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OCLC have published an interesting-sounding report. The full title of this report is: Social Interoperability in Research Support: Cross-Campus Partnerships and the University Research Enterprise, a bit of a mouthful. The term “social interoperability” is defined as “the creation and maintenance of working relationships across individuals and organizational units”. The report is about encouraging research in academic institutions. And the recommendation seems to be, more or less, that we (the library) have to get on with the other stakeholders in the research process: “the growing imperative for libraries to work not only in support of the goals of their parent institution … but also as a valued member of a cross-institutional team.”

I suppose the goal of the exercise is to make the institution’s research more effective and more successful – something we can all agree on . But since “research support” is such a wide-ranging term, the library involvement might not include any kind of human interaction at all. One definition (page one) in the report of research support is:

  • research data management
  • open access
  • scholarly publishing
  • research impact measurement
  • research guides
  • research consultation
  • research tools recommendation

Of the above, only one (consultation) looks as though it requires human interaction.

But there are few practical recommendations from the report. Much of the report  moves towards emotional speak: “Building robust relationships means moving beyond a “stick figure” view of campus partners to a fleshed-out, three-dimensional understanding of their responsibilities, capacities, goals and needs.” What exactly is a three-dimensional understanding?

Who is this report for? Well, “this report is written primarily for academic librarians” (p2). But surely the promotion of research is something that affects the researchers, as much as the librarians of the institution? “The goal of this report is not just to acquaint academic librarians with other campus stakeholders in research support, but to acquaint other campus stakeholders with the library.” That’s not going to happen unless the other stakeholders are involved with, and read, this report.

The survey itself covers only the US, and is based on interviews rather than a survey. Just 22 interviews were conducted – and they did not talk to any researchers. That looks like a bit of an omission. It looks like all they spoke with were library and administrative staff, even though they claim: “Our interviewees include individuals involved in the provision of research support services, as well as those whose responsibilities require or would benefit from consuming research support services.” But not researchers themselves!

 In this way, they state they found “a collection of interesting and informative perspectives … rather than attempting a comprehensive view of campus stakeholders in research support”.

One key aspect of universities, as they point out, is that there is no single point of control. Although they cite an authority for this conclusion, it’s pretty apparent to anyone encountering universities for the first time. I remember speaking to someone managing IT services at Oxford University, which, I’m sure you know, is a collegiate institution. He told me his job was a nightmare – “imagine having 37 bosses!” he said, meaning one for each of the colleges of the University. I’m sure it is similar even in universities with what seems to have a single structure; faculties will operate semi-independently. But a devolved, flat structure like this is not impossible to work in; it just requires a different approach to the more usual hierarchical organisation.

So what conclusions does the report make? By page eight, social interoperability (a means) seems to have become one of the goals: “social interoperability is a means of cutting through complexities and obstacles, promoting mutual understanding, highlighting coincidence of interest, and cultivating buy-I and consensus”. But hang on, we defined “social interoperability” as simply creating good working relations. Without these relations, you won’t achieve anything, so this is a fairly self-evident conclusion.

What about the research office? One interviewee stated: “I don’t think that … [the research information management system] would have been successful as library-only initiatives … it’s been absolutely critical that they were backed by the [office of research]. I’d love to know more about the research office; it is mentioned frequently in this paper, but there is no explanation of how it does or does not do what the library does. In some institutions, the research office and the library are managed together, as I understand.

One of the chapters is “Cross-Campus Relationship Building”. I remember a wonderful anecdote by a researcher who told us how his faculty librarian used to make coffee and biscuits for all the researchers every morning. One tip is making coffee and biscuits for the researchers. Everyone would assemble for the coffee, and, lo and behold, relationships were built. There is no similar practical recommendation in this paper. Instead, the recommendations remain formal, and without practical means of how to achieve them. The report mentions the need for research analytics, but as if these are compiled by others. There is a statement that more adoption of ORCID IDs is a good thing, but no practical suggestions on how the library can move everyone towards adopting them. Instead, the report suggests soft targets such as “know your value / be confident”. All very worthy, but not of much practical use.

There is no mention how from a researcher point of view, the role of the library at times seems to have the effect of slowing things down, for example the obligation to post things in an institutional repository. It’s like another hoop that has to be jumped through.

All in all, this is a publication with worthy motives, but not, I think a great number of practical initiatives for achieving the stated goals. Making coffee for the researchers may be a better means of social interoperability than anything in this report.

Bryant, Rebecca, Annette Dortmund, and Brian Lavoie. 2020. Social Interoperability in Research Support: Cross-Campus Partnerships and the University Research Enterprise. Dublin, OH: OCLC Research.