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Ithaka S&R recently announced the release of its latest survey of academic faculty members in the United States. As usual — the survey has now been fielded five times, once every three years since 2000 — the questions are interesting and incisive and the analysis dispassionate but acute.

This round of survey results contained no findings that truly shocked me, but I did find some results more surprising than others, and all were quite useful. Below, I have pulled a few of the less surprising (but, to my mind, significant) findings along with some of the more surprising ones. I encourage all with an interest in the future of scholarly publishing, libraries, and research practice to download the report and give it close attention. Like its predecessors, it is freely available to the public, as are the datasets from previous surveys (the data from the 2012 survey will be deposited soon).

Less surprising findings

The importance of public, general-purpose search engines continued to increase (fig. 4). In 2003, 20% of faculty members surveyed reported that they typically begin their research with a “general purpose search engine on the internet.” In 2013, that percentage had climbed to about 35%.

Freely-available materials have come to play a significant role in meeting faculty research needs (figs. 17 & 18). Free online materials come in second only to local library collections in the estimation of survey respondents, and “search for a freely available version online” is the top strategy reportedly used by respondents when they find they do not have immediate access through their local libraries.

A dramatically growing share of respondents believe that within five years, print collections will no longer be necessary in research libraries (fig. 16). Those who believe this are still a minority, of course — about 9% of humanists, 19% of social scientists, and 18% of scientists. But in 2009, those numbers were closer to 2%, 5%, and 4% respectively. This growth is significant and suggestive, if not surprising.

Spotty enthusiasm for newer dissemination methods designed to maximize access and impact (fig. 36). A little under 35% of respondents rated “making a version of my research outputs freely available online” as “very important”; perhaps more interestingly, that rating was virtually identical across disciplinary groupings. On the other hand, when asked to rate the importance of “helping me to determine where to publish a given work to maximize its impact,” scientists responded “very important” about half as often (about 18%) as either social scientists or humanists did (about 36%).

Faculty members perceive library services as less important than library directors do (fig. 39); however, the number of respondents who characterize themselves as “very dependent” on the library for research support has held steady at around 40% since 2003 (fig. 43). While librarians might take some comfort in this consistency, they might be wise to consider why consistently fewer than half of faculty members feel that the library is as necessary to their scholarly work as librarians themselves believe it to be.

A small minority of faculty respondents believe that the library has a principle responsibility for teaching research skills, though a majority rate librarians’ contribution in this area highly (fig. 30). This finding, though unsurprising, should give librarians serious pause, inasmuch we often respond to the decline of library use in other areas by emphasizing the importance of bibliographic instruction and information literacy training by librarians.

The number of faculty respondents who see librarians and libraries as decreasingly important has doubled in the past ten years (fig. 44). In 2003, fewer than 10% of respondents agreed that librarians are becoming less important or that university resources should be shifted away from libraries and towards other needs. In 2012, the affirmative responses to both of those propositions hover at around 20%. Again, this is not necessarily surprising, but should prompt serious consideration on the part of librarians.

More surprising findings

The library catalog has regained some of its status (fig. 4). When asked where they typically begin their research and asked to choose between a specific scholarly database or search engine, a general search utility (like Google), the library catalog, and the library building, an increased number of respondents reported using both general search engines and (reversing a years-long trend) library catalogs. Reported use of disciplinary databases fell slightly from the previous year, and reported use of the library building continued its precipitous decline. None of these changes was dramatic.

Since last survey, respondents have become “modestly less comfortable” with shifting journal subscriptions from print to online formats (fig. 8). This one is, frankly a real shocker — and the change is roughly the same across disciplines. The different levels of comfort with this shift from discipline to discipline does not surprise me, but the fact that respondents from all areas reported the same decline in comfort surprises me very much.

Relatively few “feel strongly motivated to seek out opportunities to use more technology in their teaching” (figs. 27 & 28). That relatively few undergraduate instructors feel intrinsically motivated to seek out technological support for their teaching is not too surprising; using technology is not (and arguably should not be) a goal of teaching in and of itself. But given the current environment, I was surprised to see that 40% or fewer of respondents reported even occasionally seeking out opportunities to do so.

