Is the “Data-Librarian” the Future of Library Science?

Next week I’ll be at the Frankfurt book fair! I’m going to be on a panel at an event with this title. If you’ll also be at the fair and fancy hearing me speak, then here are the details:

Thursday, October 15th, 10-10:30 a.m., on the Hot Spot Professional & Scientific Information stage in hall 4.2 (Frankfurt Book Fair)

It’s on the perennial theme of the changing role of the librarian, this time looking at the difference that data makes. I’ll be drawing on my experience of working in libraries in the UK, and of course of training information professionals of the future at Humboldt University. Without giving the plot away too much, my perspective is that librarians have always done many different roles but it’s our professional training, self-identification with the profession and use of all its experience in matters like ethics and customer service that makes us librarians, and thus a part of a profession. The “data librarian” will just be one of many different flavours of librarian in the future. I myself, am a peculiar “flavour”: A librarian without a library ;-)

I’m looking forward to meeting my fellow panellists and to discussing in more detail how data might affect the future role of the librarian. And I hope to see you there!

Its different in Germany. 10 everyday things a Brit might notice!

This post isn’t library-related, but I wanted to share some reflections on the things that I’ve found different here in Germany, compared to the UK. I’ve written before about some of the challenges for a Brit, so this post covers different points. And I’ll start with something at least book related!

  1. Independent bookshops. Naturally, I love these! Most of them are for German language material of course, and there are also many independent publishers based here: Germany still has fixed prices for books, and there’s a good read in the NY times if you want to find out more about this.
  2. Sensible shoes. This is something I approve of: you rarely see German women tottering around on ridiculously high, cheap plastic heels. There is a good reason for this: many pavements are made of tiny cobblestones which make going out in high fashion shoes into an extreme sport! Plus, I think many Germans aim for something high quality that will last a long time: if you’re going to invest a lot of cash and wear the shoes for many years then just you won’t put up with something less than comfortable.
  3. Good public transport. I can’t speak for the whole of Germany but here in Berlin it’s usually on time and many bus stops have a digital display to tell you when the next bus is coming. And if you get lost on foot, there’s usually a map at the bus stop, showing you where you are! The S-bahn is perhaps the least reliable option, but only because it’s so old that they’re always having to repair it.
  4. Two single duvets on your double bed. This idea is GENIUS! No more fights over who’s got too much/too little. ‘Nuff said!
  5. Wait for the green man. (I mentioned before that I always look 5 times when crossing. And I probably don’t need to mention the famous Ampelmann with his hat.) Lots more Germans than Brits will wait at pedestrian crossings when there are literally no moving cars around, for the green light to cross. There are also sometimes cars waiting to turn across your green light as they are allowed to make such turns. So why wait for the green light when the turning car is bound to show up? Strange!
  6. Main meal at lunchtime: bread and cheese/cold meat for dinner. The evening meal here is called “Abendbrot” which literally means “evening bread” and of course said bread is usually dark brown and full of nutrients, bought from one of the many bakeries of which the Germans seem so proud. I still like to cook at evening time since I work from home so my other half gets two proper meals a day now and has had to start watching his weight!
  7. Sunday closing. Not just Sundays either: fewer shops here are open late at night in my part of the German capital city than in a provincial town in the UK, and whilst museums are open on Sundays (and well visited since there’s not much else open!), they are closed on Mondays. Small business owners go on holiday and just put a sign on the door to say when they’re back, or open only at quirky times of the day. There is a rhythm to life here which is rather old-fashioned and sometimes a nuisance but it also feels highly civilised and respectful of life outside of business. You can still get milk & basics from a 24 hour petrol station if you’re desperate, and the shops at the main train station and airports will be open for those arriving on a Sunday. Bakeries will be open on Sunday mornings for your all-important daily bread, and you can eat in a cafe or restaurants on a Sunday. Florists are also open on Sundays so you can buy something to give to hosts/place on a gravestone. Quaint but civilised!
  8. Sausage as haute cuisine! Well, maybe not quite but it’s certainly something of which the Germans are proud. I can’t get a good British banger with all its breadcrumbs, chemical flavourings and unknown ingredients: the sausages here seem to be made of meat. And salt: there’s lots of salty, meaty food!
  9. Swimming pools close in summer months. Actually, this is not as bad as it sounds because the lifeguards have all gone to work at outdoor bathing sites (quite a few are nudist, another difference from Blighty), but it does make me wonder why they can’t take on more lifeguards as casual staff over the summer. Then I remembered that it probably takes 5 years at university to qualify as a lifeguard here in Germany (I exaggerate!) because every job here is treated like a profession, requiring hard-won qualifications. In a way this is also quaint but civilised.
  10. Plugs are smaller. Obviously the British 3-pin plug is superior (I jest!) but I like the neatness of the continental plug when travelling. I don’t like the fact that my products with 2 pins for the UK bathroom socket have to be plugged into first an adapter for 3 pins, and then an adapter for continental sockets. Apparently continental plug items can sometimes be plugged into UK bathroom sockets (I’m not recommending that you do this: sounds dodgy to me!), but it definitely doesn’t work the other way around.
  11. Knitters hold the yarn in the left hand, and knit much faster! (OK it’s not every day for every Brit, but that’s why it’s no. 11 on my list of 10!) I learnt to do this and it really fixed my problem with overly high tension. I now knit combination style and avoid repetitive strain problems, plus I’m trying out 2 colour fair-isle with a yarn in each hand. Not mastered that yet, but we’ll see…

