Category Archives: Scholarly Communications

For postings related to scholarly communications issues, including open access, copyright management, and institutional repositories.

Open Education Week 2015: A Reflection on IP, Infrastructure, and Interest

This year, Open Education Week ran from March 9th to March 13th. Open Education Week, like Open Access Week, is a celebration of what has been accomplished and what is currently being done within the greater open movement. The Open Education Consortium sponsors the week by compiling resources, marketing materials, and educational tools for librarians, faculty, and other instructors around the world. One of the best parts about this process is that after the week ends, the Open Education website becomes a repository of sorts for events that happened that year. The resources for each event include recorded lectures and webinars as well as supplementary guides and tools. This year, just the webinar topics ranged from ensuring quality of digital content in the classroom to the impact of the open educational movement on the internationalization of universities globally.

This is the first year that UIUC has participated in Open Education Week and I was lucky enough to help create and lead two of our events, which were spearheaded by the Office of Information Literacy. Before I describe my experience with those events, it might be helpful to back up and explain why open education is important, especially within the library community, and what Open Educational Resources (OER) are. SPARC defines OER broadly as any learning resource that is released “under an open license which permits…free use and repurposing by others”. I would argue that the most important word in the last sentence is repurposing. The Open Education movement is built on the idea that education is about sharing, expanding, and refining knowledge. That can only happen if licenses allow educators to revise, adapt, remix, combine, and then redistribute resources. If you take a learning object that another educator created, improve upon parts of it, and then only share it in the classes that you teach, some would argue that you are not fully participating in the Open Education movement. Re-sharing is key.

But why does all of this matter? The Open Education movement works to mitigate the legal and technical barriers that impede collaboration and instructors’ ability to create the absolute best learning objects possible. Instructors are often frustrated with traditional learning content platforms, like textbooks and even course packets, which paint their course with a broad brush and often do not allow adaptation and flexibility. Likewise, students become frustrated when they have to buy a $100+ textbook and it is not completely or consistently used. To make the matter more complicated, many educators (including librarians) find fair use law subjective and confusing. OER is a solution to many of these issues. In addition, OER often reduces the costs we put on our students, many of whom are drowning in an incredible amount of debt already. The use of OER has been proven to increase retention and foster equitable access to learning regardless of socio-economic status. Librarians obviously care deeply about both of these goals.

My department hosted two sessions, one for library staff and one for instructors across campus. We used the same companion LibGuide for both sessions but the learning outcomes for each session were different. I taught the session for staff and my colleague, Crystal Sheu, taught the session for instructors. It’s important to mention, however, that we created the lesson plans and presentations together and we often consulted each other and our boss, Lisa Hinchliffe, about learning activities and presentation details. I share a few reflections below with the hope that others will think about how this type of programming could affect their library programming and culture and possibly make OER a more central conversation on their campus. Please note that these views are my own.


Getting buy-in is difficult! Both of our audiences were definitely smaller than we had hoped. This was our first year doing this type of programming so smaller numbers are to be expected. At the same time, it is important for us to think about why there might not currently be a large audience for this topic. Do faculty already know about OER? Do librarians get enough OER training through their professional development experiences? Do faculty not have the time to find and adapt OER? Are librarians weary of telling their faculty about yet another thing they should think about doing? Should we have used different marketing techniques?

I don’t know the answer to any of these questions and I think that’s okay. Still, whenever we do this type of programming, whether it is internal or open to the entire campus, I think it is important to find a deeper understanding about what’s happening. Sometimes there are just odd conflicts or planning issues. But for the most part, there are structural reasons people do or do not find value in something. Even putting the programming out there allows us to gauge our audiences’ interest and then do further research based on that.


Somehow it always surprises me just how complicated intellectual property and copyright is. OER definitely attempts to reduce the confusion around the legalities of sharing by using Creative Commons licenses. We introduced these licenses on a very basic level, in case any of our audience members weren’t familiar with them.

