Reevaluating the Role of the Research Librarian

By Rya Ben-Shir and Alexander Feng

September 27, 2011 | If your image of a research librarian is the soft-spoken, bespectacled woman politely shushing you when you’re talking in the library, that outdated perception couldn’t be further from the truth. Research librarians are highly skilled data analysts and business experts playing key roles in driving company performance, particularly in life sciences organizations. They ensure the most talented project teams make the right choices, perform at their highest levels, and reach outcomes their companies are striving for.

And yet, many life science organizations—Pfizer and Genentech are just two recent examples—have cut back or eliminated their library research staff, believing the myth that everything is free on the Internet. Many more are experimenting with outsourcing research librarian services to India or China—producing unsatisfactory and low quality work.

Organizations that make these misguided “penny wise, pound foolish” decisions are failing to recognize the vital contributions that these important, skillful team members make in researching business intelligence, patent landscapes, safety signals, tracking competitors and much more.

One newly recruited scientist being introduced to his new employers’ research librarian stated: “When our research librarians were all eliminated, as many departments as could found a way to convert an open position to hang on to at least one of them for their own group. We became the haves and the have nots. A project creating and accessing the competitive landscape for a new compound we were considering in-licensing went from a couple of hours when done by a research librarian to weeks when I was left to do it... I would not work without a research library function again, if I could help it.”

Making the right decisions based on insightful analysis of the most relevant data can make a critical difference in companies whose futures rely on new product development. Adding an expert research librarian/information specialist to your “A-Team” dramatically increases your chance of success in the biotech and pharmaceutical industries, where the project, product, and start-up failure rate is high.

A research librarian will ask the right questions—even the ones no one has thought to ask—and knows which databases and resources will yield the most objective and complete information to advance key projects, and place that information into context.

Research librarians bring out the best in the skills of others. They encourage the team to freely share information among themselves, and more importantly, test their ideas and hypotheses against the world of scientific and business information. The ability to draw on the expertise of others and perform detailed research improves your projects’ chances of success. Last but not least, a research librarian improves a company’s bottom line.

The Problem with Free

Of course, anyone can surf the Web’s limitless free information. But that takes time, which for most researchers is in short supply. A research librarian is able to select and expertly research the most authoritative, objective information sources. These are typically commercial databases and rarely easy to search proficiently. They can execute these complex searches in sophisticated databases, where the relevant information is extracted from “noisy” irrelevant content.

In the biopharma world, vast sums of money, perhaps even the company’s survival, depend on critical information research, information that has to be correct and complete, findings that must be placed in context, identifying the positions of your competitors and regulatory hurdles, and where new opportunities exist. The research librarian helps avoid unpleasant, untimely surprises, such as when the FDA spots a misstep early in a submission process and demands you return to stage one and start over.

Serving as both consultant and detective, often possessing a master’s degree in information and library sciences (from a program accredited by the American Library Association), research librarians are proactive, innovative, and inquisitive. A particularly valuable skill set is the reference interview, much like the physician’s history and physical, which enables research librarians to ascertain the real question behind the question. For example, if the original request is, “Tell me everything about disease X,” the research librarian figures that the real question is: “Under which circumstances could there be a false positive for the definitive lab test for disease X?” Looking ahead, the research librarian asks if any of those circumstances are relevant in the current situation. These actions ensure the targeted information is delivered efficiently and effectively.

In life sciences organizations, acquiring a competitive edge and bringing an innovative drug or technology to market demands overcoming obstacles and creating or recognizing opportunities. The role of an expert research librarian is easily overlooked, but he or she helps identify what is often unknown and helps the team establish a complete picture of the competitive and scientific landscape—from pipeline through to market.

If your organization is willing to subject all of your investment of time, funding, and hard work to the vagaries of risk and failure, then surfing through oceans of un-vetted information on the Internet is fine. But if you want to vastly improve your chances of success, whether it be identifying a lucrative research area or achieving regulatory approval, then it is time to urgently rethink your stale image of the trusted research librarian.  

Written on behalf of the Pharmaceutical & Health Technology Division of the SLA.  Thanks to Andrew Clark, Praveena Raman, Bob Kowalski and Susan Zalenski for their contributions to this commentary.  For more information, visit 

This article also appeared in the 2011 September-October issue of Bio-IT World magazine.

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