So that’s my list, and you may have gleaned that I find Germany quite charming as well as confusing or frustrating at times. I wanted to mention the reliance on cash again, but I blogged that last time (it’s still annoying!). I don’t have children but from what I can tell, the support for parents is better here. Also, I haven’t touched on German bureaucracy: maybe I’ll write about that another day!

A trip to New York city

So my blog is called “A librarian abroad” and I haven’t blogged very much about my trips! This week I was in New York to visit a client: I saw lots of Soho/Noho and I must say, it’s my favourite part of the city. I daresay that I felt more at home there because it’s got lots of older architecture which makes it feel more like Europe, and of course because it’s where New York University is to be found. Here is a picture of their lovely red sandstone library:

NY Uni Library
Or is it a pic of a tree? I’m no photographer, sorry! But you get the idea: the library is opposite Washington Square Park…

I didn’t try to go in and visit: it was really, really busy and I could see the card barriers just inside the doors. I did look in through the windows, and I love the repeated square maze-pattern lighting, which you can see if you look very hard in my picture. Not only is it visually appealing but there’s no need to worry about the alignment of your shelves & your lights, as with strip lights!

It’s nice when you can speak your own language on your travels. Well, almost! I learnt to call the toilet a “restroom” for a few days, and to ask where the nearest “trashcan” is, but still forgot to call a full stop a “period”! Also, there’s no such thing as a flapjack in the US (apparently there is something called a flapjack but that’s what I would call a pancake!) and the nearest I could get to the ubiquitous (in the UK) British flapjack was an oatmeal cookie or granola bar, neither of which is quite the same.

And of course, as a tea drinker, I struggled to get a decent cuppa: it’s even more difficult than in Germany! I actually bought one “tea” that was undrinkable from the “Argo Tea Cafe”. I was enticed in by the name, but suspicious when I saw the bubbles on top of my tea and caught a scent of something more like bubble-gum than earl grey tea! Then I realised that there was no trace of either tea leaves or tea bag. I tried to drink it, I really did, but I had to settle for a bottle of water in the end.

Finally, here is a photo of the nearby physics building in the same warm, glowing red sandstone finish as the library, which of course my photos don’t capture:

NY Uni Physics building
With classic NY street “furniture!

Teaching Information Ethics at Humboldt University’s IBI

Amongst my other work, I teach two modules at the Berlin School of Library and Information Science (known as IBI), at Humboldt University:

  1. English for Information Professionals
  2. Information Ethics and Legal Aspects

Perhaps I’ll write about teaching English another day, for this post is all about teaching information ethics to international students on a Masters in Digital Curation programme. This whole course looks great for students, since they get to spend a year in Berlin as well as studying at Kings College London.

