• September 1, 2015

Scholars Increasingly Embrace Some, but Not All, Digital Media

The more things change, the more they remain the same—at least when it comes to certain aspects of scholarly behavior, such as what modes of publication researchers prize most.

According to new survey findings, scholars in all disciplines are ever more comfortable using research materials online. In sharing and publishing their research, however, scholars remain most strongly influenced by their disciplines' old models of status, tenure, and promotion.

A report on the findings, "Faculty Survey 2009: Key Strategic Insights for Libraries, Publishers, and Societies" gives detailed responses from 3,025 scholars at institutions across the country. It focuses on three areas: how faculty members use and perceive their campus libraries; how they are handling the print-to-digital shift in scholarly work; and how much they have or have not changed their professional habits in an increasingly electronic environment. It was prepared for the Ithaka group, a nonprofit organization that promotes technology in higher education, by Roger C. Schonfeld, manager of research at Ithaka's strategy-and-research arm, and Ross Housewright, an analyst there. The new report is the latest installment that presents findings from a survey Ithaka has conducted every three years for the past decade.

Fewer Trips to the Library

The first section, "Discovery and the Evolving Role of the Library," confirms what many librarians already know: Faculty members do not use the library as a gateway to information nearly as much as they used to.

"The research process is no longer likely to begin with a face-to-face consultation with a librarian, a visit to the library's special-collections service points, or a search of the online library catalog," the report notes. Humanists are still more likely than scientists to start their research in the library itself or via its online catalog—30 percent versus 10 percent—but even among humanists, there is a distinct trend "away from library-specific starting points" and toward network-level discovery via electronic resources, such as Google Scholar or a database of academic journals. The days of the library as the so-called laboratory of the humanities may be numbered.

"Discovery is in such tremendous flux right now, and the monograph-seeking humanist is no longer likely to think that the online library catalog is the place to start their search," Mr. Schonfeld said in an interview. "One of the really thought-provoking questions that comes out of this study is whether libraries should continue to invest in locally customized discovery tools or whether those investments are not likely to yield value."

If faculty members see the library less as a gateway to research, they still put faith in its value as a buyer and archiver of information. There's a danger, however, that they will consider it "as a budget line rather than as an active intellectual partner," the report suggests.

Cozying Up to Digital Journals

The second section of the report, "The Format Transition for Scholarly Works," offers data on how faculty members feel about the shift to digital media. It found that, across the board, scholars continue to get more and more comfortable with journals in electronic form. Many researchers no longer expect or even want to read current issues in print form.

The embrace of digital journals has become so widespread that print editions of current issues "are rapidly becoming a thing of the past" for many scholars, the survey found. Sixty percent of humanists and more than 80 percent of scientists said they would be fine with having their libraries provide only electronic copies of the latest issues of journals.

"Scholars want e-journals," Mr. Schonfeld said. "Basically, if you're in a text-driven field, you don't need the print" edition any longer. But he also pointed out that more than 50 percent of the survey respondents still wanted a print edition to exist somewhere—just not necessarily on their home campuses. Only a quarter of the humanists taking the survey said they would be happy if the journals they rely on were published solely in electronic format. For social scientists the figure was a little over 40 percent, and for scientists it was close to half. Those findings call for "more strategic planning" and maybe more mutual strategizing on the part of publishers and librarians as they navigate the shift away from print, the report says.

Electronic books, however, have not yet conquered faculty hearts and habits the way e-journals have. "Despite the arrival of devices like the Amazon Kindle—and about 10 percent of respondents indicated that they owned an e-book device like the Kindle—e-books have remained marginal to scholars," the survey found. Slightly more than 10 percent said that they considered e-books "very important" now in their research and teaching. Interestingly, though, more than 30 percent of respondents think that e-books will be important in their professional lives in five years.

Impact Favored Over Open Access

The findings in the third section of the report, "Scholarly Communications," are most likely to dismay open-access advocates and those who seek to overhaul the tenure-and-promotion regime. When deciding where to publish, the scholars surveyed still rated recognition by their peers over open access. They expressed interest in putting their work in institutional repositories, but less than a third have actually done so.

"Despite several years of sustained efforts by publishers, scholarly societies, libraries, faculty members, and others to reform various aspects of the scholarly communications system, a fundamentally conservative set of faculty attitudes continues to impede systematic change," the report concludes.

