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Issues in Science and Technology Librarianship
Summer 2014

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Meeting the Needs of the "Invisible University:" Identifying Information Needs of Postdoctoral Scholars in the Sciences

Nirmala Gunapala
Science Librarian & Assistant Professor
New Mexico State University Library
Las Cruces, New Mexico


Academic libraries seek to play a central role in supporting the research enterprise on their campuses. Postdoctoral scholars ("postdocs") make substantial contributions to academic research and are an important group toward which services can be marketed. They are also difficult to find on many campuses, with some studies referring to this population as the "invisible university." As a result, little research has been done to identify their needs and interests or to respond through library outreach. This study presents insights derived from interviews with postdoctoral scholars in the sciences at a research university. Though some findings pertain to the immediate campus environment, many are transferable to any library wishing to strengthen its research services.

The Nature and Structure of Postdoctoral Training in the Sciences

The National Postdoctoral Association (NPA) defines a postdoctoral scholar (commonly referred to as "postdoc") as "an individual holding a doctoral degree who is engaged in a temporary period of mentored research and/or scholarly training for the purpose of acquiring the professional skills needed to pursue a career path of his or her choosing" (National Postdoctoral Association 2014). Today's scientific research demands a wide range of knowledge and skills that graduate school training alone may not provide. In the sciences and in engineering, postdoctoral training has become a widespread method of providing scholars/scientists with an intensive full-time research experience under an advisor who is a senior scientist. Through this training, postdocs expect to advance their skills and capabilities and ultimately achieve research independence. At the conclusion of their postdoctoral work, these individuals look forward to finding a permanent faculty position or a research position in academic, government, or industry settings.

Advanced training in scientific disciplines has been a feature of the United States education since the late 19th century, but postdoctoral fellowships were not prevalent until the late 1950s when demand for scientists and engineers as well as federal funding to support their training increased. As a result, the number of Ph.D. recipients in science and engineering fields grew significantly between 1960 and 1970 as did the number of Ph.D. recipients taking postdoctoral positions after completion of their degrees (National Research Council 2000). During that time, the postdoctoral tenure typically lasted for about two years, after which an individual would typically move to a permanent position. Training opportunities waned in the 1970s due to the economic recession, when both postdoctoral fellowships and permanent positions were sharply reduced, but resumed in the 1980s (National Research Council 2000).

Recent data show that the number of postdocs in sciences and engineering in the USA increased over the past years (National Science Board 2012). Traditionally the universities that employed them did not keep a record of this temporary position and the position is managed at the advisor level. Consequently the actual number of postdocs in the USA is uncertain. The National Postdoctoral Association Fact Sheet (2013) gives an estimate of 43,000-89,000 postdocs in the USA (National Postdoctoral Association Fact Sheet 2013). The number of foreign born postdocs (both non-citizens and naturalized citizens) who have completed a science or an engineering Ph.D. in the USA also increased and they held nearly half of postdoc positions in academia (The National Science Board 2012). The postdoc term that lasted for one to two years earlier now lasts over three years and sometimes it could be as long as seven to ten years. Duration of the postdoctoral term became longer due to the large number of graduates that qualify with Ph.D.s, limited federal funding, and a decrease in the faculty and industry appointments (De Jesus 2012). The tight job market also compels postdocs to hold two or more postdoctoral positions until they succeed in finding a permanent position (National Research Council 2000).

Today in almost every science and engineering research laboratory setting, the postdoctoral scientist has become an essential contributor for research programs. They work full time in research laboratories and carry out demanding, yet stimulating work, and are recognized as highly productive scientists in the U.S. academic science enterprise (National Research Council 2000; Mead 2007; Castañeda 2009). A 1999 study reported that 43% of first authors of research articles in Science were postdocs (Vogel 1999). The 2012 Science and Engineering Indicators stated that, "Postdoctoral researchers have become indispensable to the science and engineering enterprise and perform a substantial portion of the nation's research" (National Science Board 2012, Chapter 5, page 29).

Besides being engaged in research most of these scientists also successfully seek grant funding to support research programs. Most often they also take up additional responsibilities as needed such as training and supervising graduate and undergraduate research in the laboratories or overall management of the laboratory (National Research Council 2000).

Despite their vital role in supporting academic research, postdoctoral positions are not well-defined. In most universities they have an uncertain institutional status. Their titles can vary with the institution such as "fellow," "employee," "trainee," "associate," "faculty," "student," or "staff," and also as "employee-in-training," "scholars," "visiting scholars," or "students-in-training" (National Research Council 2000, page 72). Due to this elusive nature of the postdoc position, they are also seen as the "invisible university" (The "Invisible University" 2001). Many postdoctoral appointments are made under a grant by a senior scientist who also acts as principal investigator. These arrangements may or may not be formal. Because of the lack of administrative oversight for postdoctoral positions, many positions lack clear statements of appointment, defined position expectations, statements of rights and responsibilities, and defined pay scales or benefits. After widespread concerns were brought to light, great improvements at many of the largest U.S. research universities were made, but challenges in terms of recognizing and providing support for postdocs at other institutions persist.