Nevertheless, even CC licenses can be complicated and require thoughtful planning. One great example is the Share-A-Like license. We tried our best to tell participants that Share-A-Like requires intentionality. When you take an OER (or any licensed material) under a Share-A-Like license and adapt it, reuse it, and then share it again, it has to be licensed under the same original license you started with, which is obviously some variation of a Share-A-Like license.

When I first learned about this license, I was excited about its function. On face value, the license seems to take a major tenant of the open movement and put it into practice. If you use something that someone else has spent time and energy creating, you, too, should share your final product openly. Yet, a more critical look of this license paints a more nuanced picture. By making openness “infectious,” we take away the creator’s ability to choose how they would like to share and disseminate their work, which (I believe) is one of the most important reasons we have become author rights and open access advocates. Note: this assertion is most definitely being influenced by some of the resources I have been exploring lately, including one of the best critiques of openness and assuming openness is always the best option that I have ever read and a project that contextualizes information instead of assuming that it should always be free and open to all, specifically in regards to cultural heritage objects that have historically been attained through violent and colonialist means. I also recognize that “open” often means different things when thinking about educational resources, publications, cultural object, data, code, and software and we can’t group them together. While I think sharing is the point of OER, I’m not sure licensing is the place we should force educators to do it.

I’m currently taking a data policy seminar with Victoria Stodden. A trained statistician with a legal background, Dr. Stodden has been an incredible advocate for the open science movement. She regularly speaks about sharing data, code, and software to increase reproducibility and progress within the scientific community. Our last class session focused on intellectual property, with a more specific focus on licensing data and code. The Share-A-Like license came up in our conversation and, of course, I was a huge proponent for it. I explained that in a movement like Open Education, where the goal is to take some power and autonomy back from the commercial entities that make textbooks and other learning materials, Share-A-Like is imperative for making sure that no one is selling OER that have been adapted downstream. Her point, however, was that Share-A-Like actually impedes the OER movement to some extent. She argued that if an instructor finds two OER under different Share-A-Like licenses, they can’t combine these two resources and re-share whatever they make. Why? Because both licenses require you use that same license and you can’t use two licenses on one OER.

This is getting confusing, right? My point is simply that as we embrace CC licenses, many of which make our lives easier and make sharing less complicated, we need to continue to be critical of their purpose. Likewise, we need to teach instructors that CC licenses aren’t a quick fix for everything but instead one option in an entire toolkit of legal resources. Moreover (and this is my epiphany from Open Education Week), every library that expects to do robust outreach around OER or OA needs to have at least one person on staff that understands some of the intricacies of copyright and intellectual property rights.


This brings me to my next point. Before really starting OER outreach, your library should start to think about what kind of infrastructure it has to support such a movement. It is difficult to get people excited about an OER initiative when there isn’t much in place within the library to help get it off of the ground. Now obviously some libraries have more resources than others. But I’m suggesting you ask the same questions you ask before you start any outreach, including everything from information literacy sessions to collaborations with other campus programs.

Who will be the primary contact person for OER? In other words, who is the face of the library’s initiatives in this area? If you have a strong subject specialist model, how will the library foster collaboration between OER experts and subject specialists? What forms of internal training are needed? Similarly, who will be the point of contact for IP and copyright issues (if there isn’t one already)? Is this person familiar with OER and CC licenses? What’s really challenging is that the library needs to help instructors with copyright, instructional design, and technology. This means that teamwork and internal communication is essential.

I believe that one of the most important forms of infrastructure in the OER conversation is the University IR. If we are telling instructors that sharing and re-sharing is important, are we backing that claim up through our resources? Many institutions, including the University of Michigan and MIT, have repositories for their OER. This fosters internal collaboration and sharing, especially when two instructors might teach a similar class and learn from each other. Additionally, most (if not all) of these institutional repositories for learning objects are open to non-affiliates, which aligns with the greater open movement. I’m not suggesting that learning objects have a place in the IR that usually holds research materials. But there needs to be an outlet or service for instructors that would like to go beyond disciplinary or general OER sharing.

