The Data Whisperer: Berenika Webster

Issue Date: 
October 26, 2015

In a sparsely furnished library office overlooking busy Forbes Avenue, Berenika Webster quietly sits at her computer analyzing the publications of a Pitt professor. Using sophisticated electronic tools and databases, Webster combs through data to see if the professor’s articles have been cited internationally. Webster discovers that her work has, indeed, been cited dozens of times by researchers in a number of countries from India to Spain and Brazil—information that will be included in the researcher’s application for external funding. 

Berenika Webster (Photo by Emily O'Donnell)Webster is an expert in bibliometrics, a growing field that she describes as a set of tools and methods used to study scientific disciplines by analyzing publication references. In short, it’s measuring how researchers’ work is used in subsequent studies. The data reveal more than you might expect. 

“It can identify when [academic] disciplines are aging or splitting, and when new fields are emerging,” says Webster, who is coordinator of strategic assessment for Pitt’s University Library System. This is the original thrust of bibliometrics, but now it’s also used for measuring the impact of research, with the premise that the more a work is cited, the more impact it has in the scholarly community—a source of prestige for researchers and their institutions.

This type of data is important not only to individual researchers, but also to public funders like the federal National Institutes of Health and state governments as well as not-for-profit private funders that support university research. 

Alternative metrics (altmetrics) can measure other aspects of scholarly research, such as how many times a book is accessed through databases, even if it’s not cited formally yet.  Or how research is being disseminated and used through social media. This use can often speak to a broader social impact of research activity. 

Using measures like this to prove value and impact—of researchers, of universities, even of libraries—is Webster’s purview. She’s done it all over the world, zigzagging across three continents as she followed educational pursuits—and as she and her husband, who is an academic administrator, navigated various professional relocations. 

Although bibliometrics can be used in many contexts, working at Hillman makes sense for Webster, who remembers libraries as magical places in her youth. She grew up in Poland, the daughter of academics who frequented libraries. Her father is a sociologist and her mother, a historian. Her uncle was a university librarian whose office was a dreamland of fascinating things. 

“I used to visit his office and sit there in awe. It was the best place imaginable because it was furnished with beautiful antique furniture and this wonderful eighteenth century globe,” she says. His shelves brimmed with books, and she wondered what it would be like to do what he did. 

Webster first studied English literature and philosophy at St. Mary’s College in Michigan, toying with the idea of becoming an English teacher. But after taking a class on bibliometrics as a graduate information-sciences student in London, Ontario, she changed her mind, and pursued a PhD in the subject at the University of Warsaw. Since receiving her doctorate in 2000, Webster has held a variety of appointments, including serving as an academic project manager for the University of Queensland in Australia. There, she and her team used bibliometric data to evaluate the university’s scholarship and to present its scholarly impact. The results were an important factor in how much funding the university received from the Australian government. 

The fruits of her work were gratifying—not only did the University of Queensland rank among the top 3 institutions in the country, the assessment revealed research strengths and weaknesses and identified opportunities for new collaborations across the university.

At Hillman, Webster uses bibliometrics for a range of purposes, including helping the library system to assess the strength of its collections. She is also developing services for professors and individual departments to determine the status and global impact of their research. Webster assists researchers in how best to use bibliometric data to claim impact of their research activities. 

The science also helps the library system track patrons’ changing preferences. For example, she noted a dramatic decrease in the use of the library’s physical collections. “Over the last 10 years, we noted a drop in physical circulation of books by half—last year, we circulated only six books per reader as compared to 50 “check outs” of electronic books per reader and more than 10 million downloads of articles from our electronic journals,” she says.    

ULS considers the data mined through bibliometrics to be so important that it has created a Bibliometrics Services group, which Webster heads. Seven librarians are being trained on bibliometrics fundamentals so they can assist the Pitt community. 

“Berenika is wonderful,” says Fern Brody, ULS interim director. “She’s very much an expert, excellent at identifying when there’s a need we can meet and communicating with people.” 

Brody adds that she can already see a growing interest on campus due to Webster’s outreach.

“I like communicating the principles of bibliometrics to people to help them demonstrate impact,” Webster says. “If somebody later says ‘thank you for helping me with this, I got tenured or I got my grant or I got that job,’ that’s very satisfying.”