A slice of research life: Information support for research in the United States

22 Jun 2010

Recent downturns in the economy have hampered state support for research institutions and reduced income from shrunken endowment accounts, encouraging universities in the United States to aim for a larger influx of research dollars

as a way to counter-balance restrictions of other revenue streams.

The average age for first-time Principal Investigators has increased to 42.6 years. The success rate for grant applicants has decreased from 31.6% in 2000 to 20.6% in 2009. Together, these factors produce greater intensity in competition for research awards and increased pressures felt by today’s investigators.

Meanwhile, technological innovations roll out at a rapid pace, offering new options for how scholarly work proceeds throughout the course of the research life cycle. Advances in hardware and software afford new opportunities for providers and consumers of information and information-related services. Researchers have quickly adapted to products that expedite their work, while rejecting those tools and services that do not offer ease of use and sizable payoff. In interviews with 38 individuals at four prominent U.S. research universities, respondents reported how they use information in the course of their research, what tools and services are most critical and benefi cial to them, where they continue to experience unmet needs, and how they prioritize use of their limited time.

Relationships between researchers and traditional library and university support for research have shifted radically. Given major time constraints within which they all work, investigators use and prefer easy solutions that are adequate, not optimal. The majority of researchers interviewed for this study use online tools and commercial services related to their discipline rather than tools provided by their university. Structured interviews revealed that researchers today derive great benefi t from using network-level search engines such as Google and from convenient access to electronic journals.

Despite tremendous advantages offered by digital access and networking, however, the stellar productivity of U.S. researchers continues to be built on a foundation of direct human connection, researcher to researcher. Researchers report that they struggle unsuccessfully with storage and management of a burgeoning volume of documents and data sets that they need and that result from their work. While some universities have devised new services to better manage data and other information derived from research, many researchers fl ounder in a disorganized and rising accumulation of useful fi ndings that may be lost or unavailable when conducting future research.

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