November 15, 2019

The Seven Roles of Research Commons

Forecasting Trends

By Elliot Felix

Academic research is changing at college and universities. It’s becoming more collaborative, computational, and impact-driven. As research projects become more complex and specialized – particularly as they try to solve big societal challenges like climate change or income inequality – teams of people from different disciplines are needed.

As a result, these teams require more in order to conduct research effectively. They need places to come together digitally and physically. They need new kinds of support services like data management. They need new kinds of infrastructure like high-performance computing. They also need ways to find these collaborators, services, and infrastructure, and to share and showcase their work. As the publishing landscape shifts, researchers also need guidance on issues like how to provide open access to their work and the data behind it.

At the same time, the value of academic libraries is shifting. No longer do they simply provide access to information. Today, academic libraries provide access and a place for researchers to connect and create.

How Academic Libraries Can Support Researchers Today

Many libraries are creating spaces called Research Commons, Digital Scholarship Centers, Laboratories, and other terms to support researchers needs and fulfill libraries’ expanded mission and shifting roles. For example, the University of Washington and Ohio State University each have Research Commons, Brown University and Emory University each have Digital Scholarship Centers, and the University of Virginia and the University of Calgary each have Labs in their libraries.

If we take “Research Commons” as the umbrella term (as a Google Trends Search seems to indicate), we can distill at least seven distinct roles or functions these spaces play:

  1. Club
  2. Service hub
  3. Studio
  4. Lab
  5. Incubator
  6. Connector
  7. Showcase

In our experience, every research commons is a mix of at least a few of these. In this post, we describe these seven roles, so that when planning or operating your own Research Commons, you’re poised to effectively integrate them in the right combination for your campus.

3D Carving Station at University of Calgary’s Lab NEXT (Kasian Architecture)

Research Commons Roles

There are many different types of spaces to support researchers today, and “Research Commons” means different things to different people. The type you need is best defined by its purpose, and we recommend you determine that purpose based on the right combination and emphasis of roles for you. Here are the seven roles or functions we’ve seen Research Commons play:

  1. Club: A place for faculty (and/or grad students) to gather to discuss and advance their research. This may happen informally over coffee or formally in a symposium, but the essence of the Commons is to be like a faculty club of sorts, one that’s less about food (although that can help!) and more about the people and events. For example, while more than simply a club, the University of Washington’s Research Commons describes itself “A Place for Collaboration.”
  2. Service Hub: A place to co-locate research support services to make the services more visible and accessible, make services more efficient and effective to deliver, and make hand-offs and referrals between services seamless. These services might include everything from IRB approvals to grant support to research data management to getting a project unstuck or started in the first place. One interesting example of this is the University of Kansas libraries’ “research sprint” service.
  3. Studio: A place for researchers to create things with specialized technology and/or expertise. For instance, this might include work with data across the full lifecycle of a project: gathering, analyzing, visualizing, publishing, and preserving. Other creative acts might involve making a physical prototype, building a website or app, creating a video. This can also happen through events like hack-a-thons; for instance, the Library of Congress, George Mason University, and George Washington University convened a hack-a-thon to explore library collections as data sets.
  4. Incubator: A place to host or incubate research projects in a unique setting. This neutral turf provides a purposeful separation from daily activities that will enable focus, enable persistence (e.g., materials and ideas stay up on the walls), and provide specific tools needed to get research projects off the ground. Duke University’s Library’s Edge incubates projects through a competitive process.
  5. Lab: A place where research is actually conducted by offering specialized technology or expertise that can be shared across departments or disciplines; for instance, a human-computer interaction (HCI) lab that enables researchers from different disciplines to conduct experiments with eye-tracking to observe how people use a new app. Ohio State University’s Research Commons provides a variety of resources, services, and technologies to support conducting research.
  6. Connector: A place that actively connects researchers to opportunities and each other. Going a step further than the “Club” role that provides a place for researchers to gather, a Connector plays a more proactive role in making connections through introductions, match-making/networking events, or even library professionals forming and co-leading research teams to pursue projects as their principal investor. One related example: Memorial University in Canada created a researcher match-making service called Yaffle.
  7. Showcase: A place to exhibit ideas and expose researchers, funders, partners, and the broader community to the research projects happening, individually and/or thematically – and to better tell the story of a research project’s impact. This might happen through digital and physical exhibits; events like pitch nights; and digital and print communications like newsletters and posts on social media – all of which can help to build both awareness and inspiration. The University of Washington’s Libraries Research Commons offers a variety of events to inspire and support their community.

(If you can think of other roles, please let us know as we’d love to add to this list – and thanks to Bill Mayer, Chris Cox, Four Hewes, and Paul Stoller for weighing in online when I first posted this list.)

The Edge at Duke University (Architect: Shepley Bulfinch)

How to Plan Your Research Commons

The right combination and emphasis of roles is critical for successfully planning and operating your commons. This varies campus to campus, so don’t be overly-influenced by a peer institution’s approach. Here are some tips for defining the purpose and the right emphasis among these (or other?) roles:

  1. Assess a sampling of your researchers’ needs through a variety of quantitative and qualitative methods – what are their pain points? What services would they want? What would motivate them to leave their office or lab and come to your common (which is often a high bar)? Take this “wish list” and start to categorize and prioritize as part of your overall library service portfolio and assess the feasibility of meeting these needs against your staffing capacity and capabilities.
  2. Visit other research commons – physically and virtually to learn why they do what they do, what’s working for them, what they might do differently if they could change things, and understand how they are similar or different from your situation. Not only will this be a great learning experience, but this kind of study trip can be a great way for a project team to gel and perform better through a shared experience that creates a shared vocabulary and set of references.
  3. Find some ways to prototype different services and programs before you commit a lot of resources, particularly if you are trying something new that researchers may not even know to ask for (this is how to avoid what Henry Ford quipped as the “faster horse” problem). Wondering if people would value a regular series on IRB certification? Try out one session and see who comes and why (and vice versa). Wondering if it make sense to reconfigure your service point? Try a pop-up!
  4. Learn from your “lead users.” Researchers that are at the forefront of their disciplines or more likely combining them in ways that are hard to describe or categorize. They exemplify science fiction author William Gibson’s notion that “The future is already here. It’s just not very evenly distributed.” So, your lead users’ needs for services, technology, and spaces today are likely to serve your mainstream researchers tomorrow.
  5. Recognize that library staff roles will shift in your commons. For it to work successfully, they’ll need to be actively conducting outreach, building relationships, delivering programs, convening events. All of these are more “extroverted” activities that require new mindsets and skillsets.
  6. Consider a name other than “Commons.” There are already too many “Commons” out there. You can do better to differentiate your library. The name “Commons” also doesn’t go far enough in our book (pun intended) to convey the libraries role in creating things, not just bringing people and shared services together.

Good luck as you move ahead! When you define the purpose and right mix of roles for it, your research commons – or whatever you end up calling it! – can be an essential part of your institution’s research enterprise. It can move the library from being considered a kind of “utility” for information to becoming a true strategic partner. Given how research is changing to be more collaborative, computational, and impact-driven, the time is now for your library to expand its impact as well.

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