Libraries and Postdocs

In spite of the significant contributions postdocs make to the overall research output of universities, there are only a few studies in the literature discussing library outreach to this user population. One most recent study conducted in the New York University in Abu Dhabi, United Arab Emirates reported a successful effort by a science librarian to create an outreach program for postdocs to be aware of library resources . O'Grady and Beam (2011) reviewed the postdoctoral position and its status within the U.S. university structure and pointed out the great opportunities libraries have to support this group of scientists and their research work (O'Grady & Beam 2011). Librarians could easily find information on faculty from the departments they serve, and traditionally they have direct contacts with graduate and undergraduate students through library orientation programs, instruction, and reference consultations. Librarians rarely find direct information about postdocs in the university. Academic librarians have traditionally focused on developing library services to serve the needs of the clearly defined patrons groups, faculty, graduate and undergraduate students. There are many studies that assessed the information needs of these groups (Palmer 1996; Brown 1999; Jankowska 2004; Brown 2005; Kuruppu and Gruber 2006). One study that focused on postdocs considered them collectively with doctoral students in assessing information needs (Tomaszewski 2012). Studying postdocs together with faculty or together with doctoral students as one group provides an understanding of the information needs of postdocs that are similar to that of faculty or to that of doctoral students. Postdocs, however, are neither faculty who are in an established position within the institution and dividing their time to teach, supervise research, and conduct research, nor are they graduate students working toward a degree through taking courses and conducting dissertation research within an established program. Postdocs are scientists who work full time, usually being responsible for two or more research projects, and strive for high productivity in research through publishing and securing competitive grant funding. Thus, considering postdoctoral information needs as same as that of faculty or grad students' information needs may lead us to miss valuable opportunities to serve the specific needs of postdoctoral scientists and thereby directly support their work. Further, these scholars are early career scientists who are beginning to gain skills and experience to become independent scientists. Providing support for their information needs is an opportunity to contribute to the development of future scientists.

Institutional Context and Research Study Objectives

New Mexico State University is a land-grant university in southern New Mexico, and is designated as a Hispanic serving institution with a total student population of 17,651 enrolled in 2012-13. The Carnegie Foundation ranked the university as a Research University with high research activity (RU/H) institution. The university's scientific research emphases include: animal and range science; biochemistry, molecular biology, and genetics; computer science and computer and electrical engineering; energy and bio-fuels; environment and ecology; medical and health sciences; plant and soil sciences; space; and water. Because of the breadth of scientific research programs at NMSU, this author saw the potential to build an understanding of the postdoc experience in a variety of scientific disciplines and undertook a study to align with the following objectives: 1) to increase understanding of the information needs of postdocs at NMSU; 2) to strengthen awareness of how NMSU postdocs find information needed to support their research appointments; and 3) to begin to develop a framework of the types of library resources and services that may improve the research productivity of postdocs working at NMSU. Although this study was conducted with one particular university and library in mind, it was thought that some findings would be transferable to other university and library settings.


The first step of the study was to locate postdoctoral scientists in science, agriculture, and engineering departments at NMSU. The approaches made to the Office of the Director of Research Development/Strategic Initiatives (ORD) and Human Resources did not turn out to be wholly successful since the former did not have a current list of postdoctoral scientists to provide, and the latter could only provide the department and the number of postdocs in each department. The names of postdocs were not revealed due to privacy concerns. Because of the difficulty in identifying postdocs, the researcher decided that multiple methods would be needed to identify and make contact with potential study participants.

The researcher prepared a news release, which was promoted to the campus community via university news services and hotlines, as well as to the online campus faculty discussion mailing list. The release described the aim of the study to be conducted, the incentives for participation, and the ways for interested postdocs to contact the researcher to participate. In addition, a letter was prepared and shared with each Head of Department/Unit in science, agriculture, and engineering departments, giving the description of the intended study and its terms based on institutional review board (IRB) guidelines, and mentioned the incentive for participation and requested that they pass the information on to their postdocs. The letter was attached with a consent form for interested postdocs to sign and give consent to participate and to agree or disagree to audio taping of the interview. The incentive for participation in this study was an gift card worth $50.00 for each participant who gave consent, and an opportunity to include their name in a drawing for an iPad at the end of the study. The incentives were funded by an internal NMSU Library research grant awarded to the researcher.

Names and contact information of 27 postdoctoral scholars on campus were gathered as a result of above efforts and 17 of them provided the signed informed consent form agreeing to participate in the study. Each of the 17 postdocs was then contacted by telephone to set up interviews. Ten of the participants were first-time postdocs who had recently completed Ph.D. degree in the United States or outside, and had been in the current postdoctoral positions at NMSU for periods ranging from four months to three years. Seven scientists had previous postdoctoral experience for one to three years in the U.S. or internationally before coming to NMSU. Five of the 17 participants were U.S. citizens while 12 were internationals who came to the U.S. within the past one to five years after completing prior education in countries as diverse as Germany, India, Taiwan, Korea, France, Mexico, and China. The 17 participants were from nine departments or research units affiliated with NMSU's science and engineering programs (Table 1). Of the 17 postdocs who participated in this study four were females and 13 males.

Table 1. Research areas of the 17 participants

Number of participants

Plant & Environmental Sciences


Fish, Wildlife & Conservation Ecology


Civil Engineering (Renewable energy technologies)


Civil & Geotechnical Engineering


Mechanical & Aerospace Engineering






Chemistry & Biochemistry


Long-Term Ecological Research


In this study one-on-one interviews were conducted to collect data in order to examine information needs and information activities of postdocs at NMSU. The interview questions included following areas: the participant's use of library resources and services including visits to library buildings as well as to the library web site, how participants find information needed for research, understanding of data management as is required by federal funding agencies, publishing research findings and methods of networking with other scientists, and suggestions the participant has for the library (see Appendix).

The interview followed a "semi-structured" method. The researcher used scripted questions to guide the conversation and to gather consistent information, but participants also had the opportunity to engage in conversation with the researcher and freely express their perceptions and experiences during the interview. The researcher was also able to seek clarification and to explore new topics that participants raised. All participants gave informed consent to audio record the interview and the researcher followed the institutional review board guidelines in conducting the study and managing the data.

The researcher contacted each participant who gave consent and scheduled a date and a location for the interview. An interview lasted approximately one hour and was conducted at a location on campus chosen by the participant for his/her convenience. Throughout fall 2012 and early spring 2013, the researcher met with each participant as scheduled, conducted the interviews using the set of pre-selected questions (Appendix), and audio recorded the interview. The researcher transcribed the recorded information manually without the use of qualitative data analysis software. Using color coding, the author selected parts of the text that were relevant responses to the questions and categorized the data into broader themes. Any recurring comments or expressions were also categorized into broader themes.

