Libraries and research excellence

Last month I mentioned the publication of A comparative review of research assessment regimes in five countries and the role of libraries in the research assessment process, which had been produced for us by Key Perspectives. It is a detailed report, and I also said that we’d shortly issue a companion report with some background information on the question of research assessment – ie the system by which universities are evaluated for their research performance by the bodies that fund them, with some of the key findings for each country, and with some recommendations for research libraries. That companion report, Research assessment and the role of the library, was published yesterday, and I thought I might draw attention here to the recommendations for research libraries that it makes. These are:

  • Libraries should be sources of knowledge on disciplinary norms and practices in research outputs for their institutions
  • Libraries should seek to sustain environments in which disciplines can develop while co-existing with political constraints
  • Libraries should manage research outputs data at national and international scales
  • Libraries should take responsibility for the efficient operation of research output repositories across research environments
  • Libraries should provide expertise in bibliometrics
  • Libraries should provide usage evidence
  • Libraries should claim their territory
  • These challenges are easy to state, and most of us would readily assent to them. Some academic librarians may even claim to be doing several of them already – particularly in the operation of repositories, and in the provision of expertise in bibliometrics in some cases. But how many non-library organisations would recognise these as library roles? Would our funding bodies? The President’s or Vice Chancellor’s Office? Our research councils? Research publishers? Our politicians? Until these roles can be seen from the outside, we have not ‘claimed our territory’.

    Although the focus of both of these reports is research assessment, it is clear that we are often talking about more than just that. Much of what is revealed in these reports relates to the presence of libraries within the culture of research excellence in their institutions. Or rather, their absence. For example, last November the UK government’s Department for Business, Innovation and Skills – which covers universities – issued a higher education blueprint for the UK: Higher ambitions: the future of universities in a knowledge economy. It includes a section on how the government intends to develop its research capacity. I searched for references to libraries, and the only one retrieved related to plans to make the UK a leader in online learning under the chairmanship of Lynn Brindley, CEO of the British Library. A very worthwhile initiative, but what about libraries in research? What about the contribution of university libraries to the UK’s higher ambitions? In a 115-page report, why don’t they feature even once? An even more recent report has just appeared (December 2009) from a grouping of new, ‘business-like’ universities in the UK, the University Alliance, Concentration and diversity: understanding the relationship between excellence, concentration and critical mass in UK research. References to libraries in this 28-page report? None.

    Perhaps we dare not speak up because there is still so much to do to be present within the culture of research excellence. A hundred university libraries pointing at their institutional repositories is a dissipation of energy. Libraries need new aggregated structures in order to deliver real service benefits to their universities, the cross-institutional research centres that are beginning to appear, and their countries as a whole. Considering how to develop these, I recalled the recent Distinguished Seminar presentation by Carl A. Kroch University Librarian at Cornell University, Anne Kenney, in Dublin, Ohio, on radical collaboration. Anne quoted her opposite number (and now collaborative colleague) at Columbia, Jim Neal, who points out that the boast of research libraries about their tradition of collaboration can in fact impede the new kinds of collaboration we need for the challenges we face today.

    Let’s think about what radical library collaboration means for the culture of research excellence. We have territory to claim.