Where Academic Librarians Are Having – And Can Have – An Impact

Two news stories in today’s Inside Higher Ed, neither of which is about academic libraries, got me thinking about ways in which our libraries are having and can have ongoing positive impacts on our faculty and students.

Let’s consider the impact our academic libraries do have on higher education. The first of the two articles reports a new National Bureau of Economic Research study titled “Are Elite Universities Losing Their Competitive Edge?”. In this study three scholars examined evidence that the Internet — by allowing professors to work with ease with scholars across the country and not just across the quad — is leading to a spreading of academic talent at many more institutions than has been the case in the past. In other words, being a top researcher in one’s discipline is no longer dependent on where the scholar works as in the past. The study, which focused on finance and economics, found that in the 1970s being at a top 25 university had a direct impact on faculty research productivity. By the 1990s, owing largely the the distributive and connective power of the Internet, the top university edge had largely disappeared. There are two factors at play. The one that is more prominently discussed in the report relates to the ability of faculty at almost any institution to more easily connect and communicate with peers. The report shows that the co-authoring of authors from elite and non-elite institutions nearly doubled between the 1970s and 2004. It appears that affiliation with a top institution is no longer a key factor in achieving research productivity. I’d also like to think that the productivity of researchers at non-elite institutions has been largely impacted by the academic library’s ability to provide high quality research databases. There’s no question that in this area the technology playing field has leveled. Certainly, well resourced elite universities have more robust collections of research databases, but owing to consortia deals and statewide initiatives many more non-elite libraries have greatly increased the breadth and depth of their electronic collections. At my own small university library we can now provide our faculty electronic access to nearly 20,000 full-text journals, many scholarly in nature, something unimaginable just 10 years ago. There is more than ample anecdotal evidence that this promotes research productivity. I haven’t seen the actual NBER paper so I can’t say what is does or doesn’t report about the role of the library in promoting research productivity at non-elite institutions, but if it doesn’t say much it seems we should take it upon ourselves to conduct similar research aimed at showing how academic library electronic collections (and our added value in making them accessible and teaching others how to get the most out of them) – and not just the Internet – have contributed to the leveling of the playing field.

The other story reports on the outcome of administrative hearings into the “rampant and flagrant plagiarism” by graduate students at Ohio University’s mechanical engineering department. According to the Inside Higher Ed report an internal investigation concluded that three faculty members either “failed to monitor” their advisees’ writing or “basically supported academic fraudulence” by ignoring the dishonesty. The report by the two-person review team called for the dismissal of two professors, and university officials said they would bring in a national expert on plagiarism to advise them. I question if national experts are needed when Ohio University’s academic librarians could collaborate with the faculty in this and other departments to develop mechanisms to prevent and/or detect student plagiarism. As some commenters to this story will no doubt ask, why are the faculty members being punished when the students are the ones who committed the crime. Since it appears the plagiarism in this department was significant, long term and deeply embedded in the student culture, perhaps “here’s how to prevent plagiarism” workshops by librarians would be challenged to provide a solution. Still, how many of the students didn’t know how to properly use material from prior dissertations, how to paraphrase, properly cite other’s work or lacked the skills that librarians can teach that would have helped to prevent accidental or intentional plagiarism? The awareness and skills that both students and faculty need to help prevent plagiarism are found within the academic library (often taught in collaboration with our teaching and learning center colleagues). This seems like an area where we can do more to make a difference in preventing future plagiarism scandals like this one.

One thought on “Where Academic Librarians Are Having – And Can Have – An Impact”

  1. I agree Librarians could do the job teaching about Plagiarism. I did several workshops for DCET and DLA. Seems to me Librarians may still have the image of stamping books and nothing else.

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