Bridging the gap white paper
The development of artificial intelligence (AI) and machine learning (ML) tools has revolutionized the way we think about information. In a landscape...
STEM information professionals:
Bridging the gap with R&D departments
Mary Ellen Bates, Bates Information Services Inc.
In partnership with Nature Research Intelligence
The development of artificial intelligence (AI) and machine learning (ML) tools has revolutionized the way we think about information. In a landscape where the rate of research output has increased immensely (the COVID-19 pandemic being the most extreme example, with 28,000 articles being published in the first six months of 2020), new technologies can allow us to process extensive datasets, address information overload and draw insights - without needing to read thousands of articles.
As a publisher, we are an enabler of the growing number of research publications. Every piece of research is valuable, and we want to understand, derive and deliver advanced technologies to help organizations make decisions with a body of evidence. This has culminated in the launch of Nature Research Intelligence, our portfolio of AI-based solutions that summarize research to better enable organizations to make data-driven decisions.
While developing these products, it became clear that within research organizations different departments don’t operate in silos. While AI initiatives are usually led by research and development (R&D) groups, they also provide an exciting opportunity for information professionals. In fact, a new role of the library is emerging, where the librarian doesn’t just provide content to researchers and Business Intelligence Managers, but helps them use these technologies to make sense of their data and develop informed strategic decisions.
But how do they bridge the gap with their R&D colleagues, and promote the unique skills they can bring to AI and ML initiatives?
We wanted to explore this topic in greater detail and share these new insights with our communities, so we partnered with Mary Ellen Bates, information industry expert and principal of Bates Information Services, to deliver a talk at the 2022 Special Libraries Association conference. Ahead of the session, Mary Ellen interviewed four Springer Nature customers working within science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM) fields, to learn more about their experiences of working with R&D departments—particularly in the wake of technological changes to the information landscape.
This white paper brings together the findings from those interviews, addressing some of the key challenges faced by information professionals when working with R&D groups, and highlighting how advanced technology projects bring a unique opportunity for them to demonstrate their impact to colleagues across their organizations.
VP Nature Research Intelligence, Springer Nature
One of the earliest effects of the COVID-19 pandemic on librarians was the abrupt shift from on-site to entirely remote access to information services and resources. Librarians had to revamp their outreach and collaboration strategies from in-person meetings and serendipitous encounters in the hallway to video conference calls and Slack channels. As the library’s users become more accustomed to—and, indeed, reliant on—virtual library services, information professionals need to find new ways to actively partner with their key user groups.
This is particularly a challenge for libraries and information services in science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM) fields; their researchers, scientists and other research and development (R&D) staff are often involved in advanced technologies and may not recognize or even be aware of the value that information professionals can bring to a project.
Which industry do you work in?
- Pharma & Biotechnology
- Oil, Gas & Geosciences
Recently, four information professionals from the USA, in industries ranging from energy and aerospace to pharmaceuticals, shared how they work with R&D groups, particularly given the changes in the research landscape brought about by big data, machine learning (ML) and artificial intelligence (AI). Throughout the conversations was the assumption that librarians can play a significant role in these cutting-edge projects; their skills in information science are directly relevant to the AI projects in which their R&D departments are involved.
Three themes came up consistently during these conversations:
- The importance of becoming trusted allies and building collegial relationships
- The need to demonstrate the value and impact of information professionals’ perspective in AI and other advanced technology projects
- The ongoing need to effectively market the library to R&D staff
What are the main challenges you face when working with R&D groups?
- Building relationships and becoming a trusted ally
- Demonstrating the value of your perspective in AI and other advanced tech projects
- Effectively marketing the library to R&D staff
- All of the above
1. Becoming trusted allies
1. Becoming trusted allies
A pharmaceutical company librarian noted that she is usually the one in any R&D staff meeting with the least amount of postgraduate education, so she is aware of the need to let people know that she is an expert in searching and information management. “As a library manager, I see myself as running a small company within a bigger company, so I am always thinking about how to build relationships with leadership. I make sure that whenever they deal with a librarian or knowledge management professional, they have a collaborative experience. Even when it’s pretty clear that we could propose a better approach to a project, we make sure we engage the decision-makers in our evaluation process, so they can see that we have expertise in the information field.”
She also noted, “It's important to be aware of the power dynamics of your interactions with R&D staff. Once, I was helping a research scientist troubleshoot a query and I asked him ‘What did you do?’ The conversation turned testy, so I tried again by asking him to show me how he got to the point where he was stuck. That completely changed the tone of the conversation, and it reminded me that people don’t like feeling accused of making a mistake.”
A librarian in the energy industry who has an interest in Python took on the lead in an internal Python network. She arranged to have another librarian present to the group about how the library could support this diverse set of people, from developers and coders, to those just interested in Python. This approach has helped them get better acquainted with the library and library staff. “That’s an effective way of planting some random seeds and spreading the word to groups who might not otherwise hear about us,” she said.
