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Issues in Science and Technology Librarianship
Spring 2011
DOI: 10.5062/F44Q7RW0

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Librarian Involvement in Research Ethics: An Entry Point into the World of Sponsored Research

Jessica Adamick
Science Librarian for the Center for Hierarchical Manufacturing
University of Massachusetts Amherst
Amherst, Massachusetts

Copyright 2011, Jessica Adamick. Used with permission.

A developing role for libraries and librarians is an increasing involvement with sponsored research. This role has been mostly framed in the context of embedded librarianship, where librarians move outside of the library to partner with faculty and work more as team members instead of by-request resources. One concrete and well-documented example of librarian involvement in sponsored research is working with faculty on data management needs. Here, librarians become involved with research upstream: they might consult with principal investigators during proposal development on data management plans or they might provide workshops on data management best practices. Librarian partnerships with faculty on data management, which leverage a long history of librarian expertise in access, description, organization, and preservation, have set a great precedent for other types of partnerships in sponsored research.

One exciting prospective partnership is librarian involvement in ethics in science and engineering.

Training in ethics and the responsible conduct of research (RCR) has received increasing attention from administrators, scientists, engineers, and ethics education experts due to a new National Science Foundation (NSF) RCR training requirement. While the National Institutes of Health (NIH) has had requirements for ethics training since 1989, NSF implemented a policy mandated by the America Creating Opportunities to Meaningfully Promote Excellence in Technology, Education, and Science (COMPETES) Act (42 U.S.C. 1862o-1) in January 2010. It requires institutions that seek funding from the NSF to outline plans for ethics training for undergraduates, graduate students, and postdoctoral fellows, and mentoring for postdoctoral fellows. Programs are being developed and refined to address this requirement at the institutional level, and the work involved should not be underestimated. Since ethics and RCR training is now required by at least two major federal funders, and institutions are re-evaluating and creating local training programs, librarians should have a fundamental understanding of research ethics and RCR. They should further play a role in development and support of ethics training and education.

New ethics policies from funders have prompted many institutions to review and reassess existing ethics trainings, certifications, or requirements. Serving as links to multiple disciplines and centralized resources for a range of university affiliates -- from undergraduate to graduate students, and from lecturers to full professors -- librarians and libraries must understand the current political and cultural climate for RCR.

Raising awareness about ethics education and training and RCR among librarians is critical. Librarians support research and learning and are in excellent positions to invest in research ethics. Developing online resources that support research ethics is a strong example, and several resource sites currently exist. EthicShare is a research and collaboration web site developed at the University of Minnesota that includes several librarians on the project team. Another example is the Ethics Education Library (EEL) developed by the Center for the Study of Ethics in the Professions at the Illinois Institute of Technology. EEL has partnered with the National Academy of Engineering's Online Ethics Center and is managed by a librarian. Finally, the National Center for Professional and Research Ethics under development at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign includes a librarian co-principal investigator.

Liaison librarians should become aware of these resources and their discipline's domain-specific ethics issues, as many faculty will need to provide or participate in the training of students and postdocs, and may seek resource referrals from their librarians on these topics. For example, the librarian who manages EEL, Kelly Laas, makes materials referrals for NSF Research Experiences for Undergraduates (REUs).

Another role that librarians can take to support research ethics is serving on an Institutional Review Board (IRB) or Institutional Care and Animal Use Committee (IACUC). Nancy Harger and Judy Nordberg (Education and Clinical Services Librarians at the University of Massachusetts Medical School's Lamar Soutter Library) both serve on the UMass Medical School's IRB. As IRB members, they support protocol reviewers, primarily performing original searches for each protocol to supplement the work of the principal investigators. Harger and Nordberg report that serving on the IRB introduced them to a new dimension of research, and it also supported the library's mission of outreach, enabled networking across campus, refined search skills, and contributed to an understanding of the clinical trial approval process (Harger & Nordberg 2010). IRB participation supports the service mission of many college and university libraries, and directly inserts librarians into the faculty research process. Most of the literature on librarians serving on IRBs describes experiences of health sciences or hospital librarians, but there is also a role for librarians who serve science, technology, engineering, and mathematics (STEM) fields. Responsible Literature Searching for Research: A Self-Paced Interactive Educational Program is an excellent tutorial for both librarians and researchers on literature searching for IRBs. It is authored by Charles Wessel, a Health Sciences Library System Reference Librarian at the University of Pittsburgh Health Sciences Library System.

Advocacy for open access is a third role that librarians can take in support of research ethics. Librarian advocacy and ethical justifications for OA are well-established. The ethics of open access are related to the broader topics of ethics in scholarly communication: publishing and authorship, peer review, and collaborative research. Libraries are beginning to partner with research administrators and offices of grants and contracts to deliver services to researchers such as data management plan consulting and the hosting and dissemination of grant-funded research outputs. More partnerships regarding the ethics of scholarly communication are possible, particularly for research-intensive institutions. For example, libraries could develop systems that support collaborative work on a technical level or they could provide researchers with material dissemination options.

Librarians who serve science and engineering disciplines should understand core and discipline-specific issues in research ethics and be able to provide services or make referrals to appropriate resources. Resource development and referral work, IRB and IACUC involvement, and ethics in scholarly communication are well documented on their own, but rarely exist in the broader context of librarian involvement with research ethics. Librarians' work in research ethics should become part of a larger emerging conversation about library involvement in sponsored research. As information needs change at exponential rates, many academic libraries are working to transform themselves into nimbler, more adaptable institutions. Librarian involvement in project-based work like sponsored research supports the new library mission to be a flexible institution on campus. Research ethics is an important part of sponsored research work, and librarians now have the opportunity to adapt their existing skill-sets to this new environment.

Further Reading

Adamick J. 2010. Workshop Report. Ethics Day: Engaging Librarians in the Responsible Conduct of Research. Amherst, MA: Ethics in Science and Engineering National Clearinghouse.

Gonçalves, M.S., Fountain, J.E., Adamick, J., and Billings, M. 2010. Workshop Report. Ethics in Science and Engineering: Redefining Tools and Resources. Amherst, MA: Ethics in Science and Engineering National Clearinghouse.

Harger, N. and Nordberg, J. 2010. Embedded in the IRB. In: Ethics Day: Engaging Librarians in the Responsible Conduct of Research; 2010 Oct 8; University of Massachusetts Amherst.

National Science Foundation. 2009. Responsible Conduct of Research. Federal Register, 74:(160).

United States Government. 2007. The America Creating Opportunities to Meaningfully Promote Excellence in Technology, Education, and Science Act. 121 STAT. 572 PL 110-69. [Sections 7008 and 7009].


This article is an outcome of {Ethics Day: Engaging Librarians in the Responsible Conduct of Research}, a workshop for librarians. Ethics Day was one component of the National Science Foundation grant "Developing a Beta Site for a National Digital Library for Ethics in Science and Engineering" (NSF grant number 0936857). Any opinions, findings, conclusions or recommendations expressed in this paper are those of the author(s) and do not necessarily reflect the views of the National Science Foundation.

DISCLAIMER: The opinions expressed in this column are those of the author and do not necessarily represent those of ISTL, the Science and Technology Section, or the American Library Association.
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