The library’s “gateway function” has increased in perceived importance, despite a rise in OA publishing and generally easier availability of copies via informal channels (fig. 38). Astutely, the survey’s authors drew an explicit distinction between the library’s functions as a gateway in the sense of research portal (“The library serves as a starting point or gateway for locating information for my research”) and as access broker (“The library pays for resources I need”). Interestingly, and to my mind counterintuitively, respondents’ assessment of the library’s importance rose in the former category (after falling in the previous three iterations of this study) and fell in the latter (after rising in each of the previous three studies).

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Rick Anderson

Rick Anderson

Rick Anderson is University Librarian at Brigham Young University. He has worked previously as a bibliographer for YBP, Inc., as Head Acquisitions Librarian for the University of North Carolina, Greensboro, as Director of Resource Acquisition at the University of Nevada, Reno, and as Associate Dean for Collections & Scholarly Communication at the University of Utah.


6 Thoughts on "Interesting Findings from Ithaka S&R's Latest Faculty Survey"

I wonder if the increase in status of the library catalog as a place to begin research is a result of the widespread adoption of discovery layers and web-scale discovery systems in the last 3 years. It seems likely to me that the improved usability and content coverage of these systems could be what is bringing some faculty back to the catalog.

I think that’s very possible, Virginia. At my library we’ve adopted one of those discovery layers, and here the response has been mixed — some appreciate the added scope and richness of the search results, while others find them confusing and difficult. But it’s very possible that faculty members generally tend to appreciate them and find that they make the catalog a better starting point for research.

I suggest we all tread cautiously on assuming that the “increase” in library catalog as place to begin research is real. I can’t find anything in the report that actually says what the numbers are, but Fig. 4 looks like it went from something like 16% to 18%. Without the raw data, there is no way to know whether that change is statistically significant or not; and Ithaka isn’t saying.

Chris, have you asked anyone at Ithaka for the raw numbers this question generated? It’s true that they haven’t yet posted the full data set, but if you asked Roger for the specific numbers from this particular question I suspect he’d be willing to provide them. Nothing I’m aware of in Ithaka’s past behavior suggests that they’re unwilling to share their raw data. In fact, as I noted above, they have publicly posted the raw data from previous iterations of the survey and have expressed the intention to do so again with this one.

That said, you are of course right that we should be careful about attributing the uptick to improvements in our catalogs. (Or to any other specific factor, for that matter.) But the apparent change in direction is interesting and worth noting.

The question was asked at CNI, and the response was “yes, we are depositing the data with ICPSR”, but no response on the significance testing.
Again, we don’t know if it is an actual “uptick” without data and significance testing. Could be noise.


The item that you reference in your comment, which is shown in Figure 4 in our report, is a forced choice question: “Below are four possible starting points for research in academic literature. Typically, when you are conducting academic research, which of these four starting points do you use to begin locating information for your research?” You are right to ask about the exact figures associated with the increase in the share selecting “your library catalog” between 2009 and 2012, because it is small. We are not so concerned with the absolute percentage but rather the trend over the overall timeline of the survey. We have asked the same question to a randomly selected sample of faculty members nationally over 12 years. The share responding that they start at “Your library catalog” has been 27.8% (2003), 22.3% (2006), 17.6% (2009), and 19.1% (2012). In presentations of findings, we identify this as an apparent “arresting of the decline” or a “break in the trend” downward, which indicates that something different may be going on.

We hope that this finding, set in the context of other survey findings and broader environmental change, is useful to librarians as they consider investments they are making to assist faculty members with their research and teaching needs. The difference between 2009 and 2012 is statistically significant at the 80% level. It will be interesting to see, when we next conduct the survey, what direction this will take.

The full dataset has been submitted to ICPSR for preservation and access and will be available for review as soon as processing there is completed.

Very best,

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