Scientists and librarians: friend or foe?

Following the ScienceOnlien2010 conference, librarian Dorothea Salo wrote on her blog:

This disconnect is the number-one threat to science librarianship today—perhaps to all academic librarianship. How can science libraries persist when scientists haven't the least notion that libraries or librarians are relevant to their work?

These are serious questions, and of course I don't have the answers. But I would like to add my thoughts from a researcher perspective. The role of libraries in providing teaching material for students (textbooks, etc.) is another story that I will not touch today.

Flickr image by Radioher

I'm old enough to remember the time (maybe 15 years ago) before literature searches were possible via the internet and scientific papers were available in electronic form. I had to go to the library to use Medline or Current Contents in printed form (and later on CD-ROM), or to flip through the newest issues of the most interesting journals. I would photocopy the papers I would then read at home, and then file away for later use.

PubMed, Scopus, Web of Science, and Google Scholar now allow me to search the literature from my desk at work (or from home). Most researchers (including myself) probably don't have the skills for sophisticated searches, but these tools more or less get the job done. Electronic publishing means that I can obtain a paper directly from the journal (as long as I access the journal from a computer in the university network), and licensing is handled (almost) transparently by the library.

These developments have dramatically reduced the time researchers spend at a library. This is good, as this saves them a lot time. But interactions between researchers and librarians have also been dramatically reduced. Publishers and other companies (e.g. Thomson Reuters, Mendeley, Faculty of 1000, to name just a few) have used the opportunities to adapt their offerings to the internet (e.g. electronic-only journals), and to create new products that weren't possible (or even thinkable) before. Although libraries have in many ways adapted to the internet as well, they probably haven't seized the opportunity to the same degree. The homepage of my university library is a place I visit much less often than PubMed or the pages of my favorite journals. Some ideas of how this could be changed are listed below. Most of them are not new, but maybe at least some libraries haven't gone all the way to make their pages an attractive destination for the researchers of their institution.1

Provide and support online reference manager
Institutions should support at least one online reference manager, possible options include (in no particular order) Zotero, Mendeley, Endnote Web, Refworks and CiteULike. RefWorks and Endnote Web are commercial products and require a private (Endnote) and/or institutional license. The institution should either pick a free reference manager as their primary choice, or buy an institutional license in order to allow every researcher and student to use these tools without additional cost.2

As we can't expect everybody to use the same reference manager, libraries have to help with several products. The easiest way to do so is via an online forum (see next paragraph), as this is more efficient than one-to-one support and allows experienced users to help out. Online reference managers provide additional features (e.g. they can be used from different computers, allow shared folders for groups of users) and should therefore be preferred over standalone applications.

Online user training and support
User support is obviously one of the central functions of science libraries. This has two aspects: helping with a specific problem (e.g. finding scientific literature), but also training users to do this on their own. The required skills include use of PubMed and other databases, and reference managers such as Endnote or Zotero. Skills in evidence-based medicine are critical to find and appreciate the appropriate medical literature, but in my experience many physicans and medical students would benefit from additional training in this area.

Introductory classes, help in person or a phone call are sometimes the best way to do this, but often users require quick help for a specific situation that can best done with online tools. Appropriate tools include email, online forum, Twitter, Yammer (a microblogging tool similar to Twitter but for institutions), SlideShare, FaceBook (and StudiVZ in Germany), FriendFeed, and Wikis. Every institution should make a decision about the services they plan to support, with emphasis on tools that are easy to use.

Institutional bibliographies
A regularly updated listing of all publications of an institution is not only a valuable PR service, but is often also required by administrations to evaluate research output. Librarians are often involved in this, but there is probably a lot of untapped potential. As unique identifiers for researchers become more widespread, there really no longer is a need for researchers to compile publication lists themselves.3

Article deposition in institutional repositories
Most journals allow researchers to post their accepted papers in institutional repositories of their institution. But because this requires technical skills and extra time, many researchers aren't particularly eager to make use of them. Institutional bibliographies can obviously be nicely integrated with institutional repositories, thus reducing redundant work.

