“Become part of the research process” – observations from RLUK2017

When is a librarian not a librarian? Rather than a bad joke, this was one of the underlying interesting discussions arising from the 2017 RLUK conference held earlier in March. The conference Twitter hashtag was #rluk17 and the videos are now available. The answer, it appears is when we start talking about partnerships with, rather than support of, our research community.

As always with my write-ups of conferences, these are simply the parts that have resonated with me, and the impression I walked away with. This write up will be very different from anyone else’s from the conference, such as this blog from Lesley Pitman, and the RLUK conference report.

I have also written a sister blog describing the workshop I co-presented on the topic of Text and Data Mining.

Libraries’ role in research

The role of libraries and the people who work in them was the theme of one session – with arguments that libraries should be central to the research process.

Masud Khokhar, the Head of Digital Innovation and Research Services at Lancaster University, gave a talk on the Role of research libraries in a technological future. He said we need to get out of the culture of researchers only coming to the library with research outputs/outcomes. Language matters, he said. Lancaster University has made a deliberate decision not to use the word ‘support’, because “we have bigger aims than that”. Partnership is the future for libraries rather than just collaboration. We need to be creative co-developers working with the research community if we are to be a research library.

We need to generate a culture of experimentation: “Be creative, experiment fast, succeed or fail fast and learn from both”. It is a good challenge for us librarians to be more creative and less passive. We should embed library in research questions and processes.

The issue of how we present information to our clients came up, with Khokhar saying consistency when searching should no longer be important – we should depend on the context of the searcher. “Content might be king, but context is the kingdom”, he said.

He also showed evidence of how data visualisation can lead to greater downloads of data, and it may be even more important to data use than good metadata. Indeed, Lancaster University Library has allowed 10TB of server space for analytics of library data alone, because this is a growing and important area to drive decision making.

This perspective was also put forward by Patrick McCann from the University of St Andrews Library. He talked about the new role of Research Software Engineers, which is a role which works with the research community to develop research solutions and research outputs. St Andrews has a senior librarian for digital humanities and research computing. He noted: “we are part of the research process”.

A comment was made during the conference that many speakers had identified themselves as ‘not a librarian’. There was a call for us to open the idea of what a librarian is. Masud Khokhar suggested he would consider himself to be an ‘honorary’ librarian.

But the ‘librarian or not’ debate is an interesting question. William Nixon from the University of Glasgow noted that their Research Data Management team are not librarians, saying “it is a skill set in itself. Kokhar argued that we need to develop digital leaders for libraries. Are these people already in libraries who we train up, or are they people with these skill sets we bring in and introduce to library culture?

Libraries’ role in the Open Science agenda

Libraries are the central pivot point for the move to open research across the world, was the message from presentations about activities in Europe and Canada. This fits with the narrative that libraries should be driving the agenda rather than reacting to it.

Susan Reilly, the outgoing Executive Director of LIBER talked about re-imagining the library space in the context of open science as she presented the LIBER 2020 vision.

Open Science (a term used in Europe for ‘open research’) is on the European agenda, every single member state has signed up to develop the necessary skills, development of the open science cloud. There has been an 80 million Euro investment in this. Given LIBER is a group of libraries with a common mission to enable world-class research, the question is whether LIBER should make the whole strategy about open science?

Reilly noted that libraries have been ‘bold’ on open science for years and held back by faculty and publishers. She argued we must be resilient on this agenda. Libraries need to be taking a leadership role in all research. “Libraries need to get into the researchers’ lifecycle”, she argued. They should provide tools throughout the research lifecycle to ensure ‘open science’. To achieve this, we need digital skills, which underpin a more open and transparent research lifecycle.

The end goal, said Reilly, is world-class research, but open science facilitates that through facilitating collaboration and ensuring the sustainability of research. The 2020 vision is: “Libraries powering sustainable knowledge in the digital age”.

The proposal is that by 2022, open access will be the predominant form of publishing and research data is Findable Accessible Interoperable Reusable (F.A.I.R). Reilly noted that it is research data management “where we get the most pushback” – an experience reflected in many other institutions.

Libraries can provide platforms of innovative scholarly communications. They can facilitate open access to research publications, with services ranging from payment for APCs and becoming a publisher. Libraries also offer research data management, innovative metrics and innovative peer review.

This is an opportunity for libraries to disrupt scholarly communications system. In order for us to achieve this goal, we need research skills that underpin a more open and transparent research lifecycle – and so we need to equip researchers to do this.

Reilly noted that when LIBER went out to stakeholders – “they bought into the vision”. To achieve these goals, Reilly said it is important for libraries to have a strong relationship with institutional leadership. There needs to be transparency around the cost of publications.

We need to work on diversifying librarian’s skills and research skills. This is a matter of ‘compete or fail’ or Elsevier could take over what libraries do. We need to get into the research workflow.

LIBER’s outcomes from their consultation with stakeholders were:

  • Importance of libraries having a string relationship with institutional leadership
  • Transparency around the cost of publications
  • Working on diversifying librarians’ skills AND researchers skills
  • Be clear about what the role of libraries is/should be
  • Compete or fail
  • Get into the research workflow
  • Opportunity for libraries to disrupt scholarly communications system

It was interesting (for me) to note how similar these are to the Strategic Goals of the Office of Scholarly Communication:

The Open Scholarship theme was continued in a presentation by representatives of RLUK’s sister organisation, the Canadian Association of Research Libraries (CARL). This is a leadership organisation thinking of ways to enhance members capacity and leadership in this environment. Martha Whitehead, the President of CARL and Susan Haigh, the Executive Director presented the Canadian Roadmap for advancing Scholarly Communication.

