Service provider or academic partner: Where to draw the line?

jente sandstrand

Drawing a line?

I have long wanted to write something about the contributions from academic librarians in research projects. First, I wanted to wait until the term was over because I wanted time to think about this, and then I waited because I wanted to find the right words. I wanted to get this right, because this is important to me. Today, I am writing this even though I could have thought some more or found better words.

I have worked in academic libraries for 15 years. During that time, I have changed and the libraries I have worked in has changed along with the institutions they have served. Perhaps even more interesting is that the role of the librarians have changed, too. A few lines of explanation is perhaps needed. (I`ll get to the point, I promise..) I said that I have changed. Yes, I have changed in many ways, but professionally the most significant change has been that I have changed my focus. When I started 15 years ago, my focus was always “Whats in it for my library”. I was very library centric. I wanted a good budget for the library because I wanted freedom to build a good collection, nice furniture etc. (I was a school librarian back then, btw.) After working in a school library, in a ministry library and in a university library, my focus has shifted. I still want the library to have a good budget, but not for the librarys sake – for the patrons. I want a good budget so that we can provide services and academic support to enhance learning and research. I think I have also learned the value of evidence-based practice in libraries. It is important that we have solid research as well as user experience and our own experience and bring this together to build good library practice. It may not seem as a very significant change on paper (or blog), but for me it has changed the way I work. The libraries have changed, too. From being mainly a document provider and a more distant partner (delivery-on-demand) for students, the digitalisation and research support needs have made it possible and necessary to provide new services and to see our roles in a new light.

There are plenty of articles, book chapters etc. that discuss the roles of academic librarians. I am not going to list everything that I have, but see my article on library-faculty collaboration to get an idea (Øvern, 2014). The main point I want to make here and now, though, is that library-faculty collaboration is often problematic because of the skewed power relation between the parties. The librarians know that the route to the students goes via their teachers, and we are desperate to find a way in to the classrooms. Therefore, we usually not only obey our masters` first whistle, but even assume almost doglike admiration for the teachers that see our contributions as something worth “sacrificing valuable class time” (yes, that is a direct quote, but I`ll not give the source) for. (OK. Maybe I exaggerated a little, but then again, maybe I didn`t.) It doesn`t help that we are so trained as service providers, that we find it extremely hard to just say no to people. This way, I think we also often are stuck in unproductive “collaborations”, because we are afraid that if we protest or suggest very different models for teaching, the teachers will stop asking us to contribute all together. But if we never suggest what to us may seem as better ideas, then they will never see our potential as real academic partners either. Librarians generally know more about the faculty than vice versa, an assymetry that both groups are aware of, but only the librarians find problematic (Christiansen, Strombler & Thaxton, 2004, p.117). And as Ekstrand and Seebass (2009) found: librarians are regarded as excellent (service) parners, but that is not the same as seeing them as valuable academic parners (p. 84). Librarians are not integrated in study programmes and often forgotten in planning sessions.

These power relations become even more problematic when it comes to research support. I have several times been asked to help with literature searching etc. in research projects. Once or twice only, have I been told that I will get co-authorship for my efforts. Once or twice. Of course, I wouldn`t dream of demanding co-authorship if my only contribution to the project would be something like suggesting appropriate databases or handing over some search terms that could useful or something like that. But where do I draw the line? When does it become acceptable for me to say, I can do that, but only if I am listed as a co-author?

This is an example (not from reality, but quite close):
Two faculty members, one of whom were also connected to another university, asked me if I could provide support for them for a systematic review. When I asked what kind of support they were looking for it was clear that it is more than just suggesting search strings and doing a few introductory searches in some databases. It was much more than that. Basically, they wanted me to set up tables, do the searches and use a flow chart. In a systematic review, the design of searches, and getting it right in all the databases as well as putting it into tables and flowcharts represents a lot of work. It would be like building the foundation of a house. Yet, I was not offered co-authorship. I asked them a few more questions on their deadlines etc., but before I had received answers and decided to muster up the strength to ask for co-authorship, they informed me that they had found another librarian (from the other university) to do the job.