Help authors with article submissions
Article processing charges for authors are often handled by their libraries, and sometimes libraries have membership deals with publishers that give authors a discount. But researchers often are left alone with the article submission process. Most authors submit at most a handful of papers each year, and they have to deal not only with different article formats between journals (most notably different reference styles), but also different article submission systems (e.g. Editorial Manager, eJournal Press, Manuscript Central or BenchPress). The total number of papers submitted by an institution is much larger, and thus at least some recurring problems could be avoided or at least the time required reduced with centralized support from the library.

Help with Web 2.0 tools for scientists
Libraries don't have to reinvent all the Web 2.0 tools for scientists that are already out there, but they are a good place to help interested researchers get started with some of them (e.g. ResearchGate, Nature Network, or Ideally, these tools could be integrated into the library webpages via an API.

fn1. I would like to be proven wrong by great examples of libraries gone Web 2.0.

fn2. My university picked RefWorks as their primary reference manager.

fn3. Scopus is already pretty good in this.

Three events from last week inspired me to write this: a blog post by (and short Twitter conversation with) Dorothea Salo (Science Online 2010: Scientists and librariansonline_2010_scientists.php), a meeting with the other organizers of BibCamp Hannover (“a BarCamp for librarians and other hackers” in May 2010), and a discussion via email with Oliver Obst from the Medical Library, University of Munster._

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16 Responses to Scientists and librarians: friend or foe?

  1. Oliver Obst says:

    I can’t imagine that a librarian thinks of himself as a foe for faculty. Usually they try to be friends and helpful. But I can imagine that faculty may regard some librarians not supporting them enough or not appropriate and perceive their acting as hostile. Maybe we need to know more from each other to gain a better understanding. Librarians need to perform continuous information needs assessments to gain a far better knowledge what their customers really need. And physicians and researcher need to invite librarians to their journal clubs and team sessions to get an better understanding what they are capable of and to correct their expectations accordingly.
    An example: Usually, in German medical libraries, there is only one subject librarian with a scientifical background. He (or she) acts as a library manager, which includs not only acquisition decisions and subject classification and journal package negotiations, but also staff development, budget accounting, and administrative and organizational issues of every kind: The medical library is a little university library in itself. Not surprisingly, there’s not much time left for new projects, modern technology, “reinventing things” or just learning enough RefWorks or Yammer or BenchPress to be of substantial help for users. Remember: There is only one person in the library (typically the director) which may have the motivation or knowledge to start with such (for sure) _necessary things_ (and teach it subsequently to his non-scientific staff).
    At this point most often people argue that the University Library will help a lot with specialised background services. That may be true in some cases, e.g. we have a very clever RefWorks librarian there (and they should because the licensed it). But we it comes to electronic media or services and Web 2.0, medical libraries will not get much help, because they’re on the very front line of everything which happens in that area.
    Or lets take a look at the offerings: We promote our specific knowledge like free beer to the faculty (take a look at the “House Calls”:, but they never ever asked for courses on Impact Factors, EBM, or even PubMed. Maybe they already know everything what they need to know or the access to literature is to easy to be taught any more… I don’t know. Certainly there’s a gap and we try to close it by chat or house calls, but I’m not that much convinced we will succeed. I would like to be proven wrong …

  2. Oliver Obst says:

    I forget the most important thing :-) We have far too few physicians such as Martin which look beyond their horizon. His demanding interest in libraries will for sure make us better anyway…

  3. Martin Fenner says:

    Oliver, thanks for the comments. A better title would have been *reconnecting scientists and librarians*. I like your suggestion of inviting librarians to journal clubs and similar events, and of course I would like to have house calls in our medical school.
    When talking about a gap between librarians and scientists, we shouldn’t forget that there is also a gap between scientists interested in Web 2.0 tools (i.e. those that frequent science blogs, Twitter, FriednFeed, etc.) are a small minority, and that most of their colleagues don’t really care about these things.
    Those of you interested in these things that speak German, please join us for “BibCamp Hannover”: May 7-8.