Results & Discussion

1. What is your research project? (The project, its set up, the work you carry out, briefly)

As the first interview question (Appendix) participants were asked to briefly describe the research projects with which they were currently involved in order for the researcher to gain an understanding of the projects and involved activities and interests that give rise to various information needs within the work environment context. All participants responded to this question at length explaining their projects and research activities involved. All subjects were responsible for two or more research projects, and the majority of these projects were work within large interdisciplinary collaborations within NMSU and/or with other U.S. or international universities and organizations.

2a. Visits to the library and in person services

The NMSU Library has two buildings: Branson Library and Zuhl Library. Zuhl Library houses collections in arts, social sciences, business, education, and humanities. Branson Library holds collections in agriculture, engineering, and the sciences. Branson is also home to the Library's current periodicals collection and the media collection. Both buildings provide a learning environment for library users. Computer terminals are available for NMSU users, and the library offers a laptop and iPad loan service. Both library buildings feature enhanced electrical capability and wireless networking to support users. Library buildings offer a mix of individual study space as well as group work space, photocopiers, and scanning stations.

Fifteen of the 17 participants said that they visit the library with a frequency that ranged from "1-4 times a month to "a few times a year," or "not too often" (Figure 1).

Frequency of use of the library building
Figure 1. Use of the physical library

Two participants did not visit the library at all. One of them is stationed at a distant research laboratory far from the main campus and has not visited the library, and the other who is in the main campus admitted not knowing anything about the library, adding, "(I) did not know that we have two library buildings." Six participants visited both Branson and Zuhl, while six visited only Branson library. Three participants visited Zuhl only. The participants gave many reasons why they visited the physical library buildings:

Zuhl Library
To pick up books requested through ILL service
To pick up statistics books
To pick up fiction
To read reference books for research needs

Branson Library
To find books
To scan papers
To find what is not available online to access
To read when taking professional exams
To find old books, old information, old protocols
To read in the periodical room
To find primary print literature
To find old data
To see new books
When need a hard copy of an article
To see print theses and dissertations
To browse books
To browse government documents
To read newspapers
To find movies
To look at new journals
To refer to American Chemical Society's supplemental materials prior to 1996 in microfiche

This indicated that although these postdocs do not visit the library frequently, they are using many available resources in the physical library.

NMSU Library conducts several workshops on the use of some of the library's databases and information management tools for users. The library advertises these events through the university's news outlet to the campus community and also the subject librarians frequently send e-mails about such events to the departmental liaison (a professor in the department assigned as the liaison to the library) to circulate to the department. When asked, "Do you get information about library workshops that are offered by the library? Have you attended these workshops?" 15 participants said that they never knew about any workshops conducted by the library and have not received circulated e-mails about workshops from the library. One person said, "Kind of rings a vague bell .... Not sure of usefulness to me," while another said, "Yes, I got news of them. I heard about Mendeley workshop and wanted to attend. But then heard that a professor in our department is teaching it. Mendeley is really helpful to me. Would recommend it to beginners, and it is free!"

Two participants mentioned the following that gives the researcher more awareness about this outreach service: "I do not remember getting any e-mails from library. I would love to get e-mails from the library. I have a couple of technicians and grad students that work with me and all of them are pushed to write and publish. I keep telling them to use EndNote or something like it because it makes your life way easier;" and "No, I have never got any e-mails about library workshops. Also did not know that XXXX is the Library Liaison! We occasionally get e-mails that some journals will be cut and to let them know if we need them or not. Those are circulated...."

These responses clearly indicated that even though the library had been sending information regularly out to users, the information may or may not reach these users. Of the 17 study participants, 14 never received information about library workshops. The library needs to re-think the methods used to reach this population with announcements about services.

2b. Library web site and services offered through the web site

All 17 participants said that they used the library web site. Ten of them mentioned using it "often, daily or almost daily" while six participants used the web site "not often" or "sometimes" while one used it only occasionally (Figure 2).

Frequency of use of web site
Figure 2. Use of the Library web site

Three participants used the library web site to search for books and did not depend on it for articles, while 12 participants looked for articles only and did not use it for book searches. Three participants searched for both books and articles in the library web site. The researcher noted that although these participants searched for articles in the library web site, the library was not their first source to approach for articles. Responses to the question "How do you go about finding what you want in the Library web site" clearly indicated that the participants did not find the web site easy to use, and most were unsuccessful in finding and accessing needed information as illustrated by these comments:

I look for articles only. Books are difficult to find in the library web site. When looking for articles on a topic, first go to Google Scholar, and if do not find what I need or do not find the full text, use library web site. I use One Search and search for the topic -- If taking too long, or do not find, then turn to Web of Science via Article Indexes. If looking for a specific article (reference), use Electronic Journals link and search for Journal title - if not found, go to Web of Science.

I use library web site often. But first go to Google scholar and if what I need is available, no need to go to library web site. I use library web site to go to Web of Science. I want high input high quality journals, also want citation reports, h index to see how our papers are cited. I do author and title searches. If find an article and if not freely available online, I look for the journal or type the author, title and publication year in the citation linker.

Do not use library web site often. When I try, I get confused with the library web site. To find library web site, usually I Google "Zuhl library" or "Branson library." I do not remember how I search library web site because it is normally random. Every time I look for something it does not work, so I change -- I put the author, title, or keyword or various combinations. Usually author, title works. For me finding books is somewhat successful, not always.

I know how to find books in the library web site. I do not use it for articles. The web site is too difficult to navigate and find. For me it is good first to go to ScienceDirect through the Internet and then search for my journal, look for my article. If I find an article I get it either through ILL or ask a friend in my old university. If I get an article online that gives direct link to library I get it from library web site. But I do not look for an article in the library web site. I use SciFinder. I have it bookmarked.

