Fast science and LIS: some thoughts on LIS research and practice in the COVID-19 crisis

A recent blog post by Cambridge philosopher Jacob Stegenga discussing the role of philosophy of science in the COVID-19 pandemic prompted me to start thinking about the concurrent role of library and information science. Stegenga argues that given the accelerated pace of scientific research in response to the pandemic we are currently experiencing what he calls 'fast science'. He then asks:

"Should philosophers of science be trying to assess the merits of the various scientific arguments pertaining to SARS-CoV-2 that are now having such profound implications on policy, in a rigorous yet publicly visible manner, at a pace which accords with that of the relevant scientific work? […] Ought philosophy of science attempt to engage with, contribute to, and criticize fast science, as it unfolds?"

A related question we might ask ourselves is: ought LIS researchers and practitioners ensure they are helping academics, as well as the general public, find and access the information they need in order to help facilitate this engagement with fast science? The answer, of course, is that we already are; however, it is worth reflecting on how we have adapted what we do in order to maintain continuity throughout the current crisis. How fast has LIS been? Is our existing research relevant? Have libraries responded quickly enough? How has LIS practice changed?

Like philosophy, it is perhaps true that much of LIS research requires what Stegenga calls "cautious and often slow scholarship". However, it is worth noting that, despite this, LIS researchers have already published papers reflecting on the role of library and information professionals in the pandemic, and on the post-pandemic re-opening of libraries. Information specialists have also developed peer-reviewed search strings to assist researchers with finding COVID-19 related literature in databases such as PubMed, as well as curated lists of evidence-based information sources. These seem like good examples of fast LIS.

One problem that has been a consistent focus of LIS research which has become particularly prescient is information overload. The relevance of this research – as well as the importance of the problem itself – might be said to increase as a function of the amount of information available to the average individual. The explosion of mis- and disinformation in the current crisis has caused the World Health Organisation to declare an 'infodemic' and launch a new platform to try and combat COVID-19 misinformation. This led to some LIS researchers being contacted by the BBC to offer advice on combatting the spread of misinformation for an article on how individuals can help in the COVID crisis. In a subsequent blog post, David Bawden reflected on his research on information overload with colleague Lyn Robinson and offered some practical advice for coping with information overload and stopping the spread of misinformation (their recent paper is a good introduction to the problem of information overload).

Fundamental to tackling the spread of misinformation is to understand how it spreads on social media. Philosophers working in social epistemology – a branch of philosophy often considered foundational to LIS – have carried out extensive research in this area, developing formal models to help understand how misinformation propagates in epistemic networks, such as this paper which repurposes contagion models to understand why false beliefs can persist despite the article from which they originated having long since been retracted. LIS research has also focused on retraction and many university libraries provide advice and training on how to find out whether an article has been retracted. A more recent example of social epistemology applied to the study of misinformation – which might be considered 'fast philosophy' – is this piece titled Why False Claims About COVID-19 Refuse to Die, which argues that some claims which initially seemed scientifically legitimate can continue to spread even when it has become clear that they are false, causing them to become what they term 'information zombies'. We would be well advised to engage with research in this area and consider how it can help us to better understand our role in helping combat misinformation, or, as I'd now prefer to put it, in helping mitigate the threat posed by information zombies.

If there is one thing that has remained constant in the history of library and information science it is the need for adaptability to rapid change – this is perhaps more evident in libraries themselves, whether academic or public. A notable response in the former is how quickly academic libraries have moved more services online to enable continued access to information and training. I say more because most of them already are but perhaps the biggest shift – particularly with regard to academic libraries – is moving face-to-face training online. Academic libraries all over the globe have moved their training online to ensure students and researchers are able to continue receiving the advice and training they need to help them navigate the scholarly landscape. Despite suffering from the slow government response to the COVID crisis which prompted direct action by staff in some libraries, public libraries too have adapted their services by increasing the visibility of existing online services such as access to ebooks, eMagazines and audiobooks, as well as offering such things as online reading groups and storytimes for children. Some public libraries are also offering 'befriending' services for elderly customers who are shielding to help minimise the impact of isolation and loneliness.

While the current crisis makes it all the more evident that a library is more than just a physical space, it also highlights – as the previous example illustrates – the important social role of libraries. For students, libraries offer spaces for both quiet solitude and collaborative learning with colleagues. For communities, libraries offer safe spaces to socialise, learn new skills and access information in a wide range of formats. Retaining this social aspect might prove to be one of our biggest challenges as we start to ease our way out of this crisis.