevier Scopus (J Am Soc for Information Science and Technology, 58, 2007, 2105).

Information professionals have to demonstrate every day how their skills, methods, services and deliveries are an asset for the competitiveness of their companies. And in small organisations, all these tasks might be managed by just a handful of people or maybe even a single person.

Positive attitude

In discussions with information scientists, there were few signs of negative attitudes and few complaints, despite the economic situation, staff reductions and the pressure that grow every day. Information professionals seem to know intuitively that their profession has the ability to adapt itself to its continuously-changing ecosystem. New roles would offer a range of opportunities for successful development for the organisation. Definitively, Pharma-Bio-Med was a stimulating conference, with a friendly atmosphere and an optimistic perspective. It was clearly the place to be for information professionals who are working in the pharmaceutical and biotechnologies industries.

Hervé Basset is a librarian at a major pharmaceutical company, as well as an independent consultant. He is based in France