  4. William Gunn says:

    Where I think the bridges can be built are between the information management needs of researchers and the skills of librarians. Many researchers I know want to spend the bulk of their time doing experiments and writing grants or papers. They don’t want to spend their time setting up a IT infrastructure or literature database or anything like that, and so these things end up getting done more or less on an ad hoc basis. When the pile of papers on the desk gets too big, a filing cabinet is bought. When that gets full, another is bought. When there’s no room for any more & it’s too hard to find stuff, they may start using Endnote or whatever tool is closest at hand, in whatever manner seems most obvious. Likewise, when data starts piling up on a computer attached to a instrument, they’ll pull it off via flash drive or CD. When there’s too much to handle that way, they’ll stick in a wireless card and let the network wizard set up a local network. Over time, these decisions lead to a rather byzantine arrangement of things.
    Some universities have a proactive IT department which handles the networking for labs, so they don’t have to deal with a crazy patchwork of things. Perhaps librarians could periodically visit labs and ask how they’re managing their research databases and offer suggestions?
    This would require a bit of marketing yourself on the behalf of librarians and I’m sure they’d quite often be told, “Go away. I”m handling it fine all by myself”, but I think there’s some pretty killer value propositions they could make, too, which will capture if not everyone’s attention, at least more researchers attention than they’re capturing now.

  5. Dorothea Salo says:

    Martin, I want to point out one more element of the disconnect that your post exemplifies nicely.
    Scopus and Web of Science are not free online resources. You have access to them because your library and the librarians in it chose it, bargained for it, paid for it, and made it work with library and institutional IT systems.
    How many researchers don’t know that? A lot, that’s how many. “Libraries handle licensing transparently” is a little vague.

  6. Allan Sudlow says:

    Interesting discussion thread for me being an ex-neuroscientist, ex-research funder and now working at the British Library on a “range of stuff”:, some of which specifically “examines the disconnect”: referred to, some of which is about developing “services”: that put the information in the hands of scientists wherever they are (online) rather than expecting them to come into a building. I think you spoke with Phil Vaughan about UK PubMed Central last year.
    Anyway, enough preamble, I agree that we have huge challanges and a long way to go in servicing the martini generation (any time, any place, anywhere). We have been looking at other approaches to fitting in with the way that researchers work.
    Building on William’s comments, one concept that we are looking into grew out of the responsibility for providing specialised information services from within a clinical research team, and has since been evolved in different bioscience settings in that of embedding information specialists with a research team, institute or organisation e.g. “The Emerging Informationist Specialty”: .
    Obviously, the specific nature of this type of role will depend on the focus of the research team and I believe should encompass information and data discovery, access and management expertise, as well as info technology & tools acquisition, training etc. Obviously to be given the time of day by scientists, such a role needs to be able to understand the research domain, identify the needs (without them always being spelt out by the scientists) and be able to do practical things that make science information and data access, use and management easier and deliver real benefits (cheaper, more competitive, etc). Answers or thoughts on a postcard to….

  7. Martin Fenner says:

    William, interesting comparison to IT support teams. Is good IT support and a good library something that works so well that researchers don’t really notice (and appreciate) them, or should both rather take a proactive role? Most users are probably interested in solving practical problems, rather than in general training. Having the librarian regularly come to the research lab or hospital ward would probably lower the threshold of asking for advice considerably.
    Dorothea, do you think it would help if researchers learn more about the actual money their library is paying for journal subscriptions and access to databases such as Web of Science? And how often are researchers involved in decisions about instituional journal subscriptions?
    Allan, thanks for your comments and the links to some excellent resources. As I work in a university hospital, I am particularly interested in how the medical literature can help with specific clinical problems. This is an area where I think we need a lot of help, both in search strategies for the relevant literature, but also in evaluating a clinical research paper. A librarian regularly spending 15-30 min on a hospital ward (but this could of course also be a research lab) in an informal atmosphere might be a very good investment.

  8. William Gunn says:

    Yes, Martin, if they did work really well, no one would notice or appreciate them. On librarian I spoke to in Texas said she feels like researchers think of the library like they do of electricity or water – just a part of the infrastructure – and you only notice it when it’s not there.
    What I don’t understand, though, it the extent to which the ad-hoc solutions researchers are using fall short of the solution they could achieve if they worked with librarians. Maybe that’s the starting point for the value proposition when librarians start paying visits to labs?

  9. Martin Fenner says:

    Discussions of blog posts are oftn the best part. I made the suggestion that libraries should become more visible on the web, but the idea of librarians coming to the lab or hospital ward sounds at least as attractive. But I think that Oliver will tell us that their *house calls* are not really a runaway success.
    William, thanks a lot for the “Twitter message”: that the Mac Word Plugin is now available in the Mendeley Developer Preview.