I search the library catalog for books and make ILL requests. Do not look for articles normally. All articles I want are available for me via SAO/NASA Astrophysics Data System. For articles that I cannot find that way I use library web site's article linker to look for that article.

From "articles, books, journals" link I go to "article indexes" and go to SciFinder that I use a lot. If I have a DOI of an article I plug it in to the DOI resolver in the library web site and get it. If no DOI, I might use citation linker and put in the title, but usually If I do not have a DOI, I do not attempt to use the library web site further because it is too much work - I do not go further.

I am not successful in using library web site for my book needs. I may not know how to find book in the site or library does not have the book I need. I put in title words in main search box, also try other options in the search box but not very successful.

I search for e-journals in the library web site. From articles, books, journals link go e-journal link and type in the title, or have two windows opened: Google Scholar and the library web site. I look for articles in Google Scholar and when do not get full text, search in library web site. If library does not have click, ILL link.

Most of the postdocs used Google or Google Scholar first, and if the article was not available or if the full text was not available to access, they turned to the library web site. Niu et al. (2010) who studied information seeking behavior of faculty, staff, postdocs, and grad students in five U.S. universities similarly observed that most researchers turn to Internet search engines, particularly to Google to begin their information searching and noted that because of this users have begun to prefer the ability to search all resources through one single search and get immediate results (Niu et al. 2010). When using the library web site the postdoc participants seemed to routinely follow only a few links that they have discovered that led to what they want, and have not made an effort for systematic searching to find information. They also have not explored many other resources and services presented in the library web site. The exception was the link to "Request It" or the interlibrary loan service link that most of them mentioned as using regularly. The responses to the question on how useful the library web site was for their needs and their view are presented here. Most participants found the library web site difficult to use and expressed their views that some redesign was needed to improve its usefulness to them.

Library web site is OK but to find books, overall not too helpful. Complicated. For author last name or title search, so many items come up, a long list. So difficult. Book search needs improvement. At the beginning here I was frustrated with the online library. Now I am used to it. I used to ONE SEARCH. It takes time and have to wait and it's irritating. When I search for a journal name in the journals-list it gives the date range found at NMSU and from there need to click more, or type the title and year. All this is a long way with many steps. I like to get things quickly and prefer user friendly.

"Not very user-friendly and not an intuitive site. Distracting. Does not work in Chrome and that is an issue for me. Having to login every time I use the library web site is also a problem.

Web interface is a bit complicated. Too much stuff and you miss your focus. Can miss the tiny bit of information I need among other things I do not need. When I type in journal name in the search box in the library home page, it searches everything, every database, books. Even if you get something but still too much information. All I need is (to know) if the library "have or not" at NMSU like "Sorry do not have."

Library web site is not easy to use. It takes some effort to understand where things are. Lot of noise that you have to cut through to get to what you need. May be it is good for undergrads but for us researchers, faculty we need 2-3 things and the library web site is not easy to get them.

It is hard to find where things are at the beginning. To not waste time I prefer having journal search box right on the home page. As is, you need to get familiar and figure out where things are and use, and it becomes mechanical. Good web designing is important.

Library web site is difficult to navigate and find something at the beginning. As a grad student at NMSU I could not find what I want and called the library and they said they have what I want and guided me through the navigation to find it. Too many steps to find anything and not intuitive.

It is not easy to use. All library web sites are pretty confusing to me. In every place I've been it has been like that. That is logical. There are lots of works there, I have to get used to it.

Have not given much thought on that. Do not use it much except for books. I am OK with the books searching you have. I had a similar web site in the library in India except for the classification system. It was different.

Eleven participants mentioned Google, Google Scholar or Google Books as routinely used online resources with one participant mentioning, "It is all Google for me!" Table 2 shows the distribution of databases/online resources used across disciplines.

Table 2. Routinely used online resources across disciplines



Google **




Web of Science





Plant and Environmental Science


Fish, Wildlife and Conservation Ecology



Civil & Geotechnical Engineering




Chemistry & Biochemistry




Mechanical & Aerospace Engineering






Long Term Ecological Research program





Civil Engineering (renewable energy technologies)



Total number of participants that used the resource









*NASA/SDS = Astrophysics Data System digital library portal operated by the Smithsonian Astrophysical Observatory (SAO) under a NASA grant.
** Google includes web searches, Google Scholar and Google Books.

One participant mentioned WorldCat and another "One Search" in the library web site as one of the primary information sources that they turn to. Web of Science was used routinely across most disciplines, with 10 participants using it as one of the main information sources. One participant mentioned that Web of Science was important to them as a source to find "Journal Impact Factor" and "h index" besides finding articles. The discipline-specific databases SAO/NASA Astrophysics Data System, AGRICOLA and SciFinder were used by those within the respective disciplinary areas only. During the discussions some participants indicated that they prefer Google Scholar because it is fast and easy to use, but recognized Web of Science as a database to find "high quality" information.

The Interlibrary Loan Service (ILL) at the NMSU Library that is referred to as "Request It" online, is one of the highly used services and its use has become more important to most users following the removal of a large number of journal titles during recent cancellation projects. When asked if they use the library's "Request It" service, three participants did not know about the service. Four participants said they knew of but have never used this service. One participant said, "I never used ILL here at NMSU. There was no need. I think you have a pretty good collection of books that I need." Another participant who is working in a large collaborative research project in agriculture mentioned, "Never used ILL service. I tried but could not figure out how. Also it cannot be spotted in my first glance in the library web site. When I need something that I cannot find I e-mail our Secretary and she gets it through our Federal Government System." Ten participants said that they use it mentioning the frequency of use as "Very often, often, sometimes, and occasionally." Among those who used the service, all reported positive experiences (see below).

It is a good service.

A great service 90% satisfactory -- always helpful and found all I want.

Good service, been good to me, reasonably quick, got all I wanted.

Good reliable service. Happy with it.

I appreciate the service, but takes a longer time.