An information professional in an aerospace company talked about how she leverages her relatively small network to spread the word about the library, by making an effort to work with people who can magnify her message. “What has worked really well is reminding my network to personally bring any new staff member in to meet me,” she said. “Not only do I have instant credibility with the new employee by virtue of being recommended by a colleague, but I also have another chance to remind a long-time employee who may not use the library much of our value proposition.”
The energy librarian also described the power of partnering with business intelligence (BI) groups, especially because the library had recently received access to built-in analytics tools through some of their database providers. Since the BI group was not familiar with ways the library contributed to the company’s AI initiatives, the library looked for opportunities to teach the group how to incorporate their data analysis tools into the BI process.
As she described it, “The built-in analytics are helpful for more high-level analysis of trends, while the additional news analysis tools the library has access to enable us to dive deeper, especially when trying to look at trends over time or more granular concept analytics. The BI groups find these analyses useful for benchmarking, facilitating internal strategy development, facilitating competitor strategy discovery, and exploring external partnering opportunities.”
Librarians in STEM settings work with research professionals who often conduct their own online searches. Demonstrating the value of the library means going beyond searcher expertise to the impact that professionals with an information science background can bring to advanced technology projects.
Sometimes, librarians bring insight by mining the library’s operational data—identifying patterns of which analytical tools and data sets were acquired for which project and for how long, for example. The librarian at a pharmaceutical company described an impactful use for this kind of data. “We created a task force that looked at the information patterns around the lifecycle of a drug. Who is the first group in the pipeline who will need research? When do we need to start a specific subscription? What can we expect to be spending a year from now to support this product? I can use our metrics to help product groups plan for additional investments in information resources, based on what we’ve seen with prior products.”
Information professionals look for ways to demonstrate to R&D user groups the value of incorporating the library when negotiating a subscription to an information resource. One librarian I spoke with was in a meeting recently with a team that was evaluating an open access database and AI platform for a project. The team was ready to sign a contract but the librarian kept asking the kinds of questions that information professionals are accustomed to raising when evaluating an information tool, regarding licensing issues, customer support and integration of internal resources. As a result of her probing questions, it became clear that the product being considered was not well suited for the project—and that team gained a new appreciation of the expertise that a librarian can bring to a negotiation.
Just as librarians have had to explain to users why value-added information services have not been replaced by Google, recent developments in AI have led to unrealistic expectations of extracting insights from data. A librarian in the energy industry described a recurring conversation at her company. “Everybody wants to find the one tool that does everything—they want to just type in a question and have it spit out the solution. We have to explain to our users what they can expect from a machine learning tool. That’s why we value the analytical tools that some of our information providers offer; in fact, a few vendors include licensed data from other providers in their analytics. While these tools are usually not granular enough for all our needs, we find them helpful in giving a high-level view of what we might be able to accomplish with a particular data set, and to help users understand what they can and can’t expect from an AI tool. In fact, I think the value of us as super-users of information is that we can help teach others how to use tools in more strategic ways.”
3. Effective marketing to R&D staff
3. Effective marketing to R&D staff
In addition to identifying new ways that information professionals can have an impact on the success of advanced technology projects, they are continually trying out new approaches to convey the value of information services to R&D staff. Information professionals need to break down the old associations users have of libraries with stacks of print materials, and to be seen as the recognized experts in information searching, analysis and management.
Several of the librarians interviewed focus on maintaining a presence wherever their users congregate, either virtually or in person. The librarian in the aerospace field said, “We have a virtual presence on our internal innovation center’s website, linking people to the relevant analytical tools in the library, which has been very effective. And when our organization held hackathons in person, I would bring my laptop and promote us as the R&D Library. Our goal has always been to catch people when they are in the initial stages of their research, so they get us involved in the process early on.”
The pharma librarian explained her three-step approach: “Communicating our value in an R&D setting comes down to push, pull and wait. Sometimes you have to push a bit to get what you need—a new tool or resource, for example. Sometimes you have to pull people a bit to get them to use that tool, to understand when it could help them accomplish something new. And then you have to wait for the right opportunity, when you see a situation where that tool will have a big impact on the success of a project. You have to be ready when the opportunity comes.”
Interestingly, the librarian at an energy company takes the approach that collaboration with R&D teams can go both ways. “Not only do we partner with project teams to help them acquire the right resources,” she said, “but we also reach out to our user groups when we are evaluating a new or renewing subscription. We ask some of our super users what they value the most about a particular resource and when during the research process they use that tool. Through these conversations, we get a better sense of the use cases for the resource and we demonstrate to some of our most influential users how much thought and evaluation goes into acquiring an information resource.”
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STEM information professionals can thrive in the new information environment by focusing on their unique skill sets and perspective—understanding user’s information needs and information-seeking behavior, serving as trusted advisors and ambassadors by showing R&D staff the most appropriate information resources, and finding the most impactful way to deliver information services and sources to research staff. Information professionals who anticipate the data and analytical needs of their researchers and scientists, and who actively collaborate with AI and machine learning teams will enjoy greater support from their user groups and will make a greater impact within their organization.
Have you participated in AI/ML projects within your organization?
- It's not within my remit
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