Libraries are for Use

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Research Synthesis Methods – What Librarians Do

This article in JASIST caught my eye…I’m sorry that it is behind a paywall…

Research synthesis methods and library and information science: Shared problems, limited diffusion by Laura Sheble.  Interests of researchers who engage with research synthesis methods (RSM) intersect with library and information science (LIS) research and practice. This intersection is described by a summary of conceptualizations of research synthesis in a diverse set of research fields and in the context of Swanson’s (1986) discussion of undiscovered public knowledge. Through a selective literature review, research topics that intersect with LIS and RSM are outlined. Topics identified include open access, information retrieval, bias and research information ethics, referencing practices, citation patterns, and data science. Subsequently, bibliometrics and topic modeling are used to present a systematic overview of the visibility of RSM in LIS. This analysis indicates that RSM became visible in LIS in the 1980s. Overall, LIS research has drawn substantially from general and internal medicine, the field’s own literature, and business; and is drawn on by health and medical sciences, computing, and business. Through this analytical overview, it is confirmed that research synthesis is more visible in the health and medical literature in LIS; but suggests that, LIS, as a meta-science, has the potential to make substantive contributions to a broader variety of fields in the context of topics related to research synthesis methods.

LIS “as a meta-science” – how true.  Having grown professionally in an medical library at around the time that evidence-based medicine was maturing, I become very interested in the EBM methodology.  Indeed, it wasn’t long before librarians who were conducting systematic reviews for medical researchers were applying the techniques to medical librarianship.  But as the author notes, there was not much interest in the general librarian community…at least, not initially.

The author provides a nice review of the development of research synthesis methods (RSM), which reminded me of the book, Organizing Enlightenment: Information Overload and the Invention of the Modern Research University.  I’ve only just started it, but this author, Chad Wellmon, describes the shift from the medieval universities, with its emphasis on recitation, to the modern research universities, with an emphasis on knowledge.  This shift was in reaction to the growth of publications – the 18th century version of information overload.  Instructors would read aloud to students directly from text, and students would learn to recite the text back.  This was a method used at a time when texts were difficult to obtain – students could not buy their own copies to read on their own.  It was also a method used in a very heirarchical system of universities run by the Catholic church – one focused learning established and formally approved knowledge.   By the end of the Enlightenment, this method proved too stifling and archaic for the intellectuals, particularly those in the Protestant German states.  Could the development of RSM, itself a reaction to 20th century information overload, mark a shift in higher education?  True, the current conventional wisdom is that the increased accessibility of information will lead to greater access to higher education through online courses that run outside the traditional instructor-class model.  But that is merely a shift in the channel – RSM is a shift in thinking.

In conjunction with the rise of the research university was greater scientific specialization:

One of the key preconditions for the emergence of science as a differentiated form of knowledge and as a distinct cultural sphere was the emergence of these new communicative structures made visible and more effective through print technologies. This distinction was most evident in the proliferation of discrete, material forms of communication, which made it possible for science to communicate with itself and, increasingly, for particular sciences to communicate independently…Specialization functioned as a filtering mechanism that produced meaningful distinctions and helped sort what was relevant from what was not… If scholars were not simply to reproduce what had already been printed, if they were going to advance knowledge, they had to break the empire of erudition down into more manageable parts. But in order for particular, specialized work to be recognized as authoritative and not merely a meaningless fragment, the various sciences had to be conceived of as constituting a unified whole of which they were a part. (pg. 110)

Wellmon also notes that the rise of the encyclopedia in the 16th and 17th centuries as a way to bring together the rising tide of knowledge into a comprehensive or “circle or course of learning” (pg. 79).  He notes in particular the German attempt at “universal” knowledge of Johann H. Zedler’s Grosses vollständiges Universal-Lexicon aller Wissenshaften und Künste  – the Great Universal Lexicon, the Wikipedia of the early 18th century.  The evolution of encyclopedias eventually led to philosophical discussions on the very organization of knowledge, Wissenshaftskunde – “a systematic description of all sciences.” (pg. 92).  However, after reading Wellmon, I began to wonder what was missing from these early attempts to organize knowledge, a problem at the heart of librarianship.  What was missing from encyclopedias was synthesis.

In the article, Sheble describes various ways of thinking about research synthesis, leaning heavily on D.R. Swanson’s 1986 article in Library Quarterly, “Undiscovered public knowledge” (v. 56(2), pg. 103-118).

At the core of Swanson’s work was the concept that the fragmentation of knowledge is a problem, and that new knowledge can be discovered within what is already public knowledge. While Swanson approached undiscovered public knowledge from what could broadly be described as a positivist or empiricist perspective, researchers with closer associations to other traditions have similarly noted concern about the isolation and fragmentation of research literature.

She lists types of questions that could be answered with RSM (4 from Swanson & 3 Sheble extrapolated herself), ranging from about the depth & breadth of knowledge, to those of conflicting theories and integration from differing fields.  “Dimensions of synthesis” include diffusion (how methods & ideas are spread (or “diffused”) across various fields or times) and integration (how methods & ideas are pulled together in a novel manner).  These are hallmarks of interdisciplinary subjects.  And LIS is nothing, if it is not interdisciplinary.

In the RSM article, Sheble attempts to “assess the visibility of research synthesis methods in LIS,” including the extent of RSM in LIS, the diffusion & integration of these methods in other fields, and the topics that LIS authors address.  Her results were not terribly surprising – most LIS work related to research synthesis has been in health & medicine.  Looking at the flow of information, it is interesting that while there was a net flow from General & Internal Medicine and Mathematics categories to LIS, there was a concomitant flow from LIS to the more applied healthcare fields of Nursing, Occupational Health and Public Health.  These results demonstrate the value of RSM – synthesizing information from the sources of investigation to the fields applying this knowledge.

And so, this is what I wonder – will synthesis be the catalyst for a change in our eternal pursuit of knowledge?  Are librarians at the cusp of that change?


One comment on “Research Synthesis Methods – What Librarians Do

  1. Laura Sheble
    September 18, 2015

    Thank you for your insightful comments… and the pointer to Wellmon’s book. At last, I’ve made a preprint of this article available:


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