Alternative uses

The session aimed at staff really surprised me. We based our lesson plan on the standard subject specialist model: you talk with your faculty about OER and teach them the standard process of finding, evaluating, and repurposing OER for their classroom. Our participants had much more nuanced and complicated reasons for using OER. Some examples include using OER as a solution to sharing educational materials internationally. We often think about this as giving others access to our OER but I think we have just as much to learn from their learning objects. Covering this intended use meant taking a minute to talk more explicitly about access and repositories in other languages.

An additional use that we hadn’t thought of was using OER when working with unaffiliated patrons at the reference desk. Because of the size of the library and our great VR service, Illinois often gets questions from around the nation and world. Community members are also some of our most regular patrons. We are often able to help patrons with their needs, but if they do not have access to our electronic or physical collection, OER could be a potential resource for their question because they can be accessed by anyone.

Moving past consumption

The Office of Information Literacy recently applied to present some of this information at Illinois’ Faculty Summer Institute (FSI). If we are accepted, our primary audience will be faculty members that have applied to be a part of the institute in order to learn more about new instructional movements at Illinois. Our goal for this session is simply to go beyond consumption. The two workshops we just taught were primarily based on how to find, evaluate, and use others’ OER. But what if you have an existing learning object you’d like to share as an OER? What is the right venue for you? How can you use your subject expertise to create metadata and documentation that allows re-use by others? What license fits your needs? Our profession is continuing to teach students and instructors that they aren’t just consumers of information. They create and disseminate information every day. Our hope is that faculty are see the value in sharing their expertise with others teaching within their discipline.

Libraries are apt to do this work!

I made the following graphic for my session with staff. I think that it’s important to keep all of these in mind when doing open education work.

library explination

We are experts in many of the areas OER touch upon! Our time at the reference desk is often spent locating hard-to-find information through a variety of sources. We teach information evaluation everyday. Many of us have some expertise or understanding of copyright and/or copyleft. We are trained in instructional design and instructional technology; we spend a lot of our time crafting learning outcomes and identifying activities and assessments that can foster experiences that address these outcomes. We have all of the tools we need to be conversant with faculty, staff, administrators, and colleagues about the need for open education and the use of OER. It is time for us to embrace the Open Education Movement as a valuable tool for increasing access to education, improving learning, and furthering the mission of the campus library.

A special thanks to Lisa Hinchliffe for letting me explore my interest in OER. Thanks, too, to Crystal Sheu for collaborating with me to make this vision a reality. Thanks to Sveta Stoytcheva, Kyle Shockey, and the Twitterverse for pointing me to the awesome critiques of openness discussed above.


Appreciating Open Access Advocates


Happy Open Access Week, everyone! Though maybe it’s not the happiest of weeks this year… Last Friday the news broke about the appeal of the Georgia State University e-reserves case. It looks like many of the rulings in favor of fair use from the initial suit may be overturned, though it’s not certain exactly how things will shake out yet. Kevin Smith, Scholarly Communications Officer at Duke University, shared a few early thoughts on his blog, and Nancy Sims, Copyright Program Librarian at the University of Minnesota, wrote a longer post discussing the ruling. I’m sure we’ll see much more conversation about this in the coming weeks.

I’m disappointed about the ruling, for sure, but in some ways this just makes my support of open access and open educational resources that much stronger. The academic and textbook publishing model we have cannot be sustained. Students have already pulled way back in buying textbooks and required readings for their courses, and libraries can’t purchase these materials (or pay copyright fees) infinitely or perpetually. I work at the City University of New York, the largest urban public university in the U.S. Forty-seven percent of CUNY students live in households with an annual income of less than $25,000. My library does purchase textbooks for reserve and they are used so heavily by our students that many are beyond repair by the end of the academic year. Textbooks can represent a significant portion of students’ expenses, any many of them just can’t buy the books.

As these forces continue to converge, I’m hopeful that faculty and administrators will be ever more receptive to open access and open educational resource advocacy. We’ve been talking about this for many years at my college and university, and while it’s sometimes frustrating to have to say the same things over and over again, we’re definitely starting to see results. Some are department or college level initiatives, like the precalculus textbook that two members of my college’s Math department wrote. It’s available as a printable/downloadable PDF (which students can print for free in the library and other computer labs on campus), or as a print on demand book for $13.00. All sections of the course are now using the book, and the authors are sharing it throughout the university.

