All posts by Danny Kingsley

Electronic lab notebooks – a report from a SLA meeting

In preparation for our the “Electronic Lab Notebooks: Solutions for Paperless Research” we decided to re-blog this post* on the subject written by Niamh Tumelty, Head of STEM Libraries at the University of Cambridge.

Roundtable on Electronic Laboratory Notebooks

A significant part of my role involves research support, but so far I have not been involved with lab notebooks, electronic or otherwise. I registered for this session at the Special Libraries Association meeting in 2014 mainly out of curiosity, hoping to find out more about what products others are using, how they’re finding them and whether or not they would be of interest to my Department.

What is an ELN?

Simon Coles set the scene with an overview of the development of electronic lab notebooks (ELNs) to date and frank assessment of their value in different contexts.  Simon has been working on developing ELNs since 1996 and has been with for Amphora for 11 years.   Amphora identified three problems to solve: capturing information from busy scientists, preserving data in complex contexts and being able to provide evidence in court, for example to prove the origin of an idea. They work with a wide range of customers with some of the largest and smallest implementations of electronic lab notebooks.

There is no single definition of ELN so we look carefully at what we need. We need to be wary of what exactly was meant by other case studies, since what they implemented may not be relevant or comparable at all.  Researchers naturally expect that lab notebooks would be tailored to their research workflows, and since there are very different workflows in different areas of science it is unlikely that one solution will be appropriate for an entire organisation.

Another key point is that an ELN doesn’t have to be a complex purchased product.  MS Word and WordPress have been successfully used and there is a real danger of finding yourself in ‘consulting heaven’ with some of the commercial products, with costly ongoing support turning out to be essential. If introducing an ELN we need to consider a number of questions:

  • Do we want it to be about record-keeping and collaboration or is it about doing bits of science?
  • Does it need to enforce certain processes?
  • Is it something specific to a group of scientists or generic (bearing in mind that even the same scientist’s needs will change over time)?
  • How large and diverse is your user base?

The university view

Daureen Nesdill is Data Curation Librarian at the University of Utah and has been involved with the USTAR project. They conducted a study on campus to see what was already happening in terms of ELNs and found that they were already being used in some areas (including in the Humanities) and one person already had a standalone implementation of CambridgeSoft.  Daureen set up a Libguide on ELNs to share information about them.

A working group was set up to look more closely at the options but they haven’t implemented a solution campus-wide because no one tool will work for the whole campus.  Other barriers include the expense of acquiring an ELN (purchasing software, local hosting and support or cloud hosting), the question of who pays for this and the amount of time it takes to roll out (a few months for a lab of 50 people!)  There are also concerns about security, import-export loss and if using a cloud solution, awareness of where your data is being stored.

Daureen outlined a number of requirements for an ELN in a University:

  • ability to control access at an individual level;
  • recording of provenance (all needs to be documented in case there is any future question of who did the work) and this information needs to be included in data exports;
  • Both cloud and client-based with syncing
  • Compatible with any platform
  • No chemistry stuff as standard features, instead templates available for all subject areas – let researcher select tools for their research!
  • Education pricing for classroom use
  • Assistance with addressing complex research protocols
  • Integration with mouse colony management system
  • Connectors – get data from any equipment used to flow easily into the ELN and out of it into the institutional repository
  • Messaging system to allow quick communication between collaborators
  • Reminders for PIs to check work of team
  • Integrated domain-specific metadata

 Corporate perspective

Denise Callihan from PPG Industries provided the corporate perspective. Her company has looked at options for ELNs every five years since the 1980s because their researchers were finding paper lab notebooks were time-consuming and inconvenient. They needed to be able to provide research support for patent purposes to make sure researchers were following the procedures required.

A committee was formed to identify the requirements of three disparate groups: IT and records management, legal and IP, and researchers. A pilot started in 2005 with ten research scientists using Amphora PatentSafe, some in favour of the introduction of ELNs and some against. PPG Industries were early adopters of Amphora PatentSafe so the vendor was very responsive to issues that were arising. The roll-out was managed by researchers, department by department, with the library providing support and administration.  Adoption was initially voluntary, then encouraged and is now mandatory for all researchers.

The implementation has been successful and researchers have found that the ELN is easy to use and works with their existing workflows.  Amphora PatentSafe uses a virtual printer driver to create searchable notebook pages – anything that can be printed can be imported into the ELN.  Email alerting helps them keep track of when they need to sign or witness documents, speeding up this part of the process. The ELN simplifies information sharing and collaboration and eliminates size constraints on documents. It is set up for long-term storage and reduces risks associated with researchers managing this individually.  Data visualisation and reporting are built in so it’s easy to see how research is progressing and to check document submission rates when necessary.

PPG Industries found that researchers need to be looking for an ELN solution rather than feeling that one is being imposed on them. Strong support was required from leadership, along with a clear understanding of what drives the need for the ELN.  The product they’ve selected focuses on providing an electronic version of the print notebook, but the raw data still needs to be kept separately for future use.

