The problem of "expert location"

A common problem adduced in e-research (not just e-research, but it does come up quite a bit here) is expertise location, both local and global.

You need a statistician. Or (ahem) a metadata or digital-preservation expert. Or a researcher in an allied area. Or a researcher in a completely different area. Or a copyright expert (you poor thing). Very possibly the person you want works right down the hall, or in the building next door, or in the library, or somewhere on campus. But how on earth do you know?

You could call around to the offices or departments most likely to contain the expertise you're after. (Calling University Legal with a copyright question is a no-brainer, for example.) What if you don't know if the expertise exists locally? Or which office or department it's in? More to the point, what if the usual point of contact at the office or department doesn't have an encyclopedic knowledge of the office's or department's expertise? (Consider a brand-new departmental secretary. Or a library reference desk—how much does J. Random Librarian know about who in the library can answer metadata questions? Or will the caller be referred to IT?)

Looking at this problem from another angle turns it into "How do we collect information about what our staff knows about?" Well, there are sources. Curricula vitae. Institutional repositories. Publication lists. Statements of research interest. Titles of taught courses. Problem is, these bits of information sprawl all over an institution's web space, when they exist at all—and when they exist, they're hardly ever up-to-date.

The annual review process ought logically to update these information stores. I had a frank talk with a faculty member a month or so ago in which he admitted that faculty in his department lavished much effort on annual review documents that then… vanished into thin air, or something like that. Nothing made it onto the department's web space, much less the institutional repository. Nothing even made it into the department's newsletter. The faculty member deplored this situation, but felt powerless to change it.

Well, some libraries are taking up this gauntlet. (Bias disclosure: mine, as co-developer of the BibApp, is one of them.) No, publication lists aren't the be-all and end-all of expert location, but they're a whole lot better than nothing, so if we can centralize them and make them easier to update, why not? And if updating can be streamlined through author-search RSS feeds from the library, great!

Cornell's VIVO was close to the first publication database in the United States, and is still the liveliest. This isn't just a big-school frill, however; Appalachian State University's library maintains one. It's worth noting, however, that as usual the United States is behind the curve; because of government-funding allocation rules, nearly all British universities have such a beast and feed it regularly.

Publication databases as expert-location tools. Coming soon to an institution near you?


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So, you'd think this would be easier on the intranet in an organization that can basically tell the employees what they can and can't do, access to resumes, access to articles written, profiles,... but no! We're really no further ahead.

Government faces the same issues, particularly when it comes to the special expertise of linking research to policy, and there isn't the drive to publish that can be piggy-backed off, so I'm stumped as to how to improve things.

By Claire Bickell (not verified) on 01 Sep 2009 #permalink