At the university level, this fall the central library office at CUNY is sponsoring an OER course on OERs (so meta!). The course runs online over two weeks and includes materials and discussion, and aims to teach faculty how to create or curate OERs for their own courses. Faculty receive a small stipend for completing the course. The response to this course offering has been huge, and there’s already a waiting list for the next time the course will run. I was delighted to learn that the faculty response and interest from my college was particularly strong, and added those folks to my mental list of folks who might be open to further advocacy efforts or partnerships with the library.

So even with the disappointing news from Georgia, I’m feeling optimistic this Open Access Week. And I want to share my appreciation for everyone in libraries who does this hard work of open access and open educational resource advocacy all year round, not just for one week. Thank you, and keep up the good work!

Image by Biblioteekje.

Shifting Scholarly Communication Practices and the Case of Dr. Salaita

ACRLog welcomes a guest post from Sarah Crissinger, graduate student in library and information science at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign.

Many LIS practitioners are probably already familiar with this story, but here’s a quick recap just in case:

In October 2013, Steven Salaita accepted a tenure-track position within the American Indian Studies program at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign. He subsequently quit his job and made arrangements to uproot his family from their home in Virginia. On August 1, 2014, Chancellor Phyllis Wise revoked his offer—an offer which had been decided upon by faculty within the American Indian Studies program—stating that she would not be passing along his recommendation to the Board of Trustees. Wise cited Dr. Salaita’s tweets as the impetus for utilizing this loophole, stating that “personal and disrespectful words or actions that demean and abuse either viewpoints themselves or those who express them” would not be tolerated. Later, it was revealed that Wise was in close contact with donors that had differing views from Dr. Salatia’s.

These actions have created a “catastrophe” for the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign for several reasons. First, Wise made a conscious decision not to engage in a discourse about Dr. Salaita’s viewpoint or even the format he chose to express it in, but instead punished him for voicing his opinion by compromising his livelihood. These actions don’t seem to be in-step with the values of the academy. UIUC also exhibited no real due process. The American Association of University Professors (AAUP) has held that Illinois failed to demonstrate cause without holding any hearings or even providing proper notification.

Most importantly, UIUC’s actions are an egregious violation of academic freedom. But I will assume that I don’t have to tell LIS professionals (who are embedded in academia!) the reasons why. LIS scholars, practitioners, and students have already recognized this violation of intellectual freedom and have agreed to boycott Illinois. In addition, ACRL’s Women and Gender Studies Section has facilitated a discussion about the events on UIUC’s campus. I want to instead challenge librarians to think about Dr. Salaita’s unique case in a new way.

We have reached a pivotal moment in the academy. “Scholarly” communication is being redefined before our very eyes. Next month, I will be involved (at UIUC nonetheless) with an Online Scholarly Presence Symposium, hosted by the library. We will be encouraging students to embrace social media, blogs, repositories, and other public outlets for their scholarship and ideas. I currently teach a workshop about altmetrics for graduate students and faculty at UIUC. It is centered on the idea that scholarly impact isn’t as simple as citation counts; we explore impact by looking at traditional metrics alongside alternative metrics that account for public presence.

The list goes on and on. Scholars everywhere are writing about social media’s impact on their work. Regardless of if their blog or their Twitter handle is on their dossier (I’m guessing it’s not), it still impacts their work. Roopika Rasam, a postcolonial scholar and digital humanist, recently posted an entry on her blog entitled A Love Letter to Twitter, where she stated:

Twitter has opened up the contours of the academy, widening my communities within it and linking me to the world beyond it. By using Twitter as a professional tool, I have become a person committed to working in public. I have learned more about genre, rhetoric, and audience than I ever did in college or graduate school. Ideas for articles, projects, and books germinated on Twitter. Twitter is proto-scholarship; you won’t find it in my tenure file but it’s responsible for everything in it.

