Librarians: the new research data management experts

How growth in research data is spurring a shift in the librarian’s role

The role of librarians increasingly involves the task of organizing and tagging research data, providing an internal-facing view of a university’s scholarship.

Think of a librarian and you may imagine someone responsible for keeping thousands – or millions – of hard copy books in order, categorizing and cataloging them, and helping people find the knowledge they’re looking for in a sea of information. When I worked in my college library as an undergraduate student at Duke University, I would dive deep into the stacks to find missing items, playing detective to work out how books may have been misplaced (could that “8” have looked like a “3”?).

Indeed, librarians are experts when it comes to organizing collections and knowing how to find things. They have also traditionally been in charge of periodicals, and with the increasing volume of digital publications, much of their work is now happening online. Open access content has also changed the scene, and with green open access options, libraries often build institutional repositories for their own faculty’s research and scholarship.

For years, our traditional view of the librarian, particularly at universities, is as an aggregator, collector and curator of external scholarship, be it printed or online. They take that external scholarship and make it organized and readily available, tagging it so it’s easily accessible and consumable by the internal audience – students, researchers and faculty.

That’s still true, but there’s a lot more changing in the role of the librarian. The move to digital publications has brought with it a huge volume of data – downloads, citations, patent citations and media coverage – that needs to be curated as much as the scholarly output itself. It’s becoming increasingly apparent that the skills of a librarian match what’s needed to manage this vast amount of data.

As such, librarians no longer only make external information more consumable for internal audiences; they play a more crucial strategic role in terms of helping promote their institution’s own scholarship and faculty to the external world.

What is research data?

According to a study conducted in 2014, global research output doubles every nine years. In 2014, 2,831,406 items of research output were indexed in Scopus, an increase from 2,780,071 the year before. Each article brings with it data that can give institutions a clearer understanding of the socioeconomic impact of their research output. Information on how many times the article was accessed or downloaded, where the readers came from, how many times the article was cited and where, and which patent applications it was mentioned in help build up data that institutions can use to direct their strategies.

Beyond that, institutions track the grant applications researchers are making, the collaborations they’re building, the conferences they’re presenting at and their areas of expertise. All this information adds up to a powerful package that institutions can use not only to track their own research output and performance of faculty members, but to showcase what they’re doing, to attract funding and collaborators. If it’s well managed, that is.

Many different people are involved in the production and management of research data, from the scientists who do the research to the record managers who maintain the repositories. IT and research administration play important roles, but it’s librarians who are increasingly called on for their expertise in making sense of the information.  Additionally, it may often be a librarian’s strategic relationship with senior management or personal relationship with faculty that ensures compliance with repository mandates.

The shifting role of the librarian

This shift in focus isn’t new, but it is certainly becoming more pronounced. In the 2007 Agenda for Developing E-Science in Research Libraries, the ARL Joint Task Force on Library Support for E-Science noted the need for librarians to connect to communities, and the growing domains in which they’re active:

There is a perception that science librarians, more than ever before, need to be actively engaged with their user communities. They need to understand not only the concepts of the domain, but also the methodologies and norms of scholarly exchange… This new paradigm suggests a shift in focus from managing specialized collections (the ‘branch library’ model) to one that emphasizes outreach and engagement.

Kelechi OkereIt’s that shift – from the internal management of content to the external outreach based on research data – that’s an increasingly popular topic of conversation. At the Hunter Forum in January this year (renamed after retired Elsevier SVP Karen Hunter), held at the ALA Midwinter Meeting in Boston, Massachusetts, more than 100 librarians gathered to discuss “Librarians as Partners in the Research Enterprise for High-impact University Outcomes.”

Speaking at the Forum, Kelechi Okere, Global Sales Director for Pure at Elsevier, said:

For a long time, libraries have always been at the consumption end (of knowledge generation) – they do a great job of gathering and organizing information, and making it available to researchers and students. More and more, libraries have started to get involved in the management of research information.

