Using Adaptive Research Consultations to Support Scholars More Effectively

Megan Potterbusch

Megan Potterbusch is a National Digital Stewardship Resident (NDSR) at the Association of Research Libraries for 2016–2017. Her NDSR project involves integrating digital stewardship—defined as the convergence of scholarly communication, collection development, and long-term preservation, access, and use—into the scholarly workflow. The overarching goal of her work, like that of the Association, is to help make knowledge more open and accessible to all. To accomplish this, in partnership with several research teams from diverse disciplines at The George Washington University (GWU), Potterbusch is using the Open Science Framework (OSF). The OSF is a free, collaborative project tool that supports the life cycle of research, from data collection and analysis to access and use.

Scholarly workflows are highly variable; therefore, effectively supporting researchers requires adaptability regardless of the kind of support being offered. I begin every consultation I enter with a researcher by trying to understand their needs. Why have they agreed to meet with me? Are they trying to communicate more effectively, internally to their team or externally? Do they have a new challenge they need support in approaching? Is their team disorganized and interested in more streamlined processes?

Although I enter research consultations with questions in mind—and often on paper if there is a particular library or technical goal to illuminate, I try not to assume that my current favorite tool or tools will be the best answer to whatever the researcher’s current challenge might be or even that I already know the right solution to a given challenge. Instead, I gather resources and best practices throughout my work and mentally file them away to call on when the situation warrants it. My goal is to better understand researchers’ workflows and challenges from a human-centered service perspective, and to adapt my questions and solutions to the needs I hear arise in their answers—always seeking to gain a better understanding.

Similar to a traditional reference interaction, my research consultation hinges on what the scholar or team needs, not what I already know that I have to offer. This remains true even though the Open Science Framework (OSF) is at the heart of my residency. Regardless of how a consultation goes, the only reason a team will adopt a new practice is if they see value in it and believe that their work will benefit in some way from making the change.

In my work so far this year, I have met with researchers in the humanities, social sciences, and hard sciences. Each research group has a different need and a different motivation for being interested in talking with me. For example, when I met with Christy Regenhardt, co-editor of The Eleanor Roosevelt Papers, Volume 3 (forthcoming), the project was about to enter its next phase, and they needed to select a project management system. The OSF met their project management needs as well as their desire to publish the resources electronically after publication of the book. With several concurrent needs that were able to be addressed by the OSF, adoption was swift and effective.

However, if a group’s needs are met entirely by their current workflow, there is little to no motivation to adopt new technology. Such is the case with another group with which I am working. There is general recognition of and interest in many new digital tools, including but not limited to the OSF, but since all of the group’s needs are being met by their e-mail and website workflows, none of these newer tools have been adopted consistently by the research group. Since this particular research collaboration is just beginning, their technological and workflow needs will likely change over time, and I have introduced them to the OSF in case it meets future needs of theirs. I remain in close contact with this group as a collaborator and resource on technology and other resources as appropriate.

Hypothesizing that fear that an unfamiliar tool will have a higher cost than benefit holds many people back from trying something new, I have encouraged researchers to try out the OSF for something small or to simply play around with it. So doing, they can become comfortable with the interface and the ways that it can be adapted to better suit their research workflows. For this reason, I see any adoption of the OSF by researchers, including for single-purpose work, as a stepping stone towards future adoption and thus a foundational step towards modern, open science workflows and/or improved digital stewardship.

A good example of this sort of single-task use of the OSF is a project to standardize biocomputing, “High-throughput Sequencing Computational Standards for Regulatory Sciences (HTS-CSRS).” This is a project created and led by GWU associate professor Raja Mazumder and postdoctoral research associate Hadley King, but the success of the project depends on it being multi-institutional and having disciplinary buy-in. This research team’s mission, as outlined in their OSF project space, is “to provide the scientific community with a framework to harmonize biocomputing, promote interoperability, and verify bioinformatics protocols.” When I first met with Professor Mazumder, sharing documents and collaborating online with fellow researchers who had no access to Google Drive was the team’s primary challenge. The OSF and its Google Drive add-on provided them with a solution to this problem. The team could continue to use their current document and editing workflow and still effectively collaborate with all project stakeholders. Thus, initially, their OSF project space simply provided an open landing page for anyone interested in contributing to the Biocompute Object Core Specification document draft. As the team has hosted meetings and workshops, the related documents have been included in this project space on the OSF as well. Since the team has linked these documents and chosen to make the project public, the OSF project now operates as an additional entry point for potential collaborators.

With adaptive consultations and flexible relationship building, my interactions and role with each of the research groups with which I work differ greatly. Instead of expecting to simply follow a well-trodden path to success, this work is all about questing for pain-points and finding the best resources and techniques to help address them. This process naturally leads to unique collaborations. Ideally, in my view, each of these groups will find their way to (or continue their) effective practices that incorporate good digital stewardship into their scholarly workflows; however, I recognize that the way this is achieved will look different for each group. As librarians, we can help guide researchers towards this path most successfully by finding and teaching straightforward and directly beneficial tools and workflows that bring together researchers’ needs and our own need for responsible stewardship of knowledge.