I lecture on the ethics module, and my co-tutor Boris Jacob leads the seminars: we work very collaboratively in our delivery of our materials, and of course we co-ordinate the module through the virtual learning environment, Moodle. We’re planning for the next cohort of students at the moment and we’re both going to present soon at IBI’s BBK about how we teach this course, and why Berlin is a particularly suitable place to teach information ethics.

Boris and I both have experience of having worked in the field, and we bring our practical knowlege as well as theory to the course. Being from the UK, I’m very much more aware of British (CILIP) and American (ALA) theory and principles, whilst Boris is a German (BID) who has also worked in Belgium, and therefore brings a very European perspective, and the students themselves (I speak of last year’s cohort: I’ve not met this year’s yet) also come from different lands, bringing their own cultural backgrounds to the course. We introduce them to theory and then encourage them to explore ethical dilemmas, and our goal is that they are able to identify such dilemmas when they come across them, and to find and apply theories that can help. So, what kind of themes do we cover? Here is a list of some of things that we explore in our course:

  • Ethical principles and codes of professional organisations
  • Plagiarism : what it is, how we might avoid it and why it’s different to breach of copyright
  • Neutrality : the classic library debates about how to handle customers with equality, and how to build collections
  • Intellectual property & copyright : what are the principles: how does this work in the students’ own lands & in what way is German law different from the UK?
  • Citizen contributions: ways to handle them, including the right to remain anonymous and data protection issues
  • Digital divides : where we might find these and how can information professionals help to overcome them
  • Open Access and Digital Rights Management: what happens when we put locks on content?
  • Information literacy : what belongs on the curriculum and why?
  • The Media : how can we learn from journalists’ ethical codes?

Well, that’s just off the top of my head… there’s lots more, and of course we like to incorporate news stories as well as the opportunities that Berlin has to offer. Last year was the premier of Citizenfour (Laura Poitra’s documentary about Edward Snowden) and of course Berlin’s Transmediale festival. Not to mention all the museums and exhibitions tracking communications, computing and spying that Berlin has to offer! I’m quite envious of those students, because Berlin is a great place to study, as well as their course being truly fascinating. At least I get to teach it!

I also write for Piirus: a selection of my recent blogposts for them

As a freelancer, one of my clients is Piirus: they match researchers together so that they can work collaboratively, and I am their social media manager. Consequently, I’m writing a lot over on the Piirus blog! Lately, I’ve been participating in the Thesis Whisperer’s Massive Open Online Course (MOOC), called “How to Survive Your PhD“, and if you want to know what I’ve been finding out on that course then please do take a look at my latest blogpost for Piirus.

I also share a lot of my tips on using Twitter on the Piirus blog, including a kind of mini series lately on the hashtags that may interest anyone supporting researchers, or indeed researchers themselves. In other topics that I’ve blogged about for Piirus, I looked recently at motivations for digitisation and I shared tips for researchers considering crowdsourcing projects. If you’re interested in following my writing over on the Piirus blog then please do take a look. Although I will keep writing here too, of course!

Ramping up to the Autumn term… use these guides for researchers

Autumn term is looming and we’re all busy preparing: I’m working on an Information Ethics course for Humboldt Uni: more on that in another post! This post is for practising Research Support Librarians, researchers themselves and other kinds of research support professionals. I want to recommend Piirus’ “Digital Identity Health Check” to you! It is free and you can use it in your courses and support materials, or of course to check the health of your own digital presence!

It’s a really well thought-out, accessible walk-through of the ways that academics can make the most of their digital presence, engage with social media and gain visibility for their research. It recommends good practice, introduces tools and services and offers examples, as well as linking to other useful guides for further information. There are other Piirus Bonus guides on the page I’ve linked to as well: Piirus is developing a series, and the other two published guides relate to Co-authorship.

Piirus are one of my clients so I must declare my interest, but hopefully that will also inspire your confidence in the health check and other guides, since I’ve had a lot of input into them! My former colleague Emma Cragg has been developing this series of Piirus Bonuses, and of course she has a lot of expertise in this area. We’ve been working collaboratively with the rest of the Piirus team, of course, so the guides incorporate a lot of shared expertise.

If such a thing exists, then I wish you a peaceful lead-in to the Autumn term!


