By Lettie Y. Conrad, Publishing & Product Consultant & Information Science PhD Candidate
The results of the Discovery & Access portion of the Ithaka S+R US Faculty Survey 2018 reflect the latest patterns and proclivities of American academics as they navigate scholarly information seeking and retrieval in the course of their instructional and research activities. In this longitudinal study, we have seen an overall growth in scholars’ reliance on open-web search engines, while aggregated scholarly databases are on a consistent decline. For most disciplines, reliance on academic library services has dipped slightly, but is holding strong in the recent past. I have observed these evolving research practices in action via my own product design work with academic publishers. After spending quality time with Ithaka’s report this summer, I can see their findings borne out in much of the last few decades of literature examining today’s researcher experiences and trends in scholarly information behavior.
Not surprisingly, the prevalence of freely available search engines (namely, Google properties) has grown steadily with faculty. At nearly the same rate, across their four disciplinary categories, we can see a shift away from specific scholarly databases (i.e., subject databases) as a resource for literature searching (see Figure 2). The dominance of these databases for medical researchers is not surprising; I would wager most had PubMed/Medline in mind when they selected that option. It is also worth noting that the three top starting points for academic information seeking (scholarly databases, Google Scholar, and the library) have the highest likelihood to connect users to reliable, authorized versions of record; whereas the other three may or may not lead to legitimate full-text access options. If so, this is likely an inclination of faculty members (whereas, for example, younger researchers will have different priorities and expectations). Other studies have shown the relationship between discovery choices and expected ease of full access, and there is a great deal more to be known about what lies behind the discovery workflows of faculty — in particular, where their choices for search are based on past experiences with access roadblocks or limitations in completing their information tasks.
While using rather broad disciplinary categories, Ithaka’s report points out critically important variations in information preferences across fields of study. Like many other studies, they have demonstrated the methodological and cultural influences within domain-specific research communities that impact patterns in content discovery and access. Information practitioners should treat the Ithaka survey as a launching point, from which drill down to examine the contextual dependencies in disciplinary research practices relevant to the groups we serve. This is critical because the resulting data may look very different for specific regions or fields of study.
These contextual variants alter how librarians and publishers manage their content discovery programs for subject-specific services and resources. For example, when responses are aggregated across departments, the practice of asking colleagues for scholarly materials was rated as an infrequent discovery starting point; however, collaborative discovery and sharing has been shown in other studies to be a dominant source of information for computer science and engineering researchers. Again, such methods will be rated as higher priority where users expect or encounter limited access. As revealed in the Ithaka survey, health sciences and medical researchers most often start their searches with Google or PubMed — where Google Scholar ranks third in popularity, followed by a long list of lesser-used subject databases. In contrast, faculty in business and management fields have ranked Google Scholar twice as important as subject databases and four times that of the library in other surveys. It’s also worth pairing the longitudinal data found in the Ithaka report with insights from localized usage logs and web analytics, as well as qualitative user experience research.
Scholarly information practices in content discovery and access vary as well by the context of the use case or intention presented to respondents. Proactive literature searching is often driven by specific motivations and end goals, for example, steps involved in conducting original research and preparing syllabi. However, Ithaka’s survey is missing some aspects of serendipitous discovery and social search, which become relevant for faculty in more passive use cases, for example staying current with trends and new articles in ones’ field of study.
Additionally, it is important to acknowledge that Ithaka’s survey, and a great deal of the peer-reviewed literature on similar topics, are exclusively examining faculty practices in the United States. The economic realities of this trend are understandable, however, this demographic gap in our collective research constitutes a strategic gap in our understanding of regional variations in academic content discovery and access challenges. In particular, the access challenges felt by scholars in many regions should be of particular interest, as these obstacles will influence current and future research practices of international scholarly communities. While research limitations are common across all projects, it is high time to invest in a more global approach to future studies into scholarly information practices.
The Ithaka survey provides a valuable framework for understanding faculty information experiences, one which our communities are drawn to build upon. Future research should strive to understand the broader motivations, strategies, and tactics in use. Without this contextual insight, the discovery starting points or access preferences may seem arbitrary and are ability to make actionable use of survey data like Ithaka’s is limited to an isolated transaction. There are efforts underway to take disciplinary deep-dives into academic information practices, to shed light on a holistic view of research lifecycles. Ongoing research projects like these give us the best chance at complimenting Ithaka’s quantitative measures in order to understand the wider context surrounding today’s scholarly information experiences.
 Research within the Disciplines: Foundations for Reference and Library Instruction, 2nd Edition, edited by Peggy Keeran, and Michael Levine-Clark, Rowman & Littlefield Publishers, 2014. ProQuest Ebook Central, https://ebookcentral.proquest.com/lib/qut/detail.action?docID=1684223.
 For example, among others: Pontis, S., Blandford, A., Greifeneder, E., Attalla, H., & Neal, D. (2015). Keeping up to date: An academic researcher’s information journey. Journal of the Association for Information Science and Technology, 1–14.
 Archer, V., et al. (2019). “How can academics keep up with the literature?” Retrieved August 23, 2019, from Times Higher Education (THE) website: https://www.timeshighereducation.com/features/how-can-academics-keep-literature
 For example, among others: https://www.elsevier.de/presse/#/documents/study-impact-of-access-cancellation-in-germany-89795
 Weare, W. H., Jr. (forthcoming). Research and publication practices of social science faculty: A narrative inquiry. In Qualitative and Quantitative Methods in Libraries. Paper presented at the Eleventh Qualitative and Quantitative Methods in Libraries International Conference, Florence, Italy, 2019.