There are issues with open access, they noted. Repositories need to improve in two major areas – we need to improve their functionality, and support and encourage the development of value added services such as peer review and tools.

There have been challenges in discussions with publishers about maximising openness which have become ‘somewhat fraught’. Libraries are working with Canadian journals to develop, assess and adopt sustainable open access funding models. The idea is that the model will be non-profit (where the money goes back in).  While it is not clear if the discussions will coalesce around anything new and bold, there is value in bringing together the communities.

The Canadians presented an initiative related to Research Data Management (RDM) called Portage. This is designed to help with RDM in the country. It has a director, and because it is an organisation with a facility, the library voice is well respected around the table. Experts are contributing their expertise to this. There is also a Federated Research Data Repository – a joint software development project with Compute Canada, and the Scholars Portal Dataverse offers data deposit and sharing at no charge to researchers.

New challenges for libraries

Torsten Reimer spoke about the new focus of the British Library on ‘everything accessible’. He discussed the implications for libraries as we move towards a more open access future. We need to change focus, he argued, with new skills and areas, and we should be working together with the research community.

As more material is available openly then what is the role of a national library? Reimer asked. Perhaps libraries need to provide infrastructure, we should focus on preservation & adding value. Given the majority of academics use software in the context of their projects, should libraries be supporting, integrating and preserving it?

The ‘just in case’ model is no longer feasible for libraries. The British Library is looking at partnerships in content creation, research & infrastructure. Examples include plans to expose the EThOS API to allow for machine consumption of data about theses. They are also looking to replace the current “hand knitted” preservation system with more robust scalable shareable solution

Collaborate or die?

The opening keynote was by John MacColl, the University Librarian & Director of Library Services, at St Andrews University (and outgoing president of RLUK). MacColl spoke about the ‘research commons’.

He referred to the ‘tragedy of the commons’ which was an argument put forward in 2003 that individuals cancelling subscriptions for the Big Deal had meant an increase of 129% in cost to access literature. Publishers are creating ‘artificial scarcity’ to the literature which means they can charge as they please. This is a ransack of the commons.

It is not just cost, these Big Deals have meant that most collections are becoming the same and we are losing access to other resources. MacColl also noted the lost need for bibliographers. But his call was that research libraries face a challenge in re-appropriating the responsibility for the preservation of key scholarly objects held on publisher servers and other vendors worldwide.

So, argued McColl, we need to work collectively to ‘find means of getting around being held ransom by publishers’. We need a ‘post-collective Big Deal world’. This is Plan B, where we take back control, find post cancellation access, arrange document delivery and green open access.

But this is not something we can do individually. MacColl asked: “When we are doing things in our own institutions, who are we letting down by not thinking of the wider community?” We need some sort of formal governance to make that happen. The challenge is Higher Education is a very conservative world. People will not take a step unless convinced this is a sensible step to take.

We need to focus on the global – where libraries collaborate on shared bibliographic data and create a ‘collective collection’. Plan B needs to be national.

So much more

This blog has glossed over many very interesting presentations and talks. I do, however wish to mention the last session of the event which broadened the discussion outside of the library to the issue of ‘inclusion’ in the Higher Education sector. Libraries, as a neutral ‘safe’ place on campus, of course have a big role to play in this. As has been the case in every meeting I have attended since November last year, the double threats of Brexit and Trump have never been far from the discussion, and never more so than in the context of inclusion.

Darren Lund, a ‘middle aged white guy from Canada’ spoke very entertainingly about his work on diversity, making the point that if you have privilege you should use it to make positive change.

The final talk was a sobering walk through some research into the racial diversity of universities with plenty of data proving that universities are not as liberal as they are perceived to be by us. Statistics such as 92% of professors in the UK are white, and the fact there are only three Vice Chancellors from the black and minority ethnic community in the UK, supported Professor Kalwant Bhopal’s argument that we need to actively address the issue of inclusion.

Summary

This blog began with a fairly provocative statement – that people do not identify themselves as librarians when we start talking about partnerships with, rather than support of, our research community. This is an interesting question. Many librarians feel that their role is to support, not lead. Yet others argue that unless we do take a leading role we will become redundant.

So what is the solution? Do we widen the definition of a library? Do we widen the definition of a librarian? Or are we happy with the ‘honorary librarian’ solution? These are some of the questions that need further teasing out. One thing is sure, the landscape is changing rapidly and we need to change with it.

Published 30 March 2017
Written by Dr Danny Kingsley
Creative Commons License

One thought on ““Become part of the research process” – observations from RLUK2017

  1. Leading seems too strong a word – partner might be better. Being co-located with acacdemics, support staff, researchers and students leads us towards that ‘partnering’ relationship better than almost anything else. If we stay in our own ivory towers and fail to engage with those around then we cannot partner successfully. At a minimum, we need to get out ‘there’ and understand what’s going on.

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