Studies of research: Takeaways from “Spinning a Scholarly Story”

Image by Wokandapix from Pixabay

I’ve mentioned before that one of the cool things about the study of research is that it’s already out there, in so many forms and in so many fields (not just library and information science!), even if that’s not what the researchers doing this work would necessarily call it. I saw a lot of examples of this at the ACRL 2019 Conference and I wanted to spend some time here taking a closer look at a few of them.

I hope the researchers whose work I plan to talk about for this series don’t mind that I’ll be applying the “study of research” label to what they do, but in each case I’ll try to make it clear why I’m doing that.

So let’s take a closer look at “Spinning a Scholarly Story: Using Faculty Interviews to Develop a Scholarly Communications Agenda for Liaison Librarians” by Teresa Auch Schultz and Ann Medaille.

Understanding the scholarly communication needs of non-library faculty

For their study, Schulz and Medaille used semi-structured interviews with non-library faculty to get a better understanding of how these faculty members view new forms of scholarly communication, including but not limited to open access. The goal was in part to gain an understanding of the scholarly communication needs of these faculty so that the library could both promote the services and resources it already offers and identify other ways to meet those needs. What makes this especially interesting is that the study was conducted in an academic library in which there is no dedicated scholarly communications librarian. So the study is way of showing how liaison librarians who may be working in environments without a scholarly communications librarian can still work to understand and support the scholarly communications needs of subject librarians.


Understanding what non-library faculty don’t know about open access

Schulz and Medaille gained a lot of interesting insight into faculty’s views of issues like open access, of which they showed a general mistrust. Out of all of this, what jumped out at me was what Schulz and Medaille diplomatically refer to as the “limited knowledge of open access” that faculty demonstrated in the course of the interviews. Most couldn’t adequately define it beyond saying that it meant “free to read.”

As someone without subject liaison responsibilities, I don’t have much interaction with faculty but the authors’ finding here really resonated with me. Sitting at a table at a committee meeting with non-library faculty one time, the question of open access came up in the context of a policy that’s being developed for our campus related to open access issues. One faculty member at the table was confused. “Open access?” he said. “Does that mean free internet on campus?” He was not the only one who thought this.

To be fair, many of these faculty members a very smart people who just happen to be doing research and publishing in fields where open access just isn’t really a thing (see below). But I think this experience and the authors’ findings show that a lot of times terms like “open access” are essentially meaningless to non-librarians. That may mean that we just have more education to do or it might mean that we need to find a different way to talk about these issues or both. Either way, we’re not going to get very far with convincing faculty of the importance of this issue if they don’t know what we’re talking about.

How scholarly communication issues relate to the study of research

Schulz and Medaille share that of the 18 faculty members they were able to interview, four were from STEM, six were from arts and humanities, and eight were from social sciences. This breakdown matters because, as the authors imply, different disciplines have different values when it comes to scholarly communication.

Consider what the non-library faculty interviewed for this study had to say about prestige. For tenure and promotion purposes, prestige matters when it comes to scholarly publication, no matter what discipline you’re in. But what Schulz and Medaille show is that prestige means different things to different disciplines and that it’s measured in different ways. Some of the faculty in the study (I’m guessing the STEM and social sciences faculty, though it’s not stated in the paper) had very specific ideas about how to measure prestige which usually involved impact factors and citation counts and other metrics. But other faculty (I’m guessing the arts and humanities faculty, though again this wasn’t stated in the article) used what Schulz and Medaille call “nebulous beliefs” about a journal’s reputation as a way to gauge prestige.

Studying and understanding these differences is important in a larger sense because it can illuminate differences in how the research and publication process is approached by scholarly researchers in different disciplines. In this specific case, understanding these differences can also help librarians better meet the scholarly communication needs of the faculty they work with.


Also cool

As an appendix to their article, Schulz and Medaille include a copy of the interview guide they used for their study. I always think it’s cool when authors do this so I just wanted to make note. 🙂


At first glance, research on scholarly communication may not seem like a study of research, at least not in the same way a study of information behavior might. But scholarly communication studies like this one show that there are important differences in how scholars in different fields think about the publication process, which is the last step of the research process. Understanding what these differences are helps us to better understand research in scholarly contexts.


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