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Today, understanding researcher performance is vital for both individual researchers and institutions as a whole. It can be a factor in getting tenure, creating research partnerships, attracting faculty and even developing better research. Librarians play a crucial role in this, providing not only the data, but the context for faculty and departments to better understand their impact in the research world.

Data can help researchers compare their work and productivity to others in their field, and also help them understand who is accessing and citing their work.

“It sometimes really surprises researchers not only how much use something gets, but what that use is coming from,” says Kevin Messner, head of branch libraries and chemistry librarian at Miami University. “I’ve had people say, ‘I had no idea that people in Japan would care about this!’ ”

Bringing value to research with data

Citation data and the related impact factors and H-indices are the classic data used to measure researcher performance, but other information can also improve understanding of that performance. Even simply finding the number of papers published by a given author, lab or department provides valuable insight into productivity.

Examining what types of grant funding went into an individual or department’s research can also help explain the grantee's goals, priorities and areas of emphasis. New use-based data like altmetrics afford a deeper understanding of who uses papers and finds them important or interesting.

This information, however, needs context to be truly meaningful. Different subject areas have different citation patterns, and people can expect different metrics at different stages in their career. Librarians can provide that context.

“There’s a certain amount of interpretation,” says Messner. “What’s good depends on where somebody is in their career, how well established the department is, what field you’re in.”

Getting a full picture of what different research fields look like, what’s popular in the field and how individuals compare to other researchers can help faculty understand how to create work that is more relevant and important. Data provided by librarians can help researchers better interpret not only their own performance, but also the research landscape as a whole – funding-agency priorities, potential collaborators, potential new subjects of interest and more.

Leading the way to better research

Librarians create connections. Sometimes this means helping people find resources, but it can also mean helping them find new directions, new outlets and new partnerships. It can even mean helping Ph.D. students find the best postdoctoral opportunity for them.

“I have, on a couple of occasions, had grad students who were approaching graduation, and they were trying to figure out what they were going to do next, and we actually used some of the literature databases,” says Messner. “If they had a research interest in mind but no idea who the big people in that field were, you could conduct searches and identify the key authors and start trying to make some contacts.”

This can also take place on a departmental or university level by using data to attract top faculty, and Messner notes that data can also be a way to hold journals accountable for publishing useful work. Like faculty and departments, journals should be able to point to metrics that illustrate the usefulness of their content. Librarians can encourage researchers to publish in higher-quality publications based on impact factors and other quantitative metrics.

This can also help researchers transition more smoothly into a new subject area. Messner uses the example of a statistician who wants to release a political science paper. Data provided by the library can help that researcher make the paper more effective by helping the researcher understand who to collaborate with, which sources to consult and where to publish. After publication, the librarian can help the researcher assess the paper's true impact on the field.

“One of the things I think libraries and librarians pride themselves on is just a tendency to make connections,” Messner says. “Connecting researchers to new fields, publication venues, perhaps even new collaborators on a research project.”