• July 29, 2014

Scholars Increasingly Use Online Resources, Survey Finds, but They Value Traditional Formats Too

Scholars continue to get more comfortable with e-only journals, and they increasingly get access to the material they want via digital channels, including Internet search engines and more-specific discovery tools provided by academic libraries. When it comes time to publish their own research, though, faculty members still seek out journals with the highest prestige and the widest readership in their fields, whether or not those journals are electronic and make articles free online.

Faculty members also say they still appreciate many of the services traditional publishers offer, but the traditional services of libraries, the scholars say, are less valuable than they used to be.

Those are some of the significant findings from the 2012 Ithaka survey of faculty attitudes, which went public on Monday. The survey has been run every three years since 2000 by Ithaka S+R. (That's the consulting-and-research arm of the nonprofit Ithaka group, which works to help the academic community make better use of digital technologies for preservation, research, and teaching.)

The previous surveys have been paper-based, but for this round, conducted in the fall of 2012, Ithaka used an electronic survey. Via e-mail, it invited 160,008 randomly selected faculty members at four-year colleges and universities to participate. Ithaka drew participants from across disciplines and all levels and ranks, on and off the tenure track. The survey team received responses from 5,261 people, an overall aggregate response rate of 3.5 percent, according to a report on the survey.

Sorted into three broad disciplinary groupings, the respondents included 1,753 humanists, 1,900 social scientists, and 2,066 scientists, with 455 people also identifying themselves as scholars in areas such as African-American studies, Asian studies, or Middle East studies.

Reading a Book? Print Is Preferred

Many of the survey's findings suggest that traditional scholarly preferences haven't changed as fast as technology has. "Respondents rated traditional formats of scholarly communication highly in comparison to other material types," says the report.

More than 90 percent of the respondents rated peer-reviewed journals and articles "very important" in their research. Humanists valued scholarly monographs and edited volumes from academic publishers more highly than did their counterparts in the other two groups, but "the monograph rated highly across disciplines," the report says.

E-books have become more widely available than they were a few years ago, and 70 percent of respondents said they had "often" or "occasionally" used digital scholarly monographs in the past half-year. But more than 80 percent said they still found it much or somewhat easier to read an entire book in print than in a digital format.

About 40 percent, though, agreed strongly with the idea that, "assuming that electronic collections of journals are proven to work well," e-collections could comfortably replace print journal collections in academic libraries. (Among scientists and social scientists, that figure was closer to 50 percent.)

About 60 percent of social scientists and scientists said that preprint versions of articles were very important in their work; for humanists, the figure was closer to 30 percent. Blogs and social media trailed far behind all the other categories, with less than 10 percent of respondents in each of the three big groupings rating them very important to their research.

Starting at the Library—or Not

The survey found pronounced technology-enabled changes in how faculty members track down the primary and secondary sources they use in research. "The ways that they find these materials have evolved substantially as an increasing share are made digitally available," the report says. "Over time, we have seen a clear trend away from respondents' reporting that they begin their research at the library itself­—in either its physical or digital instantiation—and towards beginning at either scholarly or general-purpose online resources."

But the 2012 survey "showed a slight break in this trend," according to the report. The share of respondents who reported starting with the library catalog increased slightly from 2009 to 2012, although it still hovers under 20 percent, down from closer to 30 percent in 2003.

The modest reversal "was driven principally by changing behaviors among humanists, who appear to be shifting slightly back towards greater reliance on the catalog," the report says. "This may be the result of libraries' efforts to rethink the nature of search available through their home pages via larger-scale indexed discovery services."

For libraries, "there are some things here that are really promising," Roger C. Schonfeld, the program director for libraries, users, and scholarly practices at Ithaka, said in an interview. Mr. Schonfeld is one of the report's authors; the others are Ross Housewright and Kate Wulfson, also of Ithaka.

The survey found a slight increase in the percentage of faculty members who say they value the library's role as a gateway to information, perhaps, Mr. Schonfeld said, because of the discovery services that libraries have been investing in. If that is the case, "it would seem to suggest that certain library investments that have been made—in some cases, very meaningful investments—have borne fruit," he said.

Faculty members do still appreciate the library's role as a buyer of resources, with eight out of 10 respondents rating that function "very important," according to the report. That's a decline from the 2009 survey, when more than 90 percent of survey participants rated the buying function as very important.

With a couple of significant exceptions, researchers continue to see less value coming out of the academic library than they used to. The campus library remains "a central element" in how scholars approach their research and teaching, the report says, "but it is only one part of a complex environment for accessing needed scholarly resources."

Value From Traditional Publishers

The report contains good news for traditional academic publishers. Even though scholars have more alternatives for sharing and circulating their work than they used to, respondents said they still think traditional publishers offer valuable services. Managing peer review and making research more visible are among the services the faculty members most appreciate.

"Less than one in five respondents across disciplines strongly agreed that their ability to share work directly with peers has made scholarly publishers less important," and almost half strongly disagreed with the idea, the report says. "This brings into question the rhetoric of decline in publishing."

One finding of the 2012 survey highlights an opportunity for both publishers and libraries. Four out of five respondents across disciplines said they generate collections of "scientific, qualitative, quantitative, or primary-source research data" in the course of their work. But four of five also said they preserve those data sets themselves "using commercially or freely available software or services." Only 20 percent use an institutional or online repository.

That would seem to leave room for libraries and publishers to step up their efforts to assist researchers in the long-term preservation of data. If such preservation "is to become an important priority for the research community," the report suggests, "new solutions—or greater uptake of existing solutions—will be required to ensure that materials are preserved responsibly."

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