Addressing bias in research analytics: A call to action

The following guest post was co-authored by: Sheila Craft-Morgan, Research Impact Librarian at The Ohio State University and Allegra Swift, Scholarly Communications Librarian at the University of California San Diego. It is part of a series  related to the provision of bibliometrics and research impact services at OCLC Research Library Partnership institutions.

While it is not a secret that there are inherent biases (for example, Matthew effect, citation bias, bias in peer review, and selection bias in bibliographic databases) in the research analytics data used to evaluate the “quality” of scholarship in higher education, biases are an issue that has been overlooked in library literature. The discussions about these biases and the responsible use of metrics (Leiden Manifesto, Declaration on Research Assessment (DORA), Metric Tide) have primarily occurred in the other disciplines, outside the library literature. The recent RLP discussion on the topic of “Addressing Bias in Research Analytics” brought together two librarians – Sheila Craft-Morgan and Allegra Swift – who shared how librarians can participate in this key area of research and practice.  

Sheila’s story

Guest blogger Sheila Craft-Morgan, The Ohio State University

In August 2022, I started as the Research Impact Librarian at Ohio State. While I was new to academic librarianship, with over twenty years of experience in institutional research, I was not new to the institution or the area of research analytics. My values, transparency and curiosity, and the principles of DEIJ (diversity, equity, inclusion, and justice) influenced my approach to the role. As I was reviewing the LibGuides that I was responsible for, I realized that they did not include any resources that explicitly mentioned bias or DEIJ, such as Cite Black Women. A quick review of LibGuides at similar institutions revealed that we were not alone in this oversight.  

When I began to search for answers and guidance, I found few resources that addressed DEIJ or bias within the areas of research impact or scholarly impact in the library literature. One, ACRL’s Open and Equitable Scholarly Communications: Creating a More Inclusive Future (ACRL 2019), dedicated a section of the research agenda to this issue. Specifically, the “Rethinking What Counts” section (p 18ff) proposes that librarians should examine the “implicit and explicit biases throughout the scholarly communications process that have limited content discovery and reinforced inequalities and gatekeeping in publication practices that tend to privilege white men (e.g., submissions, panel acceptances, peer review, citations, etc.).”  The inherent biases of the Global North that marginalize the contributions of researchers from the Global South were also highlighted. The authors advocated for research to enable systemic change in this area. For me this was my call to action.  

Just as we are beginning to address bias in other areas of librarianship, from archives to collection development and subject headings, we need to examine scholarly communications and research impact with a critical lens.

Like Allegra, in addition to updating my LibGuides, I am cultivating partnerships with others on campus who are interested in citational justice and inclusive citation and including discussions about bias in workshops on research impact. Most importantly, I am answering the call to conduct research on this topic; I am interested in why this is an invisible issue in Library literature and what it will take to move this issue along the continuum from awareness to action.  

Allegra’s story

Guest blogger Allegra Swift, University of California San Diego

My call to action came about after reviewing Charlotte Roh and Harrison Inefuku’s book chapter, Agents of Diversity and Social Justice: Librarians and Scholarly Communication, for a 2017 Library Publishing Coalition publication award. Since then I’ve worked to raise awareness and educate stakeholders about the issues that affect them and the opportunities that are available to improve the scholarly communications ecosystem so that all will benefit. This session with OCLC RLP focused on two areas that are most likely to impede or derail careers: publishing and research impact metrics. Bias is ingrained across systemic, cultural, and individual practices, and no single  person, such as a solo scholarly communications librarian, can begin to disrupt these age-old patterns and imbalances on their own.

Strategic partnerships across the ecosystem and repeated outreach and education efforts are the only way to scale and inspire positive change towards more equitable outcomes.

To reach a wider audience and have greater impact, I’ve sought out partnerships with several programs and departments across the university. I’ve been fortunate to have the opportunity to partner with the directors of the Office of Research Affairs Research Ethics Program where for several years I’ve taught CE credit workshops on Ethics and Research Metrics for about 40 PhD students in multiple (mostly STEM) disciplines. The workshops cover the bias inherent in systems, both technical and social, that are often embedded in the university culture of productivity and reward. We examine where implicit and explicit biases contribute to barriers and profit. As Sheila noted, the barriers often surface for those who are not white men, and the resulting inequities are often detrimental to careers and the progress of science. 

Another workshop was first done in partnership with our Research Compliance and Integrity Office where they asked for support in combating “predatory” publishing. “Predatory” publishing has been a growing concern for some time, especially in the health sciences where research funding awards can be in the millions and serve as an important indicator of prestige for universities. In this workshop, Good Publishing Practices and the Risks of Predatory Publishing, we discussed how bias can cloud researcher’s decisions on where to publish. We reviewed a set of criteria to evaluate possible publication venues with the intention of avoiding biases and understanding both the risks and benefits of making decisions made with critical judgment as opposed to relying on lists or publisher brands.

One of the things I learned teaching these sessions is that it is important to be cognizant of the layered experiences and identities of the audience. Most are hearing this information for the first time and it can be upsetting to realize that there are additional hurdles to navigate that have nothing to do with one’s abilities as a scholar or researcher. I continue to seek out advice and resources to offer those who are adversely affected by bias in scholarly communication and consider how I can invite those with privilege to recognize and actively address the inequalities they benefit from.

This gap in available information was one of the drivers for participating in the creation of a resource aimed at raising awareness of bias and the lack of diversity, equity, and inclusion in scholarly communication that we hope to make public at the end of May 2023 via the University of California Office of Scholarly Communication webpages. Five members (several UC campus librarians and California Digital Library staff) of the UC’s OSC have been working on the resource intended to provide information that will build a shared understanding and inspire authors, peer reviewers, editors, publishing professionals, and libraries to take action to shift practices in scholarly communications towards a more equitable, diverse and inclusive ecosystem.

Moving forward

Photo by Brett Jordan on Unsplash

We must keep in mind that Research Analytics are driven by choices that humans make, including what papers and books are published, who is cited, and which journals or other sources are included in databases and indices. And the choices are not innocuous, they reinforce the narrative of who is a researcher, what research is, what topics/subjects should be investigated and written about, whose issues are important and what research counts.  

We encourage you to join us in examining scholarly communications and research impact activities critically. How can you take your next step? Join us in July for a Works in Progress webinar where Sheila will be sharing more about her examination of research impact LibGuides and their limited treatment of bias and DEIJ issues–and offering a framework to use as a guide for LibGuide review. RLP affiliates should watch their email inboxes for more information.