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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?

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Kent Anderson

Kent Anderson

Kent Anderson is the CEO of RedLink and RedLink Network, a past-President of SSP, and the founder of the Scholarly Kitchen. He has worked as Publisher at AAAS/Science, CEO/Publisher of JBJS, Inc., a publishing executive at the Massachusetts Medical Society, Publishing Director of the New England Journal of Medicine, and Director of Medical Journals at the American Academy of Pediatrics. Opinions on social media or blogs are his own.


8 Thoughts on "Today’s UK Researchers: E-journals Dominate, Access Not an Issue, Skimming Increasing"

“One theme should bother publishers both large and small — the low usage their sites get … is anybody surprised by this?”

They shouldn’t be. Librarians have been telling publishers this for years, well I have been anyway! From the first time in about 1997 that someone from OUP came to tell me about their wonderful one-stop-shop website for molecular genetics, through to now and Elsevier offering us workshops on how to use ScienceDirect. The message from me is the same – “just give us the journal articles”.

I’m beginning to think that IT departments and Hollywood stuntmen have something in common, namely that their mere presence in the industry makes it so that we do things to keep them busy and well-paid.

So, we get lots of action movies, many that go straight to DVD, and a lot of portals, most of which go straight to RIP.

An interesting study, nothing earthshattering but some good confirmation of what many of us have thought.

The behavior patterns reflect what Highwire’s John Sack recently noted, “People don’t read journals, they read articles.” That can be expanded to note that people certainly don’t read publishers. So it’s hard to understand the huge efforts that publishers are putting into their platforms (the recently revamped Springerlink or Elsevier’s Sciverse as examples). Does anyone really search for information on a subject but only want to see information published by one company? This also argues against the expense of app development. Why build an app centered around your journal/journals if your readers instead prefer general purpose access to the entire breadth of the literature?

Some other notes from the study–journals and branding aren’t entirely worthless, as nearly all the respondents felt that there was a core set of journals for their field.

The off-hours usage accurately reflects the increasing time pressure seen by scientists. Career demands continue to increase, pushing secondary activities like keeping up with the literature further down the list of priorities.

I was a bit surprised to see the high levels of usage of Web of Science and Google Scholar. Both are used by our readers, but nowhere near at the level of use seen for general versions of Google and for PubMed. This may just be a British thing, or it may reflect the different practices of different disciplines (our journals are in the life sciences, and the study looked at many different fields). I’d be curious though, to see a breakdown of actual logs showing referrers, and see how this differs from what the researchers reported. As Jakob Nielsen has often noted, it’s important to watch what users actually do, not what they say they do or want.

Also of note:

Conspicuous by their absence are social networks. For the ‘critical instance’ question only one researcher looked at a social networking bookmark site, and social media generally were only men- tioned when prompted by the interviewer, and there were no reports of academic journals being exchanged or recommended through them.

It would be very useful to know just how these different search engines like WOS, Google, Google-S and PM are used. For example, Google is best for finding the author or their publication page. In my case (no doubt an outlier) I have no subscriptions so if I see an interesting article in the news or abstracts I find the authors website to see if they have posted it. If not I email a request to them.

This issue could use a dose of so-called Problem Solving research to sort out what users actually do. This means tracking the logic step by step, site by site and page by page.

Agree 100%. Scholarly publishers could dearly use the sorts of observational studies done by Jakob Nielsen and the deep analyses of user activity done by O’Reilly, but few seem to be willing to engage in these sorts of studies. I recently saw a user survey from a major publishing house looking to launch a new product. The survey was full of questions like, “which color works best in our logo?” Yikes.

Hilarious (and sad). The logic of Web search and navigation should be one of the big cognitive science research areas. Instead we get endless Webometrics network studies. They are studying statics instead of dynamics.

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