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Biomedical Librarians: Be Embedded, Be Visible, Be Relevant!

Librarians can do more to tackle reproducibility and improve medical research, says UK EQUATOR CENTRE Senior Research Information Specialist Shona Kirtley. Shona has wide-ranging experience in the provision of evidence-based health information, and in devising and conducting comprehensive literature searches. She is also recognized by her peers as a leading expert on the role of librarians in research reproducibility. You might have met her at a conference, on Twitter (@EQUATORNetwork) or by using her extensive hub of resources. Today, Shona shares her opinions on why librarians need to step out of the library, be social, and be relevant to researchers —  to make a difference in science.

Q: How are librarians using social media to change the world?

Social media has become a valuable way for librarians to support researchers. Twitter, for example, is a powerful tool for reaching out to researchers, particularly those who do not regularly visit the physical library. Short, pithy awareness-raising messages can be easily and regularly sent.

Retweeting means that important resources, advice or alerts can be very quickly highlighted to an ever-expanding audience. We can do this with researcher comment and endorsement, potentially helping uptake, and/or changing researcher practices. For example, through Twitter, a researcher can learn about a specific reporting guideline that he or she was previously unaware of and use it to write up a research study for publication, and meet journal submission reporting checklist requirements.

Q: Has social media reinforced the notion librarians are boosting science reproducibility?

As librarians, we have always had a role in supporting research, and in continually refreshing our services to meet changing researcher demand. This has combined, in recent years, with innovations in publishing, and changes to requirements from funders, institutional regulations, etc. Librarians are already looking at how these changes to research practice could, and should, be library-supported. But I think that social media have played a huge part in raising awareness more widely (indeed globally!) of the role that librarians have. Social media have definitely helped librarians become more aware of reproducibility and reporting issues and have helped them to share ideas (successes and failures!) and best practices in addressing these important issues. Social media, I think, have also facilitated sharing ideas regarding expanding librarian research support — and in aiding its implementation.

Q: Should librarians embed in all biomedical (or other) research departments?

Most definitely YES! The inclusion of a biomedical librarian or information scientist in every biomedical research study team — or embedded within a research department — would help address waste in research (including the problem of low reproducibility rates). Embedded health science librarians and information scientists are always on hand to provide more direct and practical support to research teams and can easily be consulted at all stages of a research study.

For, example, (1) we have unique expertise in comprehensive literature searching and can ensure that all literature searches are rigorously designed and conducted — and that the entire search process is properly documented and reported… This arrangement would improve review comprehensiveness and reliability.

(2) We should also be included at the study inception stage, where we can conduct robust and comprehensive literature searches for researchers (who are seeking evidence for funding applications). A well-designed and conducted literature search can reliably determine if “uncertainty” does actually exist before the funding application is submitted.  Librarians can also advise on protocols, study registration, and reporting guidelines. And these are just two examples of the direct, responsive support that embedded librarians can provide to biomedical teams or departments.

Overall, I believe that now is the time for a radical rethink of the entire biomedical research process. Presently, the skills of librarians and information scientists are underutilized. It’s time for librarians to step out of the library. And it’s time for clinicians, biomedical researchers, publishers/editors, and funders to acknowledge the librarians’ skills and expertise and embed librarians directly within the teams and organizations involved in the funding, conduct, and publication of biomedical research. Only then can the global potential of health science librarians be fully realized for improving biomedical research rigor, reporting, and reproducibility.

Q: What is your take on how librarians can address the scientific reproducibility crisis?

Information/research studies cannot be reliably evaluated if important details or data are missing from the research report. The reproducibility crisis is primarily caused because the published (or publicly available) research study report often lacks information about how the study was conducted or the study data analyzed.  As a result, other researchers cannot either reproduce the findings or replicate the study methods (using different data).

  1. The lack of detailed information means that the reader of the study cannot properly evaluate the study. For example, the reader can’t determine if the research results are robust, or whether the findings could be translated into practice. Librarians can very much influence the reporting and reproducibility of the final research report. From the study onset, librarians can address fundamental issues with the registration, protocols, data, literature search, documentation and reporting of research studies. The final research report, therefore, will be accurate and complete allowing it to be properly evaluated and subsequently used by other researchers or included in systematic reviews or clinical guidelines. The availability of a complete and accurate account of every research study is crucial to further science.

Q: Do librarians need to entirely rebrand themselves to increase their visibility to researchers?

No, I do not believe that a complete re-branding of librarians is required. Many librarians, in recent years, have successfully increased their visibility within their institutions — but I do think that there is still a long way to go. I think it will greatly help to focus on developing and promoting new services that specifically address reproducibility issues, research reporting, and writing and publication. Librarians should highlight the importance of the direct benefits of these enhanced research services to the researcher, and the overall benefit to the institution/organization. After all, every researcher and every institution/organization aspires to produce high-quality and rigorous research outputs. Librarians are very well placed to help ensure that this happens.


Interested in helping to address international issues of research reporting and reproducibility in your library/institution?

See Shona’s two librarian action plans for ideas:

  1. Librarian Action Plan: Simple Ideas [download a pdf of the Librarian Action Plan: Simple Ideas]
    This action plan highlights some simple and easy to implement ideas for librarians to try out in their libraries
  2. Librarian Action Plan: Targeted Actions [download a pdf of the Librarian Action Plan: Targeted Actions]
    This action plan promotes more in-depth targeted actions that librarians could take to directly respond to specific recommendations made in either the Lancet Waste Series or in the recent Manifesto for Reproducible Science.

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