May have used the service thousand times -- good response -- good service --(they) let me know if it is here, or if not, they get it from other places.

Very good service. I like it -- they deliver too.

Service is very fast and good - but sometimes the need is IMMEDIATE and then ILL is not useful.

A pretty good service.

A very good service.

3. How participants went about finding information needed for research

The two questions under this heading (see Appendix) were meant to uncover the ways in which these scientists found information they needed at two different points in their postdoc appointment: 1) at the beginning of the postdoctoral position when they are faced with the task of making decisions on projects, learning about the subject areas and learning about the work that has been done, and planning and developing the project, and 2) once they have gained some experience and are conducting routine research. The participants talked at length about their experiences. Ten participants described a process by which they were guided and supported by their advisor and/or other scientists in the department. Guidance and support included providing or suggesting literature. Seven postdocs mentioned Google and Google Scholar as the main sources of information during this period. Twelve postdocs also mentioned using the library to find books, theses, journals, as well as databases such as SciFinder Scholar and Web of Science. The majority of postdocs reported seeking additional help from their personal networks of colleagues and friends. In some cases, postdocs reported getting information sources from friends and colleagues from other universities, from others in their laboratory group or other laboratories, from a departmental article or lab notebook collection, or from sites to which they had access to information content due to a societal membership.

Interview subjects reported that they continued to rely upon many of the same sources and techniques after gaining more experience with their project, though it was also evident that more of them had become aware of and were using resources provided by the library. In addition to Google and Google Scholar, scientists were able to name other library-provided databases that they routinely used (Table 2) as well as use of the Library's interlibrary loan service (Request It!). Reliance upon networks of friends, collaborators, and colleagues in other universities continued, with some postdocs reporting that they turned to these individuals to help in getting needed articles. Many interview subjects compared the NMSU library to other libraries they had used previously, both in terms of specific resources as well as services, for example:

Had easy access to more resources and journals in India.

I use Web of Science to find impact of journals where I publish in, but cannot get the ranking info from NMSU Library's database. Library told me that you do not subscribe to that part, so ended up asking a friend in another university to find that information for me.

Library's subscription is not wide enough for journals. For some journals the library's available year range is very limited. We need a wider range for research. Old articles are the benchmark papers so back issues are important.

My needs are IMMEDIATE. I need NOW. So I ask friends in Taiwan to send me articles.

We in chemistry have very limited access to what we need from the library. So we turn to friends in other universities. We cannot access ScienceDirect, Royal Society of Chemistry and Wiley journals here.

For what I cannot find at NMSU library I use the ILL service we have via our department's secretary and she finds it quickly for me. When I had access to my previous university for one year, I used to find things that I wanted.

In some cases, postdocs mentioned not being able to access resources that were in fact available from the NMSU Library. In other cases, they knew the source they wanted, but were frustrated by differences in the extent of access through a resource such as Science Direct.

4. Understanding of data management as is required by federal funding agencies

In the recent years a move began towards making research data more transparent to ensure that federally-funded research reports and the data on which those reports are based are accessible to the general public. Some federal agencies now require that researchers include a data management plan with their grant proposals describing how the data produced by the research project will be managed and shared. The National Science Foundation began its mandate in January 2011 (National Science Foundation 2011). Question 4 (Appendix) in the interviews was asked in order to determine interview subjects' awareness of the new mandate as well as to learn more about their roles with data management. Four participants reported that they were funded by non-governmental organizations or had private funding and the mandate does not apply to them. Some research agreements with industry prohibit data sharing. The majority of participants (13) reported that their projects were federally funded. Six said their projects were funded by the National Science Foundation (NSF) and the rest were funded by a variety of federal agencies, including: National Institutes of Health (NIH), National Academy of Sciences (NAS), Department of Agriculture (USDA), and Department of Energy (DOE). Of the six whose projects were funded by the NSF, four participants knew about the federal requirement on data management and the need to share data publicly. Three of them were preparing to submit grant proposals and were planning to submit a Data Management Plan. One participant knew about the requirement through training she received at another university. Seven participants who were working on projects funded by federal agencies said that they did not know about the federal requirement. They mentioned that their advisor/professor handles those aspects of the project. A few participants indicated that their laboratories had established procedures for managing research data (in organizing, adding metadata, and storage), but they were not sure of the data's long-term status including data preservation and accessibility.

5. Publishing and presenting research

All 17 participants had published their work and continued to do so. They also mentioned presenting work at scientific conferences once or twice a year. All said they have sufficient support from the department and/or their advisors for such scholarly communication efforts. When talking about available publishing models, some participants placed highest priority on getting their articles published in "prestigious" journals with high impact. Whether or not the journal had an open access model was not a priority for them, though several others described departmental funding to support journals with page charges for authors. One scientist who is funded by NIH said she deposits her articles in the public archive, PubMed Central. Another said, "Yes, we have all the support for that from the department. I deposit my publications in the open archive and publish in paid journals like Astrophysics Journal which is very expensive and the publishing fee comes from the (grant) fund." Another said, "Depending on the journal, we publish open access. It depends. Sometimes we pay, like for review papers so it is open to everybody. I have published in Journal of Environmental Protection which is open access. Otherwise, American Chemical Society journals. But they have restrictions. Then also there are Environmental Science and Technology, INEC, RSC, Green Chemistry, etc. I get sufficient support from the department." One participant who works with a research group that directly supports open access to research findings said, "We (in the research unit) are very open to data sharing philosophy. Increasingly now we are paying extra money to do open access publishing so we do not have to deal with a copyright restriction. We also have published a handful of papers by paying author fee to publish open access. We are looking forward to publishing in PLoS open access. We are doing more and more work in Africa, China, Mongolia and copyright restrictions pause problems when sharing information."