Wrap up

Overall I found this session extremely useful and I now feel much better informed about electronic lab notebooks.  I really appreciated the fact that this session, like others at SLA, presented a balanced view of the issues around electronic lab notebooks, with speakers representing vendors, corporate librarians and academic librarians.  I now plan to investigate some of the ELN options further so that I am in a position to support possible future implementations of ELNs, but I will wait until the researchers express their need for one rather than suggesting that the Department considers rolling on out across the board.

*Originally published in 2014 at Sci-Tech News, 68(3), 26–28

Published on 12 January 2017
Written by Niamh Tumelty
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Creating a research data community

Are research institutions engaging their researchers with Research Data Management (RDM)? And if so, how are they doing it? In this post, Rosie Higman (@RosieHLib), Research Data Advisor, University of Cambridge, and Hardy Schwamm (@hardyschwamm),  Research Data Manager, Lancaster University explore the work they are doing in their respective institutions.

Whilst funder policies were the initial catalyst for many RDM services at UK universities there are many reasons to engage with RDM, from increased impact to moving towards Open Research as the new normal. And a growing number of researchers are keen to get involved! These reasons also highlight the need for a democratic, researcher-led approach if the behavioural change necessary for RDM is to be achieved. Following initial discussions online and at the Research Data Network event in Cambridge on 6 September, we wanted to find out whether and how others are engaging researchers beyond iterating funder policies.

At both Cambridge and Lancaster we are starting initiatives focused on this, respectively Data Champions and Data Conversations. The Data Champions at Cambridge will act as local experts in RDM, advocating at a departmental level and helping the RDM team to communicate across a fragmented institution. We also hope they will form a community of practice, sharing their expertise in areas such as big data and software preservation. The Lancaster University Data Conversations will provide a forum to researchers from all disciplines to share their data experiences and knowledge. The first event will be on 30 January 2017.

RDMFBreakoutHaving presented our respective plans to the RDM Forum (RDMF16) in Edinburgh on 22nd November we ran breakout sessions where small groups discussed the approaches our and other universities were taking, the results summarised below highlighting different forms that engagement with researchers will take.

Targeting our training

RDM workshops seem to be the most common way research data teams are engaging with researchers, typically targeting postgraduate research students and postdoctoral researchers. A recurrent theme was the need to target workshops for specific disciplinary groups, including several workshops run jointly between institutions where this meant it was possible to get sufficient participants for smaller disciplines. Alongside targeting disciplines some have found inviting academics who have experience of sharing their data to speak at workshops greatly increases engagement.

As well as focusing workshops so they are directly applicable to particular disciplines, several institutions have had success in linking their workshop to a particular tangible output, recognising that researchers are busy and are not interested in a general introduction. Examples of this include workshops around Data Management Plans, and embedding RDM into teaching students how to use databases.

An issue many institutions are having is getting the timing right for their workshops: too early and research students won’t have any data to manage or even be thinking about it; too late and students may have got into bad data management habits. Finding the goldilocks time which is ‘just right’ can be tricky. Two solutions to this problem were proposed: having short online training available before a more in-depth training later on, and having a 1 hour session as part of an induction followed by a 2 hour session 9-18 months into the PhD.

Tailored support

Alongside workshops, the most popular way to get researchers interested in RDM was through individual appointments, so that the conversation can be tailored to their needs, although this obviously presents a problem of scalability when most institutions only have one individual staff member dedicated to RDM.

IMG_20161122_121401There are two solutions to this problem which were mentioned during the breakout session. Firstly, some people are using a ‘train the trainer’ approach to involve other research support staff who are based in departments and already have regular contact with researchers. These people can act as intermediaries and are likely to have a good awareness of the discipline-specific issues which the researchers they support will be interested in.

The other option discussed was holding drop-in sessions within departments, where researchers know the RDM team will be on a regular basis. These have had mixed success at many institutions but seem to work better when paired with a more established service such as the Open Access or Impact team.

What RDM services should we offer?

We started the discussion at the RDM Forum thinking about extending our services beyond sheer compliance in order to create an “RDM community” where data management is part of good research practice and contributes to the Open Research agenda. This is the thinking behind the new initiatives at Cambridge and Lancaster.

However, there were also some critical or sceptical voices at our RDMF16 discussions. How can we promote an RDM community when we struggle to persuade researchers being compliant with institutional and funder policies? All RDM support teams are small and have many other tasks aside from advocacy and training. Some expressed concern that they lack the skills to market our services beyond the traditional methods used by libraries. We need to address and consider these concerns about capacity and skill sets as we attempt to engage researchers beyond compliance.

Summary

It is clear from our discussions that there is a wide variety of RDM-related activities at UK universities which stretch beyond enforcing compliance, but engaging large numbers of researchers is an ongoing concern. We also realised that many RDM professionals are not very good at practising what we preach and sharing our materials, so it’s worth highlighting that training materials can be shared on the RDM training community on Zenodo as long as they have an open license.

