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Where research goes, so go research libraries and scholarly communication

Catherine Murray-Rust, Georgia Institute of Technology | Feb 26, 2013

In early January, an article titled “The End of History Illusion” was published in Science. The researchers, Quoidbach, Gilbert and Wilson, define the end of history illusion as the tendency of humans to underestimate the magnitude of future change.

What are we — those of us whose professional purpose is to provide support for research — doing to anticipate and influence the future of research? How do we overcome the “end of history” illusion and face unwanted possibilities as well as desirable ones?

We can conduct marketing studies, assessments and evaluations with the goal of improving services in the short and medium term. These studies only go so far in encouraging our thinking beyond this budget cycle, this cohort of PhD candidates, this building project. To successfully plan for the future with a longer time horizon, we need to know more about the world of academic disciplines and the behavior of researchers themselves at various stages in their careers.

We know that there is a deep interest among doctoral candidates and early-career faculty in wide dissemination of their research work and the building of their personal “brand” — to use a word that probably would horrify most of them. Although some aspire to be research rock stars and celebrities, most know they will need at least some sort of public presence for their careers and work to thrive. They know that they need more than a page on a departmental website to be successful in the world of global research partnerships and increasing competition for awards. They are beginning to use social media and more sophisticated research profile systems because they need to be visible to attract support.

Universities are anxious to build their research brand as well. They want their faculty to be on fact-finding panels and the major networks, explaining everything from how solar energy works to how music affects the brain.

If more will be required of researchers, what more will be required of us in support of their work? The Association of Research Libraries (ARL) 2030 Scenarios project focused on engaging researchers, as well as librarians and publishers, in a discussion about how their future selves would operate in four research climates. It addresses questions such as: What role will universities have in research? What role, if any, will research libraries play? Can we imagine an end to university research programs? Can we imagine an end to research libraries? Can we imagine an end to commercial scholarly publishing?

We should be facilitating and encouraging conversations about the future with the people who will live and work in that future. We have come a long way from the days when librarians and publishers and other communities that support researchers decided what was best without dialogue. We have become far better at listening and learning, especially about short-term and medium-term needs and wants.

What remains is one of the more difficult human challenges: to imagine the future, with the help of formal scenarios or not. In that manner, we can encourage our users and colleagues to avoid the “history stops today” thinking that comes so naturally to all of us.