The Research Information Network recently published a study evaluating the use and role of e-journals in UK researchers’ professional lives. It builds on an earlier study of the computer logs of researchers in the UK by adding interviews, observations, and an online questionnaire so that the earlier findings could be placed in context.
The study focused on researchers, not on practitioners or information consumers. This more tight-knit group always differs somewhat in their behaviors, being more voracious in their information consumption habits. The researchers who were studied came from a wide swath of fields — biological sciences, chemistry, environmental sciences, history, economics, and physics. This is a big problem with the study, actually. The mix makes it really hard to draw firm conclusions for any specialist group.
So, this is an interesting study of UK researchers, but nothing earth-shattering.
The good news is that journals are more important in the professional lives of researchers than ever. But how journals are accessed and used has changed significantly.
Among many interesting findings is that these researchers do much of their research outside of normal office hours, with some laughing outright at the suggestion that there are “normal office hours” anymore.
One major finding of the study is that e-journals are the primary way of accessing the journal literature. Another is that access to journals has improved dramatically. As the researchers state:
. . . few barriers to academic literature were identified by [interviewees] and many prized the extent of academic literature available and the mechanisms to provide access to those articles and papers not readily accessible online.
Passwords were the least of the researchers’ concerns when it came to barriers to access. Most often, a lack of subscription was cited as the reason for access problems, ahead of having to pay for a download. This suggests that the expectation is on the institution to provide access, not on the publisher (or on content being free). From the vantage point of these employees, it might look as if their employers are not providing what they need to do their jobs.
There are plenty of other stimulating findings in this paper:
- Web of Science is the preferred portal for most researchers, except historians, who like JSTOR
- Publisher portals don’t fare well as search starting points — ScienceDirect, Proquest, Embase, and the like barely register, with ScienceDirect doing the best, equivalent to a publisher site or journal site as a search starting point
- Individual journal home pages rarely surface important articles
Generally, researchers are dealing with too much information, and feel there’s “too much literature being produced.” The abundance of articles and other demands created “too many time constraints militating against full and considered reading.” As a coping mechanism, researchers are “skimming and dipping” more than ever — not a new observation, but apparently the behavior is becoming more prevalent.
Print is peripheral for these researchers — not the print that comes out of their laser printers, but the bound magazines of old. Only 12.5% of their regular awareness of research comes from non-online sources (mostly colleagues and meetings, 2% via print), and only 11.9% said they’d recently discovered an important article via a print journal.
One theme should bother publishers both large and small — the low usage their sites get, even the major portals that publishers like Elsevier and Springer have created. The study shows that, at least in the UK, researchers visit these far less often than the true aggregators like Web of Science, PubMed, Google Scholar, and Google. The big plays like ScienceDirect don’t perform much better than a plain old journal home page, and some do much worse. It brings to mind the entire notion of the big Web site build yet again, and how potentially futile it is to create anything but something simple, straightforward, and designed for established aggregators and Web 2.0 realities.
I also got the feeling while reading this study that I was back in 1998, but reading a rehash of the story we were telling then. Maybe it’s just a matter of seeing some notions and predictions and trends come true, a kind of intellectual anticlimax, but the overall effect was a sort of deja vu.
The world has moved on for researchers in the UK. They have great access to academic materials, they use online resources heavily, they rarely derive value from print, and they prefer comprehensive aggregations to even big publisher silos.
Really, is anybody surprised by this?