Many thanks to the participants at our breakout session at the RDMForum 16, and Angus Whyte for taking notes which allowed us to write this piece. You can follow previous discussions on this topic on Gitter.

Published on 30 November
Written by Rosie Higman and Hardy Schwamm
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Changing roles and changing needs for academic librarians

The Office of Scholarly Communication (OSC) has joined the Centre for Evidence Based Library and Information Practice (C-EBLIP) Research Network, and as part of this commitment has prepared the following blog which is a literature review of papers published addressing the changing training needs for academic librarians. This work feeds into research currently being carried out by the OSC into the educational background of those working in scholarly communication. The piece concludes with a discussion of this research and potential next steps.

Changing roles

There is no doubt that libraries are experiencing another dramatic change as a result of developments in digital technologies. Twenty years ago in their paper addressing the education of library and information science professionals, Van House and Sutton note that “libraries are only one part of the information industry and for many segments of the society they are not the most important part”.

There is an argument that “as user habits take a digital turn, the library as place and public services in the form of reference, collection development and organisation of library resources for use, all have diminishing value to researchers”. Librarians need to adapt and move beyond these roles to one where they play a greater part in the research process.

To this end scholarly communication is becoming an increasingly established area in many academic libraries. New roles are being created and advertised in order to better support researchers as they face increasing pressure to share their work. Indeed a 2012 analysis into new activities and changing roles for health science librarians identified ‘Scholarly communications librarians’ as a new role for health sciences librarians based on job announcements whilst in their 2015 paper on scholarly communication coaching Todd, Brantley and Duffin argue that: “To successfully address the current needs of a forward-thinking faculty, the academic library needs to place scholarly communication competencies in the toolkit of every librarian who has a role interacting with subject faculty.”

Which skill sets are needed?

Much of the literature is in agreement about the specific skill set librarians need to work in scholarly communication. “Reskilling for Research”identified nine areas of skill which would have increasing importance including knowledge about data management and curation. Familiarity with data is an area mentioned repeatedly and acknowledged as something librarians will be familiar with. Mary Anne Kennan describes the concept as “the librarian with more” – traditional library skills with added knowledge of working with and manipulating data.

Many studies reported that generic skills were just as much, if not more so, in demand than discipline specific skills. A thorough knowledge of advocacy and outreach techniques is needed to spread the scholarly communication message to both library staff and researchers. Raju highlighted presentation skills for similar reasons in his 2014 paper.

The report “University Publishing in a Digital Age” further identified a need for library staff to better understand the publishing process and this is something that we have argued at the OSC in the past.

There is also a need to be cautious when demanding new skills. Bresnahan and Johnson (article pay-walled) caution against trying to become the mythical “unicorn librarian” – an individual who possesses every skill an employer could ever wish for. This is not realistic and is ultimately doomed to fail.

In their 2013 paper Jaguszewski and Williams instead advocate a team approach with members drawn from different backgrounds and able to bring a range of different skills to their roles. This was also the argument put forward by Dr Sarah Pittaway at the recent UKSG Forum where her paper addressed the issue of current library qualifications and their narrow focus

Training deficit

Existing library roles are being adapted to include explicit mention of areas such as Open Access whilst other roles are being created from scratch. This work provides a good fit for library staff but it can be challenging to develop the skills needed. As far back as 2008 it was noted that the curricula of most library schools only covered the basics of digital library management and little seems to have changed since with Van House and Sutton identifying barriers to “the ability of LIS educational programs to respond” to changing needs such as the need to produce well-rounded professionals.

Most people working in this area learn their skills on the job, often from more experienced colleagues. Kennan’s study notes that formal education could help to fill the knowledge gap whilst others look to more hands-on training as this helps to embed knowledge.

The question then becomes should the profession as a whole be doing more to prepare their new recruits for the career path of the 21st century academic librarian? This is something we have been asking ourselves in Office of Scholarly Communication (OSC) at Cambridge. Since the OSC was established at the start of 2015 it has made a concerted effort to educate staff at the one hundred plus libraries in Cambridge through both formal training programmes and targeted advocacy. However we are aware that there is still more to be done. We have begun by distributing a survey to investigate the educational background of those who work in scholarly communications. The survey was popular with over five hundred responses and many offers of follow up interviews which means that we have found an area of interest amongst the profession. We will be analysing the results of the survey in the New Year with a view to sharing them more widely and further participating in the scholarly communication process ourselves.

Conclusion

Wherever the skills gaps are there is no doubt that the training needs of academic librarians are changing. The OSC survey will provide insight into whether these needs are currently being met and give evidence for future developments but there is still work to be done. Hopefully this project will be the start of changes to the way academic library staff are trained which will benefit the future of the profession as a whole.

Published 29 November 2016
Written by Claire Sewell and Dr Danny Kingsley

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