6. Methods of networking/connecting with other scientists

In this Internet age social media platforms have given many scientists ways to communicate their research and related information efficiently and rapidly with other scientists and the public. Using various social networking platforms is common now for scientists to connect with other scientists to discuss and share ideas, opinions, other information related to research such as journal articles they wrote or read, and research techniques or methodologies in research. Through these activities scientists gain increased visibility and productive communication opportunities that are beneficial to them (Bik et al. 2013). These activities also give opportunities to meet collaborators beyond their disciplines and institutional boundaries to work together in joint research projects. Research funding agencies now encourage such multidisciplinary collaboration in research. Activities of scientists through social media sites have also triggered interest in identifying new ways of measuring the output of scientific research (Altmetrics) instead of depending only on the impact factors of journals (Schekman & Patterson 2013). Understanding how scientists use these different online avenues and tracking article-level metrics in articles written by the university's scientists in online journals such as Public Library of Science (PLoS), librarians may assess the university's research impact online (Lin & Fenner 2013).

When asked "Do you use any online social networking sites to connect with other researchers to discuss, share and develop networks?" four participants did not mention any specific social networking sites to connect with other scientists. Thirteen participants mentioned various ways that they utilize to connect with other scientists online.

Yes, we solar researchers are all in the Facebook (FB). My professor and all big shots in my area are in the Facebook and are actually connected with me there! I maintain my Facebook as a private group, for work only, not for school friends. Most solar researchers are in FB and so it is convenient to connect.

Facebook is one way. There are many science groups in FB and if you are in a group you see what is going on with others. Some will be of interest. I got FB for personal friends as well, and I am in some FB professional groups. You get information much faster from other professionals. Direct and instant, and way before I get it from their publications later. It is a good way to know what's going on from all over the world. Blogs are another place for information. Professors, students write their own blogs and blogs are informative. I found very useful information from one professor's blog. Professional societies are all good sources for information.

It was interesting to note that a postdoc who arrived from China used the "Chinese version of the Facebook," a social networking site created in China called Renren. He said, "I connect with Chinese scientists through my "Chinese Facebook" where I can talk to them from anywhere any time, we talk about work, we discuss. I connect with other non-Chinese international scientists through e-mail. I do not use the international Facebook because when I go to China I cannot access it.

One participant talked about his experience with ResearchGate, the social networking site specifically for researchers, Mendeley which combines reference management with social networking for researchers, along with LinkedIn that provides a platform for social networking for professionals: "ResearchGate is a good place to connect. But it keeps on asking you to archive my articles that I publish and that does not always go with terms and conditions of the journal that we have an agreement with. I also have an account in Mendeley and it is more useful to me. When you have all your references in it, you can access it from anywhere. But in ResearchGate you can add your own publications but cannot collect your collection that you read. In ResearchGate and LinkedIn I discuss and share information about work and get help from other scientists. In LinkedIn we have special groups to communicate and discuss any questions."

Those participants who did not use any online social networking sites, used other ways to connect:

I connect with authors of articles via e-mail, like sometimes if a piece of information is missing in a description of an experiment, I e-mail the author of the paper directly and they reply.

I meet other scientists at conferences and begin contacting. Use e-mail. Sometimes I use Skype or telecom system if more than one person is involved.

I do not do social networking. If I want specific answers I go to networks I have created via conferences and via e-mail or phone or Societies that have forums to connect online. American Society for Mass Spectrometry (ASMS) and American Vacuum Society (AVS) have that kind of forum where I can talk and share.

No, I do not use any of networking sites. I subscribe to an e-mail Listserv in Ecology.

I go to online message boards to get help with SAS and R (Statistical programs) like computing things, not for research questions.

7. Suggestions the participants had for the library.

In closing the interview, the researcher asked the participants to share any suggestions for the NMSU Library and asked participants to share information about any other resources needed for their work that they would like to have. While suggestions were made specifically to the NMSU Library, many of the recommendations have wider applicability to other libraries. Participants were pleased to be asked for their ideas and most went on to offer multiple suggestions concerning resources and services.

Books, library catalog

Although many STEM disciplines are more heavily reliant upon article literature, several participants expressed their concerns with the quality of monographic literature available to support their work. In addition to providing sufficient coverage of books in their specific project areas, participants also asked for depth in reference materials as well as in study guides for particular professional development exams; for example, one participant said, "Need more books to help prepare for professional development exams, like for engineers. For postdocs this counts for tenured positions when applying. So we need more reference material to support these exams. I requested via Interlibrary Loan Service and got a few, but not enough. So I bought some books. The Library should support professional development exams for postdocs."

Other suggestions involved providing more assistance in finding books or items within the physical library, for example, by providing a library floor plan in the catalog, "If I find a book and know the call number, I do not know where the book is. I like to have the floor plan with call numbers. In my previous universities when I find a book it also gives information about the library and the exact floor location. It is not difficult for a programmer to include that information in the library catalog." Another suggested having "language support" in the library catalog mentioning that our university is a minority serving university and there is a significant population of students who speak Spanish and few other languages and such support would be very useful.

Some participants mentioned that they would like to suggest books to the library. The subject specialists at NMSU typically communicate through academic department liaisons as a means of gathering suggestions for books or other resources needed to support that program's teaching and research. Although the library expects this information to be circulated to all in the department, this discussion showed that it was not reaching the postdocs interviewed by the researcher. During this discussion the researcher also became aware that these participants did not know that the library has a collection of electronic books, and that there are subject librarians available to support them. These observations pointed to the critical need of rethinking and strengthening the library's outreach efforts to science postdocs.


Not surprisingly, many suggestions concerned increasing access to journals. Participants suggested more journal coverage for specific areas of interest, and the need to access to back files. One mentioned, "Library's subscription is not wide enough. In Japan I never felt that something is not available to me. There was a wide choice. In Hawaii too it was the same. Here lots of journals in plant sciences are not available. I do not know how library evaluate our needs," and another, "Journals are important and so suggest to have more relevant journals in the library. This is an important factor."