Katherine Clancy, an anthropologist, recently wrote a response to a satirically proposed metric, the K-Index. Neil Hall joked that a K-Index (or, you guessed it, a Kardashian Index) would in essence gauge a scholar’s public profile against their “actual” publications by dividing their Twitter followers by their number of scientific publications. Clancy’s response? She finds that this is unfair representation that makes an either/or dichotomy; the scholars who might have a higher K-Index are the ones that are “younger, less white, and less male.” She asserts:

So yes, he’s punching down, and that makes it not funny. There is no dark corner of academic metrics to expose when the people you’re mocking are the ones least well positioned to respond. I would never have gotten that paper published – in a journal with an impact factor of 10.5, no less – because I am one of ones whose profile is built on “shaky foundations.”

All I can do… is blog about it.

Ithaka S+R’s 2012 report entitled Supporting the Changing Research Practices of Historians found that many historians use their blogs to “test the waters” for new scholarship. Sometimes they even present findings because, as one respondent stated, “I have a book. Maybe forty people have cracked the spine. But, the blog has tremendous readership.” However, the report also finds that changes in disciplinary culture and T&P practices are incremental at best. Only by adapting these practices to new modes of communication and embracing junior faculty that implement them will any real change come to fruition.

Many people argue that “tweets are not the same as classroom teaching (or scholarly writing),” and, to some extent, I agree. At the same time, we have to acknowledge that in today’s academic environment, the two are inadvertently conflated. A scholar’s online presence—especially when it is related to their academic niche—is undeniably linked to that scholarship, and more broadly the scholar themself. Again, leaders interested in scholarly communication are attempting to change the tenure environment so that digital work and social media presence are measured and a more of a portfolio model is implemented. So the current question is, how can Dr. Salaita’s tweets be used to jeopardize his academic career but cannot be used to reflect his academic impact or scholarly success?

I am, of course, illustrating a point that applies more broadly to all scholars. Dr. Salaita’s case has opened a can of worms for academics everywhere. Where is the line between personal and professional, if there is such a thing? What is “fair game” for interpretation or critique? How can we facilitate conversation if we’re fearful of repercussions?

My intention is not to suggest a scenario of big-brother institutions that track down scholars. I think that instead we should recognize alternative forms of scholarship so that they are more fully protected. The AAUP’s report on Academic Freedom and Electronic Communications states that electronic communication does not “warrant any relaxation of the rigorous precepts of academic freedom”. It calls for surveillance to end and for faculty to be involved in IT decisions concerning privacy and academic freedom. It asserts that intramural and extramural communication or “speech outside or inside the university’s walls” is irrelevant in the world of electronic communication.

The report says that it’s a no-brainer if the social media outlet isn’t linked to the scholar’s academic work; personal tweets, for example about political views, are protected. But what about when politics are central to scholarship? As an aspiring librarian, I find myself standing up for what I believe in (and what my profession believes in) not only in my daily interactions but also in my social media presence. There are a whole host of professionals that would probably agree—political scientists, scholars of medicine, etc., etc. Not everyone will agree with everyone else’s methods, conclusions, values, or even presentation! There is no form of scholarship that is neutral. But that’s the beauty of it, right? The academy allows us to converse with each other (aren’t we saying that scholarship is a conversation these days?), even if we disagree.

In many ways, Dr. Salaita’s case is an abnormal one. But it is also a case that has the ability to set precedence, not only in the discussion of social media and academic freedom but also in the conversation about changing scholarly practices. I once had a panel of deans come into one of my classes and assert that scholarship, as a practice, is less about tenure and the vetting processes attached to it and more about changing the world, advancing knowledge, and making a direct impact on the city, state, or nation it is published in. That’s a lofty assertion but it’s one I’d challenge us as librarians and scholars to think more critically about. Scholarship can be communicated in endless formats, often depending on what is most conducive to the audience and topic. It’s time to protect and acknowledge work that looks different than “traditional” scholarship. If we don’t, we risk losing creative and innovative faculty and an engaging conversation that could change the world we live in.

To support Dr. Salaita and the Department of American Indians Studies, please join the students, faculty, and alumni of the Graduate School of Library and Information Science at UIUC in signing this open letter.

Happy Open Access Week!