Keeping up to date with bibliometrics: the latest functions on Journal Citation Reports (InCites)

I recently registered for a recent free, live, online training session on the latest functions of Journal Citation Reports (JCR) on InCites, from Thomson Reuters (TR). I got called away during the session, but the great thing is that they e-mail you a copy so you can catch up later. You can’t ask questions, but at least you don’t miss out entirely! If you want to take part in a session yourself, then take a look at the Web of Science training page. Or just read here to find out what I picked up and reflected on.

At the very end of the session, we learnt that 39 journal titles have been supressed in the latest edition. I mention it first because I think it is fascinating to see how journals go in and out of the JCR collection, since having a JCR impact factor at all is sometimes seen as a sign of quality. These supressed titles are suspended and their editors are informed why, but it is apparently because of either a high self-cite rate, or something called “stacking”, whereby two journals are found to be citing each other in such a way that they significantly influence the latest impact factor calculations. Journals can come out of suspension, and indeed new journals are also added to JCR from year to year. Here are the details of the JCR selection process.

The training session began with a look at Web of Science: they’ve made it easier to see JCR data when you’re looking at the results of a Web of Science search, by clicking on the journal title: it’s good to see this link between TR products.

Within JCR, I like the visualisation that you get when you choose a subject category to explore: this tells you how many journals are in that category and you can tell the high impact factor journals because they have larger circles on the visualisation. What I particularly like though, is the lines joining the journals: the thicker the line, the stronger the citing relationship between the journals joined by that line.

It is the librarian in me that likes to see that visualisation: you can see how you might get demand for journals that cite each other, and thus get clues about how to manage your collection. The journal profile data that you can explore in detail for an individual journal (or compare journal titles) must also be interesting to anyone managing a journal, or indeed to authors considering submitting to a journal. You can look at a journal’s performance over time and ask yourself “is it on the way up?” You can get similar graphs on SJR, of course, based on Elsevier’s Scopus data and available for free, but there are not quite so many different scores on SJR as on JCR.

On JCR, for each journal there are new “indicators”, or measures/scores/metrics that you can explore. I counted 13 different types of scores. You can also explore more of the data behind the indicators presented than you used to be able to on JCR.

One of the new indicators is the “JIF percentile”. This is apparently introduced because the quartile information is not granular or meaningful enough: there could be lots of journals in the same quartile for that subject category. I liked the normalised Eigenfactor score in the sense that the number has meaning at first glance: higher than 1 means higher than average, which is more meaningful than a standard impact factor (IF). (The Eigenfactor is based on JCR data but not calculated by TR. You can find out more about it at, where you can also explore slightly older data and different scores, for free.)

If you want to explore more about JCR without signing up for a training session, then you could explore their short video tutorials and you can read more about the updates in the JCR Help file.

Story telling and new ideas to listen to, for information professionals

When I’m just warming up of a morning, I like to listen to BBC Radio 4 podcasts. I’ve been picking my way through the series called Four Thought, where speakers share stories and ideas. There are three episodes in particular that I’d like to highlight for information professionals:

Maria Popova: The Architecture of Knowledge – a fascinating look at the way we handle information and create wisdom, incorporating views on knowledge from history but considering the modern, digital era of information overload. A great story!

Rupert Goodwins – tracks human behaviour on the Internet and considers: How can the Internet bring us together to discuss and share with each other in a respectful, reasoned way? How can we avoid arguments and incivility? The speaker has lots of experience and ideas.

This last talk is of interest because of the course I’ve been teaching at the Humboldt Uni IBI, on Information ethics. In the course, we explore all sorts of issues, including policies for websites that the students as information professionals of the future might play a part in hosting, and the ethical matters behind them, such as authenticity vs anonymity, moderating comments, handling whistleblowers, etc.

Another Four Thought that I found a little bit uncomfortable to listen to was:

Cindy Gallop: Embracing Zero Privacy – recommends taking control of your digital presence, and I agree with that. The speaker has some good ideas, chiefly that “we are what we do” in a very positive and empowering way, but what I find difficult is the notion that we can all live in such an open way. What about people who live in a society that is unaccepting of who they are?What about mistakes from the past, for which a debt has been paid: should they be laid forever bare? What about keeping a personal life personal, even whilst sharing matters of professional interest? On balance, I’m not a fan of zero privacy but this talk is a great opener for discussion.

