Whad’ya Know? (Not Much)

26 Jul

mind the gapYou may or may not be a fan of Michael Feldman’s radio show, “Whad’ya Know?” Me, I make more time for “Wait, Wait… Don’t Tell Me!” and “A Prairie Home Companion,” but despite the fact that I rarely listen to “Whad’ya Know?,” I can still hear the audience’s retort when the show begins with the announcer asking the eponymous question… NOT MUCH!

I thought of this line as I read a couple of pieces on data management this week, both written by colleagues; Dorothea Salo’s Library Journal article, Data Curation’s Dirty Little Secret, and Jen Ferguson’s response to it, Dirty Little Secrets, that was posted on the e-Science Community Blog. Salo’s original piece argues that the need for discipline knowledge is secondary, if anything, when it comes to the practice of managing research data. Ferguson, a molecular biologist turned librarian, agrees. I believe both authors make some excellent and valid points and don’t want to spend my post arguing against them. I think that their pieces are worth reading, considering, and adding to the arsenal of experience and opinion that continues to grow in regards to the discussion.

I do, however, want to have a think on the emphasis placed on both data management skills and subject knowledge that informationists need to have; at least so far as “informationist” is defined by the National Library of Medicine’s Administrative Supplement Grants for these services and/or this role. (As an aside, I was in a meeting at my church last night with a wonderful British woman who kept saying, “Let’s have a think on this.” I’ve decided that it’s my new favorite phrase.) In the latest announcement for the informationist grants, the funding purpose is again defined as:

These administrative supplements provide funds to supported research and center grants in order to enhance the storage, organization, management and use of electronic research data through the involvement of informationists, also known as in-context information specialists.

The purposes of this administrative supplement program are (1) to enhance collaborative, multi-disciplinary basic and clinical research by integrating an information specialist into the research team in order to improve the capture, storage, organization, management, integration, presentation and dissemination of biomedical research data; and (2) to assess and document the value and impact of the informationist’s participation.

It seems fairly clear to me that this role of managing data is what some feel is the most important new role for librarians to undertake. If librarians were the audience for “Whad’ya Know?”, I can hear our cry to the announcer being, “DATA!” Personally, I’m not exactly sure how true this rings, but it’s for sure the shout that we want to be making. The informationist grants aren’t aimed to support other, more traditional, librarian services, but instead, data services.

And interestingly, the National Library of Medicine does believe that disciplinary knowledge is a characteristic of an informationist (see background information here).

Here’s my take on all of this…

Does my background in exercise physiology help me in my work as an embedded librarian? You betcha! Why? Because most of the studies and teams that I’m supporting involve research around the areas of prevention, intervention, and changing health behaviors. It’s not my discipline background that necessarily helps me undertake the data management aspects of this role (that’s library and information science expertise), but it is extremely valuable in my being able to become fully integrated into the research team. Maybe this is due to nothing much more than what Jen describes in her post as “a little instant ‘cred'” upon entering the team. Credibility gets you a seat at the table and I also think that it gives you confidence that you belong there. It helps to see yourself less as supporting cast and more as a member of an ensemble.

I’m not arguing against what Dorothea and Jen state, for I don’t necessarily disagree. I do believe that you can provide a level of data management and support without needing to know much of anything related to the data itself. But still I’m left wondering, based upon the accepted definition of an informationist (by NLM and the literature), why the call for the discipline knowledge for this role OR why the emphasis upon data services above everything else we can provide? Why do we believe that data management is the most valuable thing that we can bring to a research team? Why do we see it as the role that we can fill above other roles? Is this really the way we’ll find success?

The jury is still out, of course. Part of my time as an informationist this go ’round involves evaluating the value of the role. Maybe in time we’ll have a better grasp on the skills that are most valuable to a team. I have a feeling that there will never be a truly clear answer, though. I think so much of the success of our individual roles, as well as the overall team, is dependent upon a lot of factors and skills that are not necessarily learned in school – at least not now. Fortunately, a movement is afoot to shed light on the importance of these soft skills, people skills, personal dynamics, and the like that are increasingly valued in a cross-disciplinary research world.

Time and experience will tell where we best fit and, hopefully, what we do best once we get there.

5 Responses to “Whad’ya Know? (Not Much)”

  1. Dorothea July 26, 2013 at 5:41 pm #

    Why the emphasis on disciplinary skills? I think because of the framing that I quoted from Swan, as well as its many, many successors. The disciplinary-knowledge thing became part of a lot of people’s mental furniture without enough evidence or examination. Heck, I started out believing it, not having any particular reason not to.

    Why the emphasis on data? Partly flavor-of-the-week, the way scholarly communication was when I got out of library school. I do think there’s a difference; there’s a real, changing, growing researcher need around data management that researchers didn’t acknowledge for years (and many still haven’t!) vis-a-vis open access.

    FWIW. The larger point, in my opinion, is that there ain’t NO shortage of work for info pros. 😉 Thanks for this post; I enjoyed it!

    • salgore July 26, 2013 at 8:28 pm #

      I wholeheartedly agree that there is absolutely NO shortage of work. Thanks for the comments and for the piece in LJ. Always thought-provoking are you.

  2. Kristin July 27, 2013 at 11:35 am #

    You raise some very interesting thoughts, especially about how your role affects data management.

    I’ve been in both the position of being an embedded librarian working with data and someone at the campus level trying to start up data services. For the latter, my chemistry background has hardly made a difference other than the aforementioned ‘cred’. For the former, I’m still trying to decide how much my subject expertise helped.

    I think the difference between the two is the type of projects I did. Being embedded blurs the line more between discipline and data. I also dug into the data at a much deeper level than I do now as data services librarian. Therefore, I drew on my subject knowledge more.

    All this is to say that I think you’re right. The closer you get to the data and into an actual project, the more that subject knowledge seems to matter.

  3. Jen Ferguson (@__jasf) July 29, 2013 at 11:47 am #

    I wonder if the NLM’s requirement for discipline knowledge isn’t at least in part a way to make the informationist more appealing to the scientists. This goes back to Dorothea’s point that quite a few of the folks with the data believe that subject background is needed to manage the data. It’ll be interesting to see if the subject knowledge requirement for informationists sticks over time.

    • salgore July 29, 2013 at 12:27 pm #

      I think both you and Dorothea on onto something, Jen, regarding that requirement. I agree that it will be interesting to see how it lasts over time.

      I’m sorry I missed tagging you on my tweet of the post. I don’t think I had your Twitter handle in my toolbox. Got it now! 🙂

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