Supporters, Specialists, or Leaders? Librarians' Roles in Research Partnerships


  • Connie Stovall, Associate Director for Research Impact & Intelligence, Virginia Tech Libraries

  • Tyler Walters, Dean, Virginia Tech Libraries

Research Collaboration Archetypes

How do scholars collaborate in research? A recent study by Robinson-Garcia et al reveals intricate patterns within research teams by extracting 222,925 researchers' roles and their career trajectory from 6,236,239 co-authored papers. Remarkably but not unexpectedly, data confirm that not everyone contributes equally. Recognized research collaborators largely fall into three distinct archetypes: leaders, specialists, and supporters. Although strict definitions do not exist, their statistical traits and behaviors are sufficiently different from each other. In short, leaders contribute critical ideas, specialists contribute critical expertise, and supporters do routine work.

A research project may collapse without a leader or specialist, but supporters can be easily replaced. This is why supporting research as a life-long career is not easy to sustain. Evidences from Robinson-Garcia et al have convincingly demonstrated this. See the following figure, while all junior researchers start as supporters and specialists, when they progress into the early career stage, those who play the leadership role have a much better chance to progress into mid-career. In contrast, most early-career supporters and many early-career specialists stop publishing before reaching mid-career, perhaps dropping out of the profession. The findings reaffirm the long-held conviction that the academic regime rewards originality over routine implementations. Other studies suggest that many junior supporting staff, including students and sometimes librarians, are not considered collaborators and are often denied recognition. Career-oriented, serious researchers are therefore strongly incentivized to contribute core research ideas or at least maintain highly sought-after expertise valuable to a broad range of research topics.

Career Trajectories, Productivity and Citation Impact Boxplots by Archetype.

Figure 5 from Robinson-Garcia et al


In this project, we extrapolate the supporter-specialist-leader archetypes to the academic library as an organization. If a library contributes neither original ideas nor sought-after expertise to the university's research, this supporting library is also prone to be marginalized over time and finds it increasingly difficult to remain on the table. Like a junior scholar’s career trajectory, the library must also move up the value chain.

Leveraging the Robison-Garcia model, we investigate methods to assess a library's archetype roles in collaborative research. Do libraries engage in collaborative research? Who are the collaborators? More importantly, what roles do libraries play in these collaborations? As a case study, we use VT Libraries' competitive external grant proposals to determine to what extent have we progressed into the specialist or even the leadership role.

Preliminary Results (Updated Nov 2022)

We sift through hundreds of competitive external grant proposals (and associated budget requests) involving at least one library employee as a PI or co-PI. We find out that VT Library employees collaborate broadly with faculty in all academic colleges. The stereotype does not hold in VT that librarians are more likely to work with Liberal Arts & Social Sciences faculty. Instead the partnerships are fairly balanced and roughly reflect VT's academic strengths. This may be attributed to a growing cohort of library employees with diverse academic background and advanced academic training. The results clearly indicate our collaboration pattern is quickly moving towards a research leader.

Note: IMHO, the supporting role is in no way any inferior in comparison to the other two roles. Indeed, playing the supporting role well is not only invaluable but also a necessary step towards the other roles, and Robinson-Garcia et al clearly showed that supporters, if recognized as co-authors, gained oversized impact even as junior researchers (in terms of their share in highly cited publications). But we cannot take for granted that all forms of supporting, explicit or implicit, will be recognized as collaborating. We must deeply embed ourselves in research rather than sitting on the sidelines or hovering over it.

VT Library Faculty's Academic Background

Roughly 20% of VT library faculty hold PhDs (as their highest degrees) in STEM, Social Sciences, Arts & Humanities, and Business, and another 40% hold 2nd Masters in these disciplines. The rest hold MLS/MLIS only.

There are very active collaborative researchers in all three categories. Even though the most productive PhD holders outperform those with MLS only or with 2nd masters, there also exist PhD holders who rarely participate in research. Therefore, the degree alone may be an unreliable indicator for research productivity.

With Whom VT Libraries Employees Write Grant Proposals With?

Roughly 1/3 of the library grant proposal collaborators are from College of Engineering, and roughly 1/4 each are from College of Sciences and College of Liberal Arts & Human Sciences.

How Much Credit Do VT Libraries Employees Receive In Comparison To The PIs?

Proposals submitted via VT Office of Sponsored Program for approval must assign a credit percentage to every PI/Co-PI/Senior Personnel. The assignment is typically made by the PI and total percentages must be equal to 100%. For example, a PI may assign 50% credit to self and then 20%, 20%, and 10% to the 3 co-PIs. We divide every PI/co-PI's credit percentage by the percentage the PI assigned to self, resulting in 100%, 40%, 40%, and 20% in the above example. We then tally these ratios into 3 brackets (<25%, 25-75%, and >75%) roughly mapping to supporter, specialist, and leader roles.

Related Publications

Zhiwu Xie, Connie Stovall, Tyler Walters. Leader, Specialist, Or Supporter? Dissecting An Academic Library’s Strengths In Research Partnership (Working Title). Manuscript in Preparation.