Editor’s Note: this post is by Lettie Conrad. Lettie is the Executive Product Analysis Manager at SAGE. Lettie leads a group of specialists who expand SAGE’s capacity for digital product development innovations. She is instrumental in launching user-centered web and mobile products, driving research and analysis that enable evidence-based product management.
Libraries and publishers alike are paying increasing attention to the information experiences of their patrons and readers. By now, I think we’ve all come to the realization that we’re not offering singular destinations for academic information needs – instead, we are all outposts along the scholarly journey. Our success today depends on our ability to effectively and smoothly support the scholarly workflows that take ideas from the laboratory to the public sphere.
Applying best practices of user experience (UX) techniques in traditional software development, we are coming to terms with the fact that we are not the average user and must take steps to understand the researcher experience. It’s no longer enough to only test whether readers can find your download button. Instead, new studies (here also) are providing insights into the full scholarly workflow – establishing a more holistic view into the academic information experience, or researcher experience (RX). Using the findings from one such study, we’re given a chance to actually visualize how student-researchers move across the mainstream web and institutional resources to achieve their research tasks.
These RX studies remind us of the perspectives of those who consume the resources which we publish. Many student-researchers today see the act of research as omnipresent in their academic careers, as a consistent set of fairly ordinary tasks – such as searching for and citing scholarly materials. During the course of their studies, researchers establish their own routines for downloading, storing, organizing, and retrieving many megabytes of digital research materials. The researchers I’ve spoken to have amassed large volumes of relevant citations, articles, and artifacts quite quickly – building up what can be seen as a “personal digital library.” Some achieve this via web-based or software applications, such as DropBox, EndNote, Zotero, RefWorks, Mendeley, etc. Some track citations in spreadsheets or word processing files. Some still use analog methods. And some use a combination of tools and methods, depending on whether they’re working solo or as a group.
Whatever their chosen method, in order to connect the dots between published studies and their own unique inquiries, student-researchers are under pressure to efficiently retrieve and make use of the publications they identify as relevant for their work. Managing one’s personal library of digital research materials is reported as very time intensive – during an era when researchers feel they have a shortage of available time and an overwhelming number of databases and scholarly resources. As researchers work in and across the high volume of research materials available to them, the PDF format is often seen as one of the few constants during a literature review. For today’s student-researchers, PDF is a static, predictable, and familiar presentation of content, in the face of hundreds of unique web interfaces, search engines, and research applications.
Storage of data in personal digital libraries is critical for today’s emerging scholars – both to ensure their hard-earned personal libraries are protected, and to support multi-device and multi-location retrieval of information from those libraries. Some researchers selected their methods based on the security they “feel” an application provides them. Once a researcher invests a year or more into a particular tool or method, some say they become “hooked” – in part because of the work involved in reworking their personal digital libraries. Where researchers have selected a tool that enables automated capture and syncing across devices, they recount a dependence upon the efficiencies and time savings realized. Some of those who have become devoted to a freemium application – such as Zotero or Mendeley – appreciate the portability provided by these cloud solutions, as they consider tenure-track applications to other universities. There may be a trend away from investing in campus-specific applications, for fear of wasting time and losing the work invested in one’s personal digital library.
These RX findings paint a picture of the information experience of today’s student-researchers. No one library, no single database, no sole application is going to serve the end-to-end information needs of today’s researchers. As publishers, libraries, and technologies continue to evolve the scholarly information services we provide, we must keep this bigger picture in mind and make holistic, evidence-based decisions to further advance the efforts of science and education.