Library stories: 2020 vision: "Professional research tools"

Posted on Sun 08 May 2016 in Libraries

For a recent strategic retreat, I was asked to prepare (as homework) a story about a subject that I'm passionate about, with an idea of where we might see the library in the next three to five years. Here's one of the stories I came up with, in the form of a brief scene as we observe a researcher at work:

*Scene: a cluttered home office. Faculty member LISA stands at her desk, tapping at a keyboard. She is distilling some of her recent findings into a proposal for an upcoming conference. At the top of the screen in front of her is the working title “Deliberate practice and mining accidents: an inverse relationship”; the paper will tie leading ideas from two different disciplines together.*

At the moment, she is working on the second paragraph, which lays the groundwork for her novel approach by drawing on some of the classic works in each field. She types:

The concept of “deliberate practice” was introduced by Ericsson et al

LISA: OK EasyWriter, insert footnote: Ericsson deliberate practice

Taking the cue from the invocation phrase “OK EasyWriter”, the microphone in one of her computing devices wakes up her AI research assistant (AIRA) which accesses her personal bibliographic database. She has been compiling a list of the papers she has been reading, along with annotations. AIRA also has access to her research team’s extended bibliographic database, which holds the citations, papers, research data, and general wisdom accumulated by the core researchers of her team since they set it up in 2016. AIRA also knows what subject-specific databases she normally searches and which papers she has bookmarked, downloaded, read, previously cited, or have cited her. It taps into general online databases like BinGooHoo Academic Scholar for citation trails, recent publications, and a comprehensive overview of the available copies of a given paper, whether through freely available versions online or those licensed by her library. As a fainter signal, AIRA knows what she has commented on in social media channels SnapTwitFaceSlackBook and uses sentiment analysis to determine whether those comments were favourable or snarky.

AIRA: [positions a list of three papers that LISA might want to cite, in order of likelihood based on all of this data, right under her cursor]

LISA hovers over the top entry. The citation information expands to overlay more information, including the abstract, number of citations, and annotations from her own copy of the paper. She clicks the top entry for a 1993 paper.

LISA: [mutters] Yep, let’s get that a bit closer to 6,000 citations.

LISA finishes the quick synopsis of Ericsson’s thesis but wants to show that she is aware of his current thinking. Hovering over the citation again, she checks Ericsson’s recent publications and finds a 2018 entry that is reflecting on the 25th anniversary of his seminal paper. Scanning the abstract, she notes with satisfaction that Ericsson still considers the basic thesis sound and adds the citation to her personal bibliographic database, which displays a green check indicating that a copy of the paper has also been added to her personal reading list from one of the library-licensed or reputable open access sources.

LISA also wants to acknowledge at least the leading critical reaction to the thesis. Hovering over the citation and the “Cited by” list breaks those citations down into rough categories such as “Supportive”, “Critiques”, and “Non-substantive”. Topping the “critiques” list is a 2007 paper by Hill that, according to the abstract, finds no significant correlation between hours of deliberate practice and accomplishments of spelling bee contestants competing in their second language.

LISA then drills into the “critiques” list for Hill’s paper, and finds that the defenders of Ericsson’s thesis have pointed out important limitations to the breadth of Hill’s findings and overly broad assertions. They accept that the lack of correlation holds for rote vocabulary memorization, but point to studies that have repeatedly demonstrated as having a significant impact on skills combining cognitive and physical tasks--such as would be related to LISA’s overall thesis concerning mining-related incidents. LISA adds Hill’s critique to her personal reading list, as well as two of the selected counter-responses.

From a technology perspective, all of the pieces are pretty much in place and just need to be pulled together—Zotero group bibliographies, linked open data, voice recognition, artificial intelligence and agents, and the likes of Google Scholar and Google Doc's ability to provide citations upon demand—and I think most or all of it will inevitably happen. So an interesting aspect to consider is what role we as librarians will play as this comes to pass. I believe one role is to help researchers make the most of the tools that are available; those who adapt and harness the power of these tools have the potential to be much more productive than their peers.