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Understanding the Information Needs and Uses of Life Science Researchers

Robin Williams   Wendy Marsden   Ann Bruce   Jane Calvert

Funding: Research Information Network (RIN)

November 1 2008 – July 31 2009


The Research Information Network (RIN) sponsored a set of case-studies designed to "enhance understanding of how researchers locate, evaluate, organise, manage, transform and communicate information sources as an integrated part of the research process". The aim was to identify "how information-related policy, strategy and practice might be improved to meet the needs of researchers".

The study was carried out by a team of social scientists and information service specialists (respectively, from, the Institute for the Study of Science, Technology and Innovation, and from Information Services at the University of Edinburgh and The Digital Curation Centre) led by Professor Robin Williams.

It built on shared interests and activities in the area including a workshop, jointly organised by BBSRC and the ESRC Innogen Centre, on Data Sharing in the Biosciences: a sociological perspective.

Key findings

  • Researchers use informal and trusted sources of advice from colleagues, rather than institutional service teams, to help identify information sources and resources
  • The use of social networking tools for scientific research purposes is far more limited than expected
  • Data and information sharing activities are mainly driven by needs and bene?ts perceived as most important by life scientists rather than ‘top-down’ policies and strategies
  • There are marked differences in the patterns of information use and exchange between research groups active in different areas of the life sciences, reinforcing the need to avoid standardised policy approaches
  • ‘One-size-fits-all’ information and data sharing policies are not achieving scientifically productive and cost-efficient information use in life sciences.
  • There is a significant gap between how researchers behave and the policies and strategies of funders and service providers.

Wider implications for policy

1. Diverse patterns of information use and exchange

  • Researchers in the life sciences use and share information in many different ways. Within research groups, differences in information practices reflect divisions of labour, expertise and responsibility.
  • Different research groups show a huge and intricate range of formal and informal approaches to discovering, collecting, processing and disseminating information. Patterns of information use and exchange vary hugely, according to the specific research challenge being addressed, even in apparently similar areas of study.

2. Frameworks of support

  • Research groups tend to manage and share data in an informal way, without accessing professional support from institutional library and information services. But researchers express a strong desire for professional advice, training and support, with a particular demand for support to be closely integrated with research teams and laboratories.
  • Better engagement with information professionals could add to the efficiency and effectiveness of research in the life sciences. Support for researchers must be based on a close understanding of their work, its patterns and timetables.
  • Current career development and reward structures are not effective in recognising and rewarding the emerging specialist roles of informaticians, statisticians, modellers and curators, or in strengthening the information skills of life sciences researchers.
  • Policy-makers need to work together to produce effective and sustainable models for training and careers in managing information, catering for the varying requirements of different areas of research.

3. Barriers to sharing data and information

  • Life sciences researchers use a range of formal and informal mechanisms to exchange data and information with each other. But incentives for communicating the results of research other than through formal publication in journals and conference proceedings are weak and indirect.
  • Most research councils require researchers to set up formal mechanisms for managing and sharing the data they created, but many researchers are reluctant to comply with these requirements. They are concerned about potential misuse of their data, and about the risk of losing control over what they consider to be a key part of their intellectual capital.
  • Given the limited understanding of which forms of sharing and exchange are most effective, and under what circumstances, policy-makers should work further with researchers to identify the constraints, as well as to preserve the informed choice that is fundamental to scientific research.


The project report was published in November 2009 and is available to download from the reports section of the Innogen website.