Scott WarrenScott Warren, Associate Dean for Research and Scholarship at Syracuse University, was also on the panel. He gave an analogy: imagine a used bookstore where all the books are just shoved on the shelves and filed everywhere, with no rhyme or reason – totally disorganized and not tagged. Fixing that is the librarian’s inherent expertise. If you look at research data within an institution, it’s often similarly jumbled – people are not sure who’s publishing what, who’s collaborating with whom, or where the best funding opportunities are. Librarians can use their expertise to tag and organize this sort of information, making a strategic contribution to the institution.

MJ Tooey, MLS, AHIP, FMLAThis logic makes sense: it’s applying the same skills and expertise to solve a new problem. For MJ Tooey, Associate VP of Academic Affairs and Executive Director of the Health Sciences and Human Services Library at the University of Maryland, Baltimore, reflected that with big data now everywhere, people recognized the need for data to be organized and made accessible – and that’s when a librarian’s expertise comes into play:

We have the skill set to organize things. We understand controlled vocabulary. We understand ontologies. We understand organization of information in a way that seems as if it’s bred into us.  The evolution from the print word and subject heading to data made a lot of sense – we understand it.  So there started to be conversations about what we could do to help people organize, access, and store data.

Tackling the “wicked problem”

As librarians are increasingly involved in showcasing their institutions’ expertise and experts, promoting and supporting the sharing of open data, managing repositories and curating research data, professional development will need to keep up.

Ruth Pagell, Founding University Librarian, Singapore Management University, and author of a regular column on bibliometrics and rankings, described the need and ability of librarians to adapt as “vital” to the profession, and noted how “important it is that whatever librarians are doing, we map it to where the larger organization is going.”  Fortunately, there are more programs than ever before to help equip librarians to fulfill this task.

One such initiative was RDM Rose, a project set up in 2012 to provide learning materials to help librarians develop skills in research data management. A JISC funded project, RDM Rose was run by the White Rose consortium of academic libraries at the UK universities of Leeds, Sheffield and York.

A follow-up project started in 2014, Wicked Ways with Research Data Management, aimed to bring together different players in research data management to develop guidance on how to improve it. The underlying premise is that research data management is a thorny task – one libraries can take the lead in tackling. But that’s not to say it’s a sole effort, as one participant explained in a research paper published in PLoS:

At the most senior level, the library needs to take a strategic decision how active they want to be in pitching for data management because it's there for the taking if they want it, in many institutions… I would say from the experience here, it has to be a cross-institution service… I think the library has strengths that it will bring to certain areas of the service and therefore absolutely should be involved in policy and can be a driving force.

Regardless of their existing knowledge of research data, librarians have the skills required to tackle the task. They also start from a position of strength: librarians are trusted partners within institutions. That means when a researcher needs help to refine his CV, or when a department head is looking for a summary of her team’s research output, they can work with the librarian to access the right data.

One challenge for the future librarian will be balancing the demand for research data management with all the other tasks they’re responsible for. Although publishing is increasingly digital, hard copy books aren’t about to disappear from most library shelves, so the librarian’s traditional tasks will be here for some years at least.

Monitoring the socio-economic impact of research will only become more important, and the volume of data available will only grow. With the library as a leader in research data management, perhaps a new kind of role needs to be defined: a librarian specializing in looking inwards at research data and promoting the information outwards.

Elsevier Connect Contributor

Taylor Stang

As US Marketing and Partnerships Manager, Taylor Stang focuses on the Elsevier Research Intelligence portfolio of research management tools, and how they can meet the changing needs of research stakeholders at institutions in North America. Based in New York, Taylor joined Elsevier in 2015; prior to her current role, she worked in various marketing and strategy positions across the nonprofit, publishing, and technology sectors. She holds a BA in Political Science and Japanese from Duke University and a MBA from the University of Southern California.

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