Back libraries for better research

Emphasis on good teaching and research mean little when our libraries lie in a perpetual state of neglect

By Author Prof N Laxman Rao (Retd)   |   Published: 4th Jun 2019   12:05 am Updated: 3rd Jun 2019   11:10 pm

An original idea. That can’t be too hard. The library must be full of them – Stephen Fry

Research is an important activity of academics which is supposed to find solutions to problems. It is defined as “a systematic and scientific procedure of data collection, compilation, analysis, interpretation, and implication pertaining to any problem.” Methods may vary based on the problem and subject. “Good quality research provides evidence that is robust, ethical, stands up to scrutiny and can be used to inform policy making. It should adhere to principles of professionalism, transparency, accountability and auditability,” states the UK Safer Internet Centre.

Increased support and funding, along with the use of technology, has resulted in increased output. However, the government’s R&D funding has remained static at about 0.7% of the GDP for several years (Jayaraman & Subhra Priyadarshini). In contrast, Taiwan spends 3% and the US 2.7% of the GDP on research.

Former Google CEO Eric Schmidt commented on the growth of literature: “Every two days now the human race creates as much information as we did from the dawn of civilisation until 2003. That’s about five exobytes.”

(Exobyte is a miniature nanite roughly the size of a flea, capable of downloading near infinite amounts of data).

Leverage Technology

Technology has created opportunities to identify, acquire, store and provide access to literature available in any language. It enables machine translation, machine indexing and abstracting. Secondary sources (databases) such as chemical abstracts, biological abstracts, ERIC, LISA, social science abstracts collect data about publications in single/ group of subjects published anywhere and in any language and arrange them in a systematic manner with abstracts. They support in identification of publications/abstracts and guide to full-text.

Citation Indexes give linkages between the cited and citing articles through which the scholar can identify and relate to the literature and scholars around the world. Only libraries can afford to procure them due to high cost and can help overcome the dependence on limited journals. Libraries can help scholars in getting visibility/connectivity to relevant primary resources. Technology has also enabled new products/services such as pre-prints, remote access to resources and resource sharing.

Identification of the problem is the first step in research, which is done through literature search/survey. This empowers identification of gaps in subject and procedures/methods adopted, equipment used, etc, and supports in finalising the research problem.

Namesake Survey

But scholars depend on a limited number of journals/books and teacher’s suggestions to finalise research problem without undertaking a complete survey of the literature. They take the survey as a formality, resulting in duplication of research. The survey, therefore, is big mockery in a majority of the projects as scholars write just a few paragraphs with no logical approach.

Libraries provide support, access and guide scholars to relevant literature thus contributing to quality research. It’s worth quoting here — Do not judge a book by its cover/title, similarly, do not judge the thesis with its title or binding.

Another important area of research is collecting descriptive/published information. Journals are key resources but they are also expensive. Earlier, the UGC supported subscription of journals through UGC-Infonet to select university libraries, but their numbers are dwindling year after year. Now the MHRD is handling the subscriptions and the numbers continue to dwindle. There are many free/open knowledge resources (including journals, patents, pre-prints), which libraries can identify and provide access to or share the resources.

Prof Papireddy, Chairman of TSCHE, is right when he says that well-equipped libraries and laboratories are vital for quality research. To avoid the ‘copy and paste’ culture, he suggests the need for modification of admission procedure to admit committed researchers.

Areas of Concern

An area of concern is little knowledge of how to use citation. Citation standards such as APA, MLA, Chicago/Turabian, IEEE style have to be used. Unfortunately, most teachers and scholars are not aware of these standards and find it difficult to write citations. It is here that librarians can guide scholars on how to use such standards.

Subramaniam, Secretary, Higher Education, GoI, had said that the Centre would release the Rs 1.5 lakh crore (for plan period) allocated to improve the quality and accessibility of higher education as per the recommendations of the New Education Policy (NEP). It is not known whether library component/support is part of the NEP.

The education cess is spent on school education, but libraries hardly find a place in the Sarva Siksha Abhiyan Budget. Many librarian positions in academic institutions are vacant and recently the librarian position has been downgraded in the NITs. Google has replaced library, which only signifies ignorance.

Better Norms

Even public libraries in the UK provide access to a lot of primary journals, whereas Indian public libraries with great history, and which contributed to social, political and economic reforms, now lie neglected. This is in spite of a library legislation in 20 States.

Recently, the UGC asked for proposals to conduct a study on the quality of PhD theses in universities. It is a good step but norms and guidelines are not mentioned and such action may lead to counter criticism.

Most of the knowledge resources are being procured with public funds and it is worth to design a model for their sharing either by changing the licensing norms or bringing in a legislation. Support and patronage to libraries with budget and appointment of professionals can help access to nascent information and educate scholars on new products coming from time to time. Such backing can only sustain research quality. Academic administrators must give priority to libraries in the interest of quality research, which contributes a lot to national development.

(The author is retired professor of Library & Information Science, Osmania University)