Library web site

Most participants reiterated the suggestion to have an "easy-to-use" library web site.

I prefer a library web site that it intuitive, easy to use and understand. You are there to search and find something and I do not want other distractions.

Web interface is the dominant place to access the library resources. Need to have it very clean and easily accessible to every single thing you need all at once. Need to have less noise by not having all stuff at one time in the interface but at different places perhaps, like have grad and faculty needs in one place and undergrad needs in one. At my previous university the web interface had similar problem. It was cluttered. While I was there they went through a big revamping of the library web site and it ended up just as cluttered! Earlier I knew where to find things I want and after, I had to learn how to find them again! I know the process of revamping, everyone give ideas and you end up with a complicated picture.

The library web site is a significant representation of the library and its services. Its design, usability and its functionality are critical to users. The interviews provided some data on specific areas of difficulty postdocs encountered when using the NMSU Library's web site. All libraries, including NMSU, can benefit from conducting usability testing of their sites and from incorporating data from different user groups such as postdocs to learn of their specific needs and points of difficulty (Crowley et al. 2002).

Library orientation & other suggestions to the library

Another important suggestion was to have a library orientation for postdocs at the time when they are beginning their projects. The discussion showed that many participants have never had an opportunity to learn about the library and its resources when they arrived at NMSU. One participant explained, "When we arrive we do not know where to go to find information. Specific information about the library will be useful at that early stage like "Yes you should go there. There are people to help you" etc., to let us know what is possible with the library. A short orientation about the library like, Zuhl Library is for what, Branson Library is for what. If you need this, do this etc., a lot I did not know. Sometimes mine is an immediate need for information. For postdocs it is different from grad students. We have to prepare and answer to Grants. Need quick access points to information before deadline. Grant logic is quick and you do not know months ahead what you may need."

Another thought was, "I think it would be helpful for new scientists to learn about the library web site. Postdocs are looking to join academia or industry research and so learning about all library resources and services would be helpful like copyright information, open access and other publishing information, knowledge of inter library service, access to printers etc."

One participant suggested keeping copies of successful grant proposal as reference resources to grad students and postdocs, "We postdocs write grant proposals, and once accepted it is good to keep copies in the library for others like Ph.D. students and postdocs as examples to refer to how to write, how to format. For technical writing training for different funders like USDA, NSF, DOE, etc., we have a good source at the Physical Science Laboratory. This has facilities for workshops, and they organize them on how to write proposals, how to write specific things, but it would be good if library can keep copies of what was accepted. Postdocs (new to grant writing) especially want to see successful grant proposals."

Conducting library orientations is not a new practice for the NMSU Library or many other libraries. The challenge with this user population is determining when new postdocs are starting and building the connections with departments, labs, and perhaps other campus offices to facilitate orientations that may need to be customized to the individual and project. In addition, regular follow ups are key to ensuring that postdocs stay abreast of changes and new developments in library resources or services. The researcher believes that the expressed needs of the postdocs themselves may be the best tool for alerting departments and faculty to the importance of these connections, and has already begun to share the findings with key individuals on campus, including departmental liaisons as well as campus programs such as NMSU's International & Border Programs Office.

Meeting other postdocs, professional development opportunities, and other information

Many participants suggested the library to be the place for an event to meet other postdocs on campus, to get to know and learn from each other on issues of interest to them. Another suggestion was for the library to organize workshops and webinars on professional development related topics. "Would be nice to meet other postdocs, perhaps meetings to interact with each other. Like to have information on workshops for postdocs, information about postdoc position itself. No, I did not know about the National Postdoctoral Association."

A participant who has taken up teaching mentioned, "Postdocs mentor and train graduate students. Sometimes they teach, like I do. I offer a course on "Research." The Library can help in this kind of teaching by helping with new information, information to design a good course, needed text books, kind of spontaneous support for teaching by postdocs." He added, "Organize seminars to tell us about your collection, what is new? etc. E-mails can be sent to each and everybody telling what is new. Publishers do this. Also kind of automatically let us know when a book is returned."

"Postdocs after a few years look for academic positions or research positions in national labs or industry. So workshops, counseling kind of things that we do not have, that are helpful."

Suggestions specifically to improve postdoctoral experience

The participants also brought suggestions to overcome some limitations within the university that affect postdocs. These suggestions are valuable feedback not only to the library but to the university as well. Following are some suggestions:

Give some recognition to postdocs, like select annually someone who accomplished a significant work, publication, patent, a national project contribution etc., to be encouraged /recognized by the university. These are available for faculty and staff but not for postdocs.

NMSU does not have an affiliated membership in the National Postdoctoral Association. So we postdocs have to find our own membership.

There has to be a contact person for all postdocs at NMSU who can contact and collect all issues concerning postdocs.

We need on campus housing for postdocs. Postdocs are staff and so not allowed to stay on campus housing. To be eligible you need to register for credit hours. Other schools have housing for postdocs on campus, and special communities for postdocs.

International postdocs

Although there is support for international students at NMSU through the International and Border Programs office, the university does not have an office dedicated to international staff and faculty. Many other universities have begun to have an office or a program to support postdoctoral scholars as well, but NMSU does not have such a facility at this time. The lack of this support was quite strongly felt by the international participants in this study. As a response to "Is there any other information, other than that you need for your work that you would like to have?" many participants expressed the need to have a way to access specific information that is important to international scholars. One participant suggested to the library, "Be a place to direct to information we need on immigration, visa, tax-related info, etc. There is no office to do this for us." Another suggested the library to join with human resources to provide updated information on immigration issues. "Immigration information is important. Human Resources give seminars but some specific information sources that are updated are important. Human Resources and library can work together to provide information. Have a common center for knowledge." Another suggestion was for health information for international postdocs: "I hope library can be the place for directing to information on Health (not advising) so we can pick up that information. (Other U.S. universities that I have worked in) have more information for foreign scholars. Library can be such a source because in NMSU there is no office for non-students. So information is very difficult to get."

