The blurred line of responsibility between research offices and libraries

Problems can arise when boundaries are unclear.  

  • Dalmeet Singh Chawla

Credit: sorbetto/Getty Images

The blurred line of responsibility between research offices and libraries

Problems can arise when boundaries are unclear.

25 October 2021

Dalmeet Singh Chawla

sorbetto/Getty Images

As libraries and research offices evolve with the complex and competitive demands of the research enterprise, tensions over their respective roles have become apparent in at least two areas: open access (OA) and data management.

The issue came into the spotlight in August as it emerged that the Australian Research Council (ARC) had rejected grant proposals that mentioned preprints. This followed a rule change that forbade including or referring to preprints in any part of applications.

Previously it was only the inclusion of preprints in the applicant’s own list of publications that was banned. The change was missed by dozens of grant-seekers. In its own defence, the ARC said the rule change had been communicated to university research offices through webinars before the grants round opened.

The rule change, condemned as “astonishing” and “outdated” given the established place of preprints in the open science ecosystem, has since been reversed.

But for Em Johnson, a scholarly communications librarian in Australia, the episode highlighted a troubling knowledge gap between university research offices and libraries.

“All this time, librarians have been throwing their (limited) resources behind teaching open access to researchers, but we should have started and stayed with teaching it to research offices”, she tweeted at the time.

Johnson, who asked that her institution not be named to avoid harm to key professional relationships, told Nature Index it was likely that the ARC’s webinars communicating the rule change took place without any librarians present.

“It would have involved meeting with people from the grants management part of the research office,” she says. “I highly doubt there was anybody in there that had any real working knowledge or awareness of open-science practices.”

For Johnson, OA advocacy and awareness needs to reach all the way into research administration and policy areas of the university, including grants offices. But this is challenging, she says.

No standard model

“To provide effective research services to an institution, the librarian and the director of the research office have to be working very closely together,” says Douglas Robertson, director of research services at the Australian National University (ANU), Canberra.

Robertson says that despite clear differences between the remits of research offices and libraries, the boundaries vary at different institutions. But procuring and managing external funding is the clear remit of the research office, he says.

“The role can be very broad to encapsulate everything to do with research strategy and policy including open-access policies, research integrity and ethics,” says Robertson.

Some research offices, such as the ANU’s, also look after exercises such as the Excellence in Research for Australia, the country’s national research evaluation framework.

Robertson worked in research offices in the United Kingdom until 2013. In the UK, his responsibilities involved overseeing the institution’s innovation landscape, setting up spin-out companies and commercialization.

Robertson says the voice of research offices is weaker in Australia than in countries such as the UK.

There, the umbrella funding body UK Research and Innovation (UKRI) provides a buffer between funding agencies and the government, whereas in Australia, ministers are directly responsible for taking funding decisions. Robertson prefers the UK system. “I’m a great fan of the separation of powers,” he says.

Closer relationships

Oya Rieger, a senior strategist at the nonprofit research and consulting service Ithaka S+R, co-authored a 2020 analysis on the roles of senior research officers based on interviews with 44 incumbents at US research universities. She says all librarians would like to establish closer working relationships with research offices.

The 2020 report revealed tensions over research data management. In some cases, a library’s proactive role in supporting data management and providing public access to data was welcome, but in others, “the library was seen as a minor player or even an interloper”.

Rieger, who ran the popular preprint server arXiv for two decades during her time at Cornell University, in New York, says librarians have the aspirations to lead, but have limited resources.

“Maybe the question is not whether the library is making an effort to establish these relationships and build these collaborations,” she says.

“Perhaps the question is why aren’t we seeing more examples of the research office and a library working closely, and libraries being assigned resources to assist in supporting research offices’ strategic goal?”

The situation may be improving. In a study of more than 400 researchers and research office leaders by library software provider Ex Libris, respondents said collaboration between research offices and librarians was on average 6% higher in 2021 than in 2020. The main area of collaboration was compliance with OA policies, the firm reported.