There are plenty of other talks that provide food for thought in the Radio 4 podcast archives, on all sorts of topics and not only in the Four Thought series. I also like the Reith Lectures, the “Life Scientific”, and “In Our Time”… so much more to listen to!

Peer review motivations and measurement

Yesterday’s blogpost by David Crotty on Scholarly Kitchen, outlines the problems with the notion of giving credit for peer review. It is very thought provoking, although I’m personally still keen to see peer review done in the open, and to explore the notion of credit for peer review some more. For me the real question is not whether to measure it, but how best to measure it and what value to set on that measure.

Both the blogpost and its comments discuss researchers’ current motivation for carrying out peer review:

  • To serve the community & advance the field (altruism?)
  • To learn what’s new in the field (& learn before it is published, i.e. before others!)
  • To impress editors/publishers (& thereby increase own chances of publication)
  • To contribute to a system in which their own papers will also benefit (self interest?)

Crotty writes that problems in peer review would arise from behavioural change amongst researchers if we change their motivation such that they will chase credit points. He poses some very interesting questions, including:

How much career credit should a researcher really expect to get for performing peer review?

I think that’s a great question! However, I do think that we should investigate potential ways to give credit for peer review. I’ve previously blogged about the problems with peer review and followed up on those thoughts and I’ve no doubt that I’ll continue to give this space more thought: peer review is about quality, and as a librarian at heart, I’m keen that we have good quality information available as widely as possible.

In David Crotty’s post I am particularly concerned by the notion that researchers, as currently intrinsically motivated, will be prepared to take on higher workloads. I don’t want that for researchers: they are already under enormous amounts of pressure. Not all academics can work all waking hours. Some actually do (at least some of the time), I know, but presumably someone else cleans and cooks for them (wives? paid staff?), and even if all researchers had someone to do that for them, it’s not fair to the researchers or even good for academia, to comprise such isolated individuals.

One commenter makes the point that all peer reviews are not alike and that some might take a day, some 20 minutes, so if credit is to be given along the lines of how many reviews someone has carried out, well this won’t be quite fair. And yet, as Crotty argued in his blogpost, if you complicate your measurement then it’s really overkill because no-one really cares to know more than a simple count. Perhaps that’s a part of what needs fixing with peer review: a little more uniformity of practice. Is it fair to the younger journals (probably with papers from early career researchers who don’t trust themselves to submit to the journal giants) that they get comparatively cursory time from peer reviewers?

Another comment mentions that the current system favours free riding: not everyone carries out peer review, even though everyone benefits from the system. The counterpoint to this is in another comment which points out that there is already a de facto system of credit, in that journal editors are aware of who is carrying out peer review, and they wield real power, reviewing papers and sitting on funding panels. I’m not sure that I’d want to rely on a busy editor’s memory to get the credit I deserved, but the idea reminded me of how the peer review system has worked up until now, and the issue seems to be that the expanding, increasingly international research and publishing community is no longer as close-knit as it once was.

There is a broader issue here. Crotty suggested that university administrators would not want researchers to take the time to do peer review, but to do original research all the time since that’s what brings in the money and the glory. But in order to be a good researcher (and pull in the grant funding), one has to read others’ papers, and be aware of the direction of research in the field. Plus, review papers are often more highly cited than original research papers, so surely those administrators will want researchers who produce review papers and pull in the citations? Uni rankings often use bibliometric data, and administrators do care about those!

What we’re really talking about, is ‘how to measure researchers’ performance’, and perhaps peer review (if openly measured) is a part of that but perhaps also not. I like the notion of some academics becoming expert peer reviewers, whilst others are expert department/lab leaders or grant writers, or authors or even teachers. We all have different strengths and perhaps it’s not realistic to expect all of our researchers to do everything, but if you want a mixture in your team then you need to know who is doing what.

I’d like to finish with Kent Anderson’s thoughtful comment about retaining excellent reviewers:

Offering credit and incentives aimed at retaining strong reviewers is different from creating an incentives system to make everyone a reviewer (or to make everyone want to be a reviewer).

Let’s think on it some more…