There was frustration on this lack of information support:

We are new and often come across things that we do not know where to find like policies on immigration, policies on insurance, who is there to contact, how to get quick answers?. Some of this is very stressful. For issues with the legal status or any other, we have to contact Graduate Office and they do not reply to the phone. Can write to them, but need to wait for a reply. So I have to walk over.

I think information like what type of programs are available for kids, wife etc., in the university and community. I am from Mexico and I like to have immigration information. From time to time I hear about workshops on immigration issues. I subscribed to international students' online Listserv group, Foreign Students Network. I joined just to get in touch with the news.

It would be great if there is some help to answer questions I have about tax, exemptions, etc. It is different from country to country. At NMSU it is pretty isolated. There are only a few postdocs. So (there are) lot of things we are not aware of. When ask, get contradictory answers. About Visa extension, can my wife work, information on J2 visa etc., I asked and I got very different answers. So I have to understand by myself. Still, not sure. Stressful. IRS not helpful. I called, and they could not tell me which tax form I should use. It would be useful if we have some office or person for postdocs to answer questions, a helpful web site, etc.

One postdoc found it important to get information that could help to adjusting to the culture, "As a non-English speaker my biggest problem was how to write well in English. Though I publish a lot each and every paper was returned to me asking to improve. I can express myself in English but writing is difficult. I am now attending scholarly writing course and it is a big help (English Department). My boss sees improvement in my writing. I need to learn to think completely different. So, for non-English speaking postdocs it would be good to have information about opportunities to learn, how to adjust to culture. So the library can think of helping postdocs coming from outside."

These discussions made it very clear to the researcher that these postdocs have many needs in order to make their postdoctoral experience more successful at NMSU. O'Grady and Beam (2011) pointed out that libraries have excellent opportunities to collaborate with postdoctoral offices and postdoctoral associations within the institutions to extend support for information and training needs of these individuals (O'Grady and Beam 2011). Like NMSU, there are universities that do not have a postdoctoral office or a postdoctoral association. Some universities have established professional development programs where faculty, graduate students, and postdocs can find opportunities to develop professional skills (Ghayur 2008). Librarians can collaborate with these programs to develop specific training needs for postdocs such as improving professional writing and communication skills, networking to develop collaborations, and career counseling and support to improve job searching efforts. In developing support for postdocs, one can learn from already established training programs for postdocs such as that found in the University of Alberta, Canada (Ghayur 2008).


As discussed, the observations from this study show that there is ample opportunity for the NMSU Library, as well as other academic libraries to develop services to support postdocs in the university. It is important that libraries focus on learning the specific information needs of postdocs in their universities and prepare to support those needs. A library orientation at the beginning of the postdoc's tenure in the university would greatly help postdocs to make better use of the library's resources and services. The subject librarians can make use of the opportunity of the orientation to get to know the postdocs and learn about their research areas of interest and begin developing a good rapport in order to continue supporting their information needs. A subject librarian's mediation and support in the laboratory itself where the postdoc works at times of specific information needs such as at the beginning of postdoc tenure when the postdoc intensively searches for information to develop the research project would greatly support the postdoc. While working closely with postdocs the librarian can take the opportunity to advise them on questioning uncertain information sources and evaluation and ethical use of information. Many postdocs may never have had such directions on these issues. Postdocs are usually encouraged to do research 100% time, produce results, and be highly productive. Although they look forward to becoming independent scientists, often they may not get sufficient opportunity to learn in depth about certain issues important to them such as research data management and sharing of information as required by federal funding agencies, various publishing options available to them, and copyright issues that can affect them as consumers and producers of information. Librarians can prepare library guides specifically for such information needs, or can meet with postdocs and provide individual instruction sessions as needed or can organize workshops in the library for postdocs to learn such issues.

It is important to strengthen the library's outreach efforts to the postdocs. The library-circulated e-mails and announcements issued via news outlets and the library web site to all users may not reach all postdocs. E-mails of postdocs may or may not be included in the staff and faculty mass e-mailing lists in the departments and thus postdocs many not receive some library announcements that are circulated by the departmental liaisons to students, faculty, and staff. In universities where there are a large number of postdocs one may need to select a variety of marketing methods to make sure that the library announcements reach a larger population. Kuruppu et al. (2006) suggested that libraries use a multi-pronged approach or use a variety of selected methods in marketing its resources and services in order to reach a larger population of users (Kuruppu & Gruber 2006). Libraries can creatively adopt number of new generation web tools such as wikis, blogs, podcasts, and social media platforms that are used by increasing numbers of users to send out announcements. In universities like NMSU where the number of postdocs is not large, the librarians can easily use e-mails of postdocs to directly send information specifically important to them.

The international postdocs are an important part in the university's scientific research. They create an international network of scientists that works to advance scientific research. As seen in this study, international postdocs face many distinct challenges in the university such as immigration, cultural, and communication barriers. It is especially difficult for postdocs, like at NMSU, when the university does not have a dedicated international faculty/staff office or a postdoctoral office that can provide them with directions and support. The library can support international postdocs by preparing to direct them to the specific sources of information that they are seeking such as immigration, culture, housing, and community-related issues. Librarians can prepare library guides including information important to international postdocs. Librarians also can collaborate with professional development programs for faculty, staff, and graduate students in the university to develop specific training in writing and communication for international postdocs.


This study was supported by the New Mexico State University Library Dean's Research Fund, 2012. The author is grateful to Ms. C. Pierard and Ms. C. Watkins for constructive suggestions and advice on the manuscript.


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Interview Questions

1. Postdoctoral research work:

2. Library related questions:

        Library visits and in person services

        Library web site and services offered through the web site

3. Finding information for research:

4. Data management

5. Publishing and presenting research

6. Connecting with other scientists

7. Participants' suggestions to the library

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