AskmeaboutOpenAccessThe 6th annual international Open Access Week is here! This has been another banner year for open access publishing — as reported on Science Insider (a blog at Science), over half of all scholarly papers are now available open access and free of charge no later than 24 months after they’re first published. That’s a milestone worth celebrating!

I’m looking forward to the events this week happening at my college and university, as well as living vicariously through the events happening elsewhere via Twitter and the blogosphere. I’m sure there’s loads of great stuff going on all over; here are a couple of events and thoughts that have caught my eye.

Open Access Button

This project from a group of European students and researchers seems like a great one: channel the frustration we all feel when we hit a paywall into research and action. In their own words, here’s their goal for the open access button:

This idea was a browser-based tool which tracks how often readers are denied access to academic research, where in the world they were or their profession and why they were looking for that research. The tool would aggregate this information into one place and would create a real time, worldwide, interactive picture of the problem. The integration of social media and mapping technology would allow us to make this problem visible to the world. Lastly, we want to help the person gain access to the paper they’d been denied access to in the first place. Through incentivising use and opening the barriers to knowledge, this can be really powerful.

Today, in honor of Open Access Week, they announced their beta launch date: November 18th. Sign up to be a beta tester here.

DigiNole Upload-A-Thon

Florida State University Libraries are hosting an interesting event this year — a workshop to encourage and guide faculty and researchers through the process of uploading their work to the university’s institutional repository. Called the Upload-A-Thon, they’re striving to have at least one faculty member from each department at the university to upload at least one article that’s already been published. I really like this idea — in addition to the catchy name, it sets out a modest goal and aims to help demystify open access for those new to the concept. I’ll be interested to hear how it goes.

What about book chapters?

I eavesdropped on an interesting conversation on Twitter over the weekend. Most folks think of journal articles when they think of open access publishing, but what about book chapters? Books tend to be less of a focus of OA activism, though as some of the folks I listened in on pointed out, interlibrary loan isn’t always possible, so maybe books should play a bigger part in OA advocacy efforts.

Lots of publishing librarians publish their work as part of a book, myself included — can we make these chapters OA post publication as many articles are? It’s a great question and one that likely has many answers depending on which publishers we’re working with. I have several pieces that appear in books and have let this question go unanswered for myself for far too long, so this year for OA Week I’m going to take the time to dig out those old contracts and see what I can free.

What are you doing to celebrate Open Access Week this year? Are you attending or presenting in any workshops or programs? Share your thoughts and experiences in the comments!

Library Research and the IRB: Is It Generalizable?

By Nicole Pagowsky and Maura Smale

There are generally two types of research that take place in the LIS field, one is more rare and is capital-R-Research, typically evidence or theory-based and generalizable; the other, more prevalent, is lowercase-r-research, typically anecdotal, immediate, and written in the style of “how we did it good.” The latter has historically been a defining quality of LIS research and receives much criticism, but as librarianship is a professional field, both theory and practice require documentation. Gorman (2004) notes how value and need have contributed to a mismatch in what is published, “[leading to] a gap in the library journal literature between arid and inaccessible reports of pure research and naive ‘how we did it good’ reports.” There are implications for these concerns both within and outside of the field: first, those within the field place less value on LIS research and might have lower confidence and higher anxiety when it comes to publishing, and second, those outside the field might take LIS research and librarians less seriously when we work to attain greater equality with faculty on campus. Understanding these implications and how human subjects research and the Institutional Review Board (IRB) fit into social sciences research can help frame our own perceptions of what we do in LIS research.

What is the IRB? The IRB regulations developed in the wake of the revelation of Nazi experimentation on humans during WWII, as well as the U.S. government’s infamous Tuskegee study in which black men with syphilis were allowed to go untreated so that researchers could examine the progression of the disease. All U.S. academic and research institutions that receive federal funding for research must convene an IRB to review and monitor research on human subjects and ensure that it remains ethical with no undue risk to participants. There are three levels of IRB approval — exempt, expedited, and full; a project is assigned its level of review based on the amount of risk to the subject and the types of data collected (informational, biological, etc.) (Smale 2010). For example, a project involving the need to draw blood from participants who are under 18 would probably be assigned a full review, while one featuring an anonymous online survey asking adults about their preferences for mobile communications devices would likely be exempt. It’s worth noting that many of the guidelines for IRB review are more relevant to biomedical and behavioral science research than humanities and social science research (for more discussion of these issues, see George Mason University History professor Zachary Schrag’s fascinating Institutional Review Blog).