It seems there is always somebody who is ready to answer when they hear the whistle. Why it was so important for me to get co-authorship? The contribution would have been the same whether my name was on it or not. Yes, but if I could have had my name on it, then I could have sacrificed the very little R&D time I have to my disposal without having to postpone my qualifications programme. If I am to succeed with this, then the little time I have to produce some new knowledge will have to be put to good use. Egotistic? Sure. But for the faculty involved it wouldn`t have mattered as much to share that research point (Norwegian measurement system), but for me it was important. Again – the power relations are not balanced.

So – what should I do? What should WE as a profession do? Is it ok that faculty get a “yes” from somebody else if they get a “no” from me? When should I say no? When should I demand co-authorship? Why is there no guideline for these partnerships?

Where do I draw the line? (Seriously, I`m asking.)


NOTE: This blog entry was not written to, in any way, suggest that faculty is in the habit of exploiting librarians or are trying to belittle me or my contribution. This is not my experience. I have many working collaborations with excellent faculty members that are productive, constructive and interesting. Even in the example I mentioned above, I don`t think that this was done by malice or as an attempt to put me in my place, but rather as a pragmatic way to get the help they wanted as quickly and efficiently as possible. This blog entry was written to emphasise the sometimes problematic situations that arises from the skewed power relations between faculty and librarians, and I have no other agenda than to share my experience with this, and to hope for better guidelines. It is not my intention to offend either faculty or librarians, and I hope therefore that any lack of clarity of thought or words will be forgiven.


References:

Christiansen, L., Stombler, M., & Thaxton, L. (2004). A Report on Librarian-Faculty Relations from a Sociological Perspective. The journal of academic librarianship, 30(2), 116-121. doi:DOI: 10.1016/j.acalib.2004.01.003

Ekstrand, B., Seebass, G. (2009). Integrativ informationskompetens: Diskursöverbryggande samarbete mellan akademi och bibliotek. In B. Hansson, A. Lyngfeldt (Ed.), Pedagogiskt arbete i teori och praktik (pp. 83-101). Lund: BTJ Förlag.

Øvern, K. M. (2014). Faculty-library collaboration: two pedagogical approaches. Journal of Information Literacy, 8(2), 36-55. doi:http://dx.doi.orghttp://dx.doi.org/10.11645/8.2.1910

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One thought on “Service provider or academic partner: Where to draw the line?

  1. M says:

    Thank you for these thoughts. You raise very reasonable questions here.

    My thoughts reading this was:
    – Can we expect a shopping for library services if one library say we only teach or give advise on searching (contrary to some guidelines for systematic reviews), and other conduct searches for the researchers ?
    – What if we start to demand payment for such services (or should we, since it surly it takes time and has a cost) and others not? Or should we offer search services to researches without hesitating, considering all the talk about research support the last few years here in Norway…
    – Will publishing funds approved to corresponding author lead to shopping of authorship based which affiliation funds OA-publishing?

    Back to the topic of searching:
    I know of a university library who do searches if they are offered co-authorship or manuscript acknowledgement, if not they only give advisory consultation on the searches (http://guides.library.queensu.ca/knowledge-syntheses/home#s-lg-box-wrapper-12510754).
    Authorship has its advantages (for the co-author, for the institution) and some obligations (revising, knowing the intellectual content, be accountable for all aspects of the work… relating to the accuracy or integrity… (ICMJE)). The obligations may vary in different fields (medicine follows the ICMJE requirements for authorship), I guess other field has their requirements.

    I would recommend this book which is discussing the librarians role (among other topics) and authorship in reviews, mentioning the different standards for systematic reviews and their recommendation of including a librarian.
    Foster M, Jewell S. Assembling the pieces of a systematic review : a guide for librarians: Rowman & Littlefield; 2017. (Have not yet read all of it, but the book in whole seems very promising).

    Long time reader, first time poster…

    Liked by 1 person

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