  10. William Gunn says:

    I’m here to help, Martin! I wanted to stress again the importance of having a good plan and a well-stated value proposition when you do go to pay a house call.

  11. Michelle Kraft says:

    Martin, I know of several libraries that offer many or almost all of the services you describe, yet it seems there is still a fairly large disconnect.
    Regarding Web 2.0 stuff on library sites, that can be tricky. Some libraries have added some really nice features like using Twitter as an RSS feed to display new books and library feeds into the web site. (Weill Cornell does the new book tweets as well as Loma Linda University Jesse Library.) However, there are many libraries forced to use the institutional content managment system for web pages, in this case libraries (as with the rest of the departments in that institution) are forced to work within the confines of that program and they often don’t have very good Web 2.0 tools/applications.
    Regarding the Institutional Bibliography, our library has one librarian who tracks every article or book chapter that every employee has written while they were employeed at our institution. This is a HUGE process, extremely time consuming, and at times unwieldy. The universal ID will help but when you are dealing with large academic institutions you still have a lot of logistics and problems due to the sheer size and volume of information. Unless you have a programmer and institution to fund a computer programmer to create an actual database to house this information you will quickly out grow anything that MyNCBI or any Excel or Access Database can handle. If you want that information searchable by others add another layer of complexity to that. Ideally an institutional bibliography will also be the institutional repository, and again you have massive storage space issues. So while this is something librarians can do, you need to think of the complex programming needed to create it and the money to fund it. As a researcher you know that many times funds are not easy come by and funds to create something are far more available than funds to maintain or continue a service.
    Dorothea is right many librarians now do many of the license agreements so you can search Scopus or WoS without charge to you or your department. (The library picks up the tab, not your grant.) We also work out the license agreements to the electronic journals you all use so heavily (and we are glad you use them heavily). Did you know that many electronic journals do not usually allow their electronic version of their articles to be loaned to another library through Interlibrary Loan? No library can own every journal subscription, so we rely heavily on Interlibrary Loan to acquire the articles that researchers need that we don’t own. If a librarian did not negotiate the right to loan online articles from that journal, they will not be able to send it to your library for you to use.
    There is a disconnect between the two groups, but I am willing to bet there is a general disconnect between librarians and many of our users. I think this is because perceptions have been slow to change. Only through discussion (like this) can we begin to work at closing the divide. Thanks for the post.

  12. Martin Fenner says:

    Thanks Michelle. You are of course right about the cost involved to build and maintain this infrastructure. But institutional bibliographies are a good example of something that would cost money, but would probably still be cheaper than the countless hours that individual researchers currently spend to collect this information.
    It is interesting that there a number of blog posts this week talk about *scientists and librarians*, including:
    * “Librarians & Scientists: YMMV”:
    * “Libraries & Scholars”:
    * “Do you think libraries and librarians are important”:
    * “Science and libraries: Letting the crowd talk”:

  13. Martin Fenner says:

    An interesting suggestion was made by Bonnie Swoger (“Why academic librarians need to stop going to library conferences”:
    _That’s why we need to start attending the same conferences as the scholars we serve._
    And Michelle just posted a blog post about this topic as well: “Librarians Need to Stop Going to Library Conferences”:

  14. Stephanie Brown says:

    I’m thrilled that there is so much blogging back & forth about librarians & researchers / scientists / scholars! I was so excited about it that I wrote my own blog post to jump into the fray. :-) “Librarians & Scholars”: (on CogSciLibrarian)

  15. Martin Fenner says:

    This is a very interesting discussion for me, but there is still so much to do. Hope we can have a session on this at Science Online London or ScienceOnline2011.

  16. Markus Schmiel says:

    I think that scientists and librarians are neither friend nor foe, but perhaps often strangers. Most scholars don’t take much notice of their library as long as they receive any article they need via the intranet. That the library has organized the access to the journals often is forgotten.
    Furthermore there are many good ideas on the part of some scientist and the libraries have to avoid to fall into oblivion in times of Web 2.0.
    On the other hand unfortunately there are only a few resources left for developing new services or features and the experience taught that time and effort often are out of proportion to the use. So both – librarians and scientist – have to consider seriously which tool would be helpful for research and at the same time which tool fits to the existing structure and organization of the university.