Practically speaking, what is the process of going through IRB approval like for LIS researchers? We’ve both been through the process — here’s what we’ve learned.

Maura’s Experience

I’ve gone through IRB approval for three projects during my time as a library faculty member at New York City College of Technology (at City University of New York). My first experience was the most complex of the three, when my research partner and I sought IRB approval for a multiyear study of the scholarly habits of undergraduates. Our project involved interviews with students and faculty at six CUNY campuses about how students do their academic work, all of which were recorded and transcribed. We also asked students to photograph and draw objects, locations, and processes related to their academic work. While we did collect personal information from our participants, we’re committed to keeping our participants anonymous, and the risk involved for participants in our study was deemed low. Our research was classified by the IRB as expedited, which requires an application for continuing review each year that we were actively collecting data. Once we finished with interviews and moved to analysis (and writing) only, we were able secure an exempt approval, which lasts for three years before it must be renewed.

The other two projects I’ve sought IRB approval for — one a solo project and one with a colleague — were both survey-based. One involved a web-based survey of members of a university committee my colleague and I co-chaired, and the other a paper survey of students in several English classes in which I’d used a game for library instruction. Participation in the surveys was voluntary and respondents were anonymous. Both surveys were classified exempt by the IRB — the information we collected in both cases were participants’ opinions, and little risk was found in each study.

Comparing my experiences with IRB approval to those I’ve heard about at other colleges and universities, my impression is that my university’s approach to the IRB requirement is fairly strict. It seems that any study or project that is undertaken with the intent to publish is considered capital-R-research, and that the process of publishing the work confers on it the status of generalizable knowledge. Last year a few colleagues and I met with the Chair of the college’s IRB committee to seek clarification, and we learned that interviews and surveys of library patrons solely for the purpose of program improvement does not require IRB approval, as it’s not considered to be generalizable knowledge. However, the IRB committee frowns on requests for retroactive IRB approval, which could put us in a bind if we ever decide that results of a program improvement initiative might be worth publishing.

Nicole’s Experience

At the University of Arizona (UA), I am in the process of researching the impact of digital badges on student motivation for learning information literacy skills in a one-credit course offered by the library. I detailed the most recent meeting with our representative from IRB on my blog, where after officially filing for IRB approval and having much back-and-forth over a few months, it was clarified that we in fact did not exactly need IRB approval in the first place. As mentioned above, each institution’s IRB policies and procedures are different. According to the acting director of the UA’s IRB office, our university is on the more progressive end of interpreting research and its federal definition. Previous directors were more in line with the rest of the country in being very strict, where if a researcher was just talking with a student, IRB approval should be obtained. Because their office is constantly inundated with research studies, a majority of which would be considered exempt or even little-r research, it is a misuse of their time to oversee studies where there is essentially no risk. A new trend is burgeoning to develop a board comprised of representatives from different departments to oversee their own exempt studies; when the acting director met with library faculty recently, she suggested we nominate two librarians to serve on this board so that we would have jurisdiction over our own exempt research to benefit all parties.

Initially, because the research study I am engaging in would be examining student success in the course through grades and assessments, as well as students’ own evaluation of their motivation and achievement, we had understood that to be able to publish these findings, we would be required to obtain IRB approval since we are working with human subjects. Our IRB application was approved and we were ranked as exempt. This means our study is so low-risk that we require very little oversight. All we would need to do is follow guidelines for students to opt-in to our study (not opt-out), obtain consent for looking at FERPA-related and personally identifiable information, and update the Board if we modify any research instruments (surveys, assessments, communications to students about the study). We found out, however, that we actually did not even need to apply for IRB in the first place because we are not necessarily setting out to produce generalizable knowledge. This is where “research” and “Research” come into play. We are in fact doing “research” where we are studying our own program (our class) for program evaluation. Because we are not saying that our findings apply to all information literacy courses across the country, for example, we are not producing generalizable “Research.” As our rep clarified, this does not imply that our research is not real, it just means that according to the federal definition (which oversees all Institutional Review Boards), we are not within their jurisdiction. Another way to look at this is to consider if the research is replicable; because our study is specific to the UA and this specific course, if another librarian at another university attempted to replicate the study, it’s not guaranteed that results will be the same.