For instance, about 85 percent of respondents called it "very important" that a journal they publish in is widely read by colleagues in their field. Only 40 percent said it was very important that the journal provide free online access to its contents.

"Faculty seem to distinguish between openness and impact," Mr. Schonfeld said. The biggest incentive remains making an impact among peers, because "that's how the tenure-and-promotion system works." The old ways persist, even if much of the work has migrated online.

Respondents displayed "a significant amount of interest" in depositing their work in institutional repositories, but not even 30 percent of them have actually put any of their work in one yet. Mr. Schonfeld called that finding more evidence "that institutional mandates are going to be required" if repositories are to work as their advocates hope.

Scholars still expect the same old things from their scholarly societies, too, even as those societies rethink their roles as publishers and facilitators of peer-to-peer communication in the digital age. Respondents said they most want their associations to continue to publish peer-reviewed journals, organize face-to-face conferences, and provide job information.

Over all, the survey revealed "very little change in the scholarly-communications area," Mr. Schonfeld said. He pointed out that faculty members may want to try new approaches but feel constrained by how their fields do business. "It's not really a happy finding," he said, "but I think it's important to distinguish between what they want in their hearts versus what they're doing in the broader environment they're part of."


1. mbelvadi - April 07, 2010 at 07:05 am

I love this line: "Despite several years of sustained efforts by publishers, scholarly societies, libraries, faculty members, and others to reform various aspects of the scholarly communications system..." - yes, but the publishers and scholarly societies on the one hand, and libraries on the other, have been for the most part pulling in opposite directions! I think that getting as many as 40% of faculty to say that free online access is "very important" is a huge victory, and encouraging to the open access movement, not a source of dismay at all.

As to the e-journal vs e-book issue, that's not a surprise given that most libraries probably still have the preponderance of their monograph collection in print, but their journal collection online. So of course the e-books aren't "very important" yet. We also have the problem thanks to publishers and ebook vendors of search silos - if you have several thousand ebooks on platform X, several thousand more on Y, and more still in Z and Q (yes it's really like that), the researcher can't leverage the incredible "full text search" capability of ebooks across the entire collection. That's what makes Google Book Search so game-changing, but most people don't know anything about it other than that there's a lawsuit.

2. englishwlu - April 07, 2010 at 07:08 am

I am about to go off to my annual conference, with the program and a ton of reading material on my Netbook. A back-up copy of my paper is also on that Netbook, but I'll read from paper and take questions in person. People will speak to me there that would never meet me otherwise. The society publishes a journal and one of things we'll do this weekend is present a prize for the best essay in last year's issues: meaningful for the winner, real work for the judges! That peer-reviewed journal is available electronically if one's library has the subscription, and my own experience publishing in it was terrific: great impact, even if not open access. I prefer to read the journal in the hardcopy form I receive as a member of the society, but when I do research I pull up the pdfs like everyone else. I now use Google Books more than I would ever have imagined, saving my university a ton of money on ILLs. But I sure do want to publish my next book in hard covers.

To me the blend of practices described in the article as "not really a happy finding" is just reality. What are we supposed to do, throw our young colleagues to the wolves when we all announce "we're not going to do peer-reviewing anymore!" (It sure would save a lot of time. . .)

3. cmcgowan - April 07, 2010 at 09:17 am

Regarding: "there is a distinct trend "away from library-specific starting points" and toward network-level discovery via electronic resources, such as Google Scholar or a database of academic journals. The days of the library as the so-called laboratory of the humanities may be numbered."

Does the author not understand that the database of academic journals that the faculty are using comes from the Library and the links to many of the articles from Google Scholar point to content provided and maintained by the Library?

4. moravian - April 07, 2010 at 10:10 am

This is less a study than an attempt to cheer-lead for a particular vision of the future. The author laments the "conservative" faculty, those who haven't transitioned away from books to the brave new digital world. Farenheit 450. Caught up in enthusiasms and wanting to seem hip they simply throw around hackneyed categories and judgments and scenarios as they seek to position ourselves to colonize the future. I thought such naive modernist enthusiasms for labelling all new technologies as "progress" had sobered up in the face of extenct species, climate change, destruction of community, widening gaps of rich and poor, consumerist addictions and values,etc. Fortunately, this aticle is so transparently biased that I will use it in class as a case study.
Given yesterday's court ruling opening the door for manipulation of the internet for the most crass profiteering, we might think twice about throwing all of our eggs in that basket--or net.

