April 23, 2018

Philip M. Davis | Movers & Shakers 2004


The Importance of Quantification


As a college student, Phil Davis intended to become a scientist. But as he studied population genetics of a family of mosses, monitoring his experiments daily, he wondered, ‘Is this really how I want to spend my life?’ After taking time off to read philosophy and bike his way around France, his answer was, ‘No.’ Instead, he decided to advance the research of others as a librarian.

He didn’t stop researching, he simply applied his quantitative skills to the problems that academic libraries were confronting, like the apparent decline in students’ use of libraries and their understanding of information quality once they discovered the Internet. In 1999, analyzing three years’ of citations from students’ term paper bibliographies, Davis published an important study documenting ‘The Effect of the Web on Undergraduate Citation Behavior.’

Convinced by this research that library-based
instruction is ‘severely compromised if what students learn from librarians is not reflected in the class assignment,’ Davis teamed up with a professor teaching Introduction to Microeconomics to change students’ citation behavior. When the professor provided guidelines for, and made grades contingent upon, the use of scholarly research resources, ‘book citations rose, journal citations increased dramatically, and web citations decreased,’ he reported in an update of his original article.

There were critical library management problems that needed Davis’s data analysis skills as well, including the soaring prices of science journals. As chair of the library’s Serial Evaluation Committee charged with a multiyear cancellation project (a group he christened ‘the Ginsu team’), he did citation analysis to determine what his university’s core journal collection was and published an article on the methodology so other librarians could use it.

As a negotiator of database licenses for both
his own library and the Northeast Research Libraries consortium, Davis became concerned about an academic publishing system that pitted scholars, publishers, and librarians against one another, undercutting the public good. A forthcoming article explores this problem, along with the alternative model of open access publishing. He suggests that ‘instead of abandoning the current system for untested and costly alternatives, we should attempt to modify the rules and incentives of the current system.’ He thinks much of the problem stems from confidentiality agreements with publishers that prevent the sharing of price information and lobbies for the construction of a database where licensing costs and usage could be posted and compared.

Davis is a man of great intellectual seriousness, but seriousness is not the first thing his friends mention when they talk about him. Bob Molyneux of NCLIS calls him ‘a person of enthusiasms,’ who can explain complex research findings to a variety of audiences in ways t
hat are amusing and readily understandable.

His interest in science remains, but it’s something Davis lives rather than practices professionally. He and his wife are dedicated hikers who maintain about 80 miles of trail in the Finger Lakes area. Now that they have a son, Davis is looking forward to ‘taking our newest naturalist into the woods.’ And, perhaps, to teach the child to count what he sees there.



Current Position: Life Sciences Bibliographer, Albert R. Mann Library, Cornell University
Degree: MLIS, University of Western Ontario, 1994
Professional Activities: New England Journal of Medicine Library Advisory Board
Publications: Visit people.cornell.edu/pages/pmd8