Librarians in Biomedical Research: New Roles and Opportunities: A Study Funded by an SLA Grant Shows That Librarians Are Becoming More Involved in All Phases of Biomedical Research and Increasingly Are Being Incorporated into Sponsored Research

By Glenn, Emily; Rolland, Betsy | Information Outlook, October-November 2010 | Go to article overview

Librarians in Biomedical Research: New Roles and Opportunities: A Study Funded by an SLA Grant Shows That Librarians Are Becoming More Involved in All Phases of Biomedical Research and Increasingly Are Being Incorporated into Sponsored Research


Glenn, Emily, Rolland, Betsy, Information Outlook


As biomedical research becomes increasingly complex and collaborative in nature, the information needs of its researchers continue to grow. Librarians and information professionals (IPs) are positioned to contribute their training and skills to the work of research teams and help them make more efficient use of information. Several non-traditional duties for IPs have already been established in an effort to support biomedical research, thereby moving IPs beyond the role of librarian and into that of information researcher.

The technological and infrastructural challenges of collaboration have been described in several forums in the library science community (and beyond) as "e-science." Providing information services for geographically dispersed workgroups such as "collaboratories" is at the heart of e-science (DeRoure, Jennings and Shadbolt 2001).

For librarians, the changing nature of science represents not only expanded professional opportunities but also the chance to increase their impact on biomedical research. Information professionals and librarians possess certain skill sets, including analysis, research, needs assessment, and objective data gathering, that can mitigate some of the information challenges faced by scientists. These skill sets make librarians logical choices for teams involved in multidisciplinary and geographically dispersed research.

This article presents an overview of the results of a research project conducted by the authors from January 2009 to March 2010 and funded by SLA through a research grant. For more information about the grant, visit the SLA Web site and look under "Research."

Study Methodology

This study explored emerging roles for IPs in today's biomedical research teams in hopes of providing support for the continued inclusion and expansion of opportunities for librarians. The following questions guided the study:

1. In what aspects of collaborative biomedical research can traditional IP skills be applied in non-traditional ways?

2. How are IPs applying their skills outside the traditional roles of librarian or information professional?

3. How can the biomedical research process be improved through more targeted interventions by IPs?

4. How can SLA foster the development of non-traditional roles for IPs in collaborative biomedical research?

We conducted a preliminary literature review to help us develop a theory of how the traditional competencies of an IP can be applied to biomedical research. Next, we received approval from an institutional review board for protocol and study instruments and set out to recruit librarians and IPs. We contacted potential participants by sending a series of e-mails to colleagues in professional organizations and library and information science schools.

Our recruitment messages called for IPs working in "non-traditional" roles. Several people who answered were surprised to find that they qualified for participation in our study, as they did not necessarily think of their own work as non-traditional. Had we defined our target population differently or simply used terms that did not include "non-traditional," we might have attracted a different mix of people and, thus, different services and roles.

Fifty-four people completed a survey indicating interest in participating in the study. Of those 54, we interviewed 14 at their workplaces. Our questions focused on what they do in their positions, their role in their institution's research, and their thoughts and feelings about working as an IP in biomedical research. We followed each interview with a short "show and tell" session that allowed participants to demonstrate any interesting projects on which they were working or tools they used in their work.

All interviews were transcribed by a transcriptionist and analyzed for patterns and themes. Once these themes had been identified, the transcripts were reviewed again and coded. …

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