5. research_assistant - April 07, 2010 at 10:13 am


Exactly Right! At the university level, the library is the only starting point for access to electronic content. If demand for e-resources continues who will provide the service to meet that demand? Who will maintain the infrastructure in this "library of the future"? Who's going to make sure that electronic access is uninterrupted, and more importantly who is going to do the imporant work of digitization of rare and unique monographs and also digital preservation/archiving of e-resources? Who's going to coordinate with faculty to setup collaborative digital tools and enhanced classrooms?

Sure, no one will be checking your books out in the future, but there will be plenty of other work to be done. The role of the library maybe changing, but it is certainly not diminishing.

6. d_fevens - April 07, 2010 at 10:45 am

From the February 18th fairness hearing to the Google Book Settlement:
...I'm [Paul Courant] here today not as an economist but as a librarian.
I also want to note that I've discussed my remarks today with the librarians in the rest of the Big Ten,[i.e. The University of Wisconsin] the University of Chicago and Stanford University, and those librarians are in substantial agreement with what I have to say and asked me to convey that to you. ...The broad social benefit that derives from the progress of science and the useful arts depend on the ability to find, use, and reuse the scholarly record. Provision of the scholarly record for current and future generations is the primary mission of these research libraries." [Pages 17 & 18 of the Transcript]

Since the Google Book Settlement limits the uses a member library (i.e. The University of Wisconsin) may apply to their digital copies of in-copyright works, it would seem that Mr. Courant is advocating that libraries defer to Google Inc. their mandate to make scholarly records available to researchers. (The University of Wisconsin-Madison Libraries even have a link "More Information at Google Books" (The University of Wisconsin-Madison Libraries even have a "More Information at Google Books" link on everyone of their online catalogue cards.)

Douglas Fevens,
Halifax, Nova Scotia,
The University of Wisconsin, Google, & Me

7. upstate - April 07, 2010 at 02:50 pm

Based on reading a summary from Ithaka, the report talks about is the Library being "increasingly being disintermediated from the discovery process." This does not mean that the Library is not providing the resources, in the vast majority of cases it is. Libraries devote an ever increasing amount of staff time to trialing, purchasing, licensing and making available e-resources. There has always been a difference in the way journal articles and monographs are accessed and used, and the degree to which a given discipline depends on one rather than the other. Two fearless predictions: print collections will grow at a smaller rate but not disapper; and, for many, the library as place will still be valued. And then there's the problem of digital preservation! Being concerned about long term access to digital resources does not make one a reactionary.

8. rocklady - April 07, 2010 at 04:43 pm

As a librarian who is trying to educate faculty about open access, I am dismayed that the survey only asked about the act of publishing their work in open access journals. One way of providing more open access is to submit articles to publishers that allow articles to be placed in repositories or posted online as a preprint. Some faculty seem to have no clue what they are signing when they sign the copyright agreement. If scholars use a resource such as SHERPA/RoMEO (http://www.sherpa.ac.uk/romeo/), they might choose their publisher/publication more judiciously.

9. joemurphy - April 08, 2010 at 04:48 pm

This article makes it sounds like "open access" and "being read by peers" are opposed. (I should admit here that I haven't read the actual study yet.) That seems like an error.

In fact, they're the X and Y axes on the graph. I imagine most faculty would prefer the upper-right-hand corner - wide readership by peers, in a publication open to all. But if they have to choose, they'd rather have their work in a prestigious journal than an unknown one... and if that maps to open and closed, so be it. Which only stands to reason - the audience, after all, is other scholars, not the general populace of curious amateurs and kids working on science fair projects.

An interesting alternate way to phrase the questions might be to investigate the importance of faculty publications as potential course readings, or to peers at underfunded institutions. These images would explore the entire lifecycle of a scholarly document, and I suspect better describe the readers that institutional repositories are really designed for.

Snarky comments about advocating for open access on the Chronicle's pay-walled site are left as an exercise for the reader...

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