With our revised status we can go more in depth in our study and do better research. What does “better” mean though? In this sense, it could be contending with fewer restrictions in looking for trends. If we are doing program evaluation in our own class, we don’t need to anonymize data, request opt-ins, or submit revised research instruments for approval before proceeding because the intent of the research is to improve/evaluate the course (which in turn improves the institution). Essentially, according to our rep, we can really do whatever we want however we want so long as it’s ethical. Although we would not be implying our research is generalizable, readers of our potentially published research would still be able to consider how this information might apply to them. The research might have implications for others’ work, but because it is so specific, it doesn’t provide replicable data that cuts across the board.

LIS Research: Revisiting Our Role

As both of our experiences suggest, the IRB requirement for human subjects research can be far from straightforward. Before the review process has even begun, most institutions require researchers to complete a training course that can take as long as 10 hours. Add in the complexity of the IRB application, and the length of time that approval can take (especially when revisions are needed), and many librarians may hesitate to engage in research involving human subjects because they are reluctant to go through the IRB process. Likewise, librarians might be overzealous in applying for IRB when it is not even needed. With the perceived lower respect that comes in publishing program evaluation or research skewed toward anecdotal evidence, LIS researchers might attempt big-R Research when it does not fit with the actual data they are assessing.

What implications can this have for librarians, particularly on the tenure track? The expectation in LIS is to move away from little-r research and be on the same level as other faculty on campus engaging in big-R Research, but this might not be possible. If other IRB offices follow the trend of the more-progressive UA, many more departments (not just the library) may not need IRB oversight, or will be overseeing themselves on a campus-based board reviewing exempt studies. As the acting IRB director at the UA pointed out to library faculty, publication should not be the criterion for assuming generalizability and attempting IRB approval, but rather intent: what are you trying to learn or prove? If it’s to compare/contrast your program with others, suggest improvements across the board, or make broad statements, then yes, your study would be generalizable, replicable, and is considered human subjects research. If, on the other hand, you are improving your own library services or evaluating a library-based credit course, these results are local to your institution and will vary if replicated. Just because one does not need IRB approval for a study does not mean it is any less important, it simply does not fall under the federal definition of research. Evidence-based research should be the goal rather than only striving for research generalizable to all, and anecdotal research has its place in exploring new ideas and experimental processes. Perhaps instead of focusing on anxiety over how our research is classified, we need to re-evaluate our understanding of IRB and our profession’s self-confidence overall in our role as researchers.

Tl;dr — The Pros and Cons of IRB for Library Research

Pros: allows researchers to make generalizable statements about their findings; bases are covered if moving from program evaluation to generalizable research at a later stage; seems to be more prestige in engaging in big-R research; journals might have a greater desire for big-R research and could pressure researchers for generalizable findings

Cons: limits researchers’ abilities to drill down in data without written consent from all subjects involved (can be difficult with an opt-in procedure in a class); can be extremely time-intensive to complete training and paperwork required to obtain approval; required to regularly update IRB with any modifications to research design or measurement instruments

What Do You Think?


Gorman, M. (2004). Special feature: Whither library education? New Library World, 105(9), 376-380.

Smale, M. A. (2010). Demystifying the IRB: Human subjects research in academic libraries. portal: Libraries and the Academy, 10(3), 309-321.

Other Resources / Further Reading

Examples of activities that may or may not be human research (University of Texas at Austin)
Lib(rary) Performance blog
Working successfully with your institutional review board, by Robert V. Labaree

Nicole Pagowsky is an Instructional Services Librarian at the University of Arizona, and Tweets @pumpedlibrarian.