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Academic librarians supporting applied research at the University of Michigan

By Ye Li, Chemistry Librarian, Shapiro Science Library, University of Michigan | Apr 16, 2014

Library support of applied research in academia is growing, and academic librarians are developing more comprehensive services to support the whole research life cycle from generating ideas to applying results. In this article I will highlight some of the associated challenges, and resources and services developed by the University of Michigan Library to tackle those challenges.

What underlies the librarian’s ability to deliver these services is our core expertise in finding, managing and evaluating information, data and knowledge — and also in making connections among people, resources and organizations. Collaboration is key.

Figure 1: Library services around the research life cycle

Rethinking my research community

Applied research is about converting innovative research output into real-world applications. For many economic and social reasons, applied research is getting more and more attention in academia. It is nothing new in the engineering and medical fields, but in recent years it has grown beyond those two traditional areas. When I first started my job as the chemistry librarian, I did not realize how fast applied research was growing. More than half the faculty members in the university’s Chemistry Department have some sort of joint appointments in other units, mostly with engineering and medicine, as well as pharmaceutical sciences.

This made me rethink the community I was serving and realize that I need to support applied research in chemistry. Fortunately, the university has developed many initiatives and service units to support applied research, such as U-M Tech Transfer, Business Engagement Center, Center for Entrepreneurship, and so on. Beyond the university, the local community has also formed many partnerships and nonprofit organizations to assist the business and economic engagement of our university. One example of this is the University Expertise Portal of the Michigan Corporate Relations Network. Built upon Elsevier’s SciVal solution, this research network has made it much easier to connect local businesses with the resources and expertise at major Michigan universities.

Identifying and tackling the challenges

1.  Funding and legal issues

University of Michigan is a public school though less than 20 percent of funds come from the state budget. From a legal perspective, we do need to ask if we can use those funds for education to support business development. People may argue that business development gives back to the local community and we can justify the use, but we still need to be very cautious.

2. Resource accessibility

Many licenses for our literature resources, like publications and databases, specify academic use only. However, sometimes the boundary between pure academic research and business development is blurry, especially for startups initiated by our academic researchers. We need to work with vendors to find realistic solutions to this issue, including discounts for startups that may have no revenue. We also recommend open access resources to researchers, although sometimes it’s hard to find good open access alternatives for chemists. Finally, we encourage use of a local document delivery services with reasonable prices for startups.

Beyond traditional literature collections, the library also provides tools that inspire more innovation and assist knowledge discovery; 3D technology is one example. UM’s 3D lab is now part of the library, and researchers can use 3D scanning, visualization and printing to materialize their prototypes with very minimal to no cost.

The library is also a neutral space for collaboration with access to resources and technology. We created multiple spaces in the library for the Center for Entrepreneurship where students can discuss, initiate and get advice on startup projects. We also opened a satellite library co-located with our Venture Center. 

3. Confidentiality and trust

When an idea has patent and/or business potential, researchers can become wary of sharing information. Oftentimes we need to build trust before they feel comfortable seeking help from us.

We can build trust by reaching out to researchers through workshops and seminars on areas of concern. For example, academics often need to balance between scholarly publications and their business interests. Planning when to publish and when to file a patent is really crucial for their success, as both a tenure track professor as well as an entrepreneur. To help answer this question, we asked our colleagues from Michigan Publishing and U-M Tech Transfer, as well as subject specialists, to speak with our researchers and librarians.

Click the image to access the video.

4. The right background

Librarians interested in supporting applied research need to learn more about legal, business and regulatory resources. As a chemistry PhD, I didn’t have a background in this area, but I am fortunate to work in an institution where I can draw upon many resources.

Unlike corporate researchers, most academic researchers would not choose to talk to a patent lawyer when they’ve just started their research, so they often need to determine if what they are working on is novel. In chemistry, structure search and Markush structure search in patent databases are primary methods to determine the novelty of a newly designed chemical substance. This is prime example of when we need to work with researchers and our colleagues in U-M Tech Transfer to really dig deeply into the patent databases. Sometimes it may be necessary to consult a patent lawyer as well to make sure that we are relatively safe to proceed.

5. Clarity

Many publishers, including Elsevier, are instituting text and data mining polices. However, the terms for use are still not yet clear, even for academic use only, not to mention applied research. We will continue to work together with researchers and publishers on that front.

Opening up the pipeline

Though many of my examples are from chemistry, the principles apply to a broad spectrum of disciplines. I have found the key to successfully supporting the university’s researchers in applied research and within my discipline is to connect, learn and collaborate.  And the outreach should not be limited to colleagues in library and information science, but open to others on campus and in supporting communities who have the legal, business, technology or entrepreneurship expertise. What’s more, working closely with publishers, vendors, and broader research communities, such as professional associations, ensures our continuous success in providing resources and services as well as facilitating a healthy culture of development in both basic and applied science research.


This article is based on Ye Li’s Library Connect webinar presentation Library Support for Applied Research in Academia: Challenges and Services.