Image Credit: Esther Vargas
Image Credit: Esther Vargas

This past March, Simon Inger Consulting (SIC) released “How Readers Discover Content in Scholarly Publications,” a report on the findings from a 2015 survey of readers of scholarly publications as compared to results gathered from sister surveys conducted in 2005, 2008, and 2012. The report explores changes in reader preferences observed over the 10-year survey period, with regard to how readers use publisher websites, library research tools, abstracting and indexing services (A&Is), and external browsers to find journal articles and books, as well as which features of content websites scholars prefer.

Survey respondents from a variety of professional roles, locations, and institutional income levels where asked to consider the actions they take during their research process and compare the different discovery mediums that they use. In this blog post we detail highlights from the SIC report pertaining to trends in journal article reader behavior.

Primary research platforms scholars use

Overall, the number of outlets academics use to conduct research is continuing to grow and evolve. The SIC’s report asked scholars to consider how they find content on the web from different angles, including where they tend to begin their search for articles on particular subjects and where they actually found the last journal articles that they accessed.

When asked where they tend to begin their research, A&Is remain the primary resource scholars think of to start with, though the amount of respondents who say they prefer A&Is has decreased slightly since 2012. However, in terms of where scholars recalled actually finding the last articles they used, search engines were the top response. Google Scholar and Google, respectively, where the top search engines of choice - with Google Scholar continuing to creep up in usage over the years.

Given scholars’ increasing reliance on search engines to find content, it’s paramount for journals to begin developing more advanced SEO strategies including:

In terms of burgeoning research tools, journal aggregation and social media were cited as growing categories for content discovery. Journal and publisher search areas including journal websites, publisher and society websites, and journal alerts have been gaining popularity as well. Scholars cited journal websites, particularly journal homepages, as the main place they go to browse for new content in their field in order to stay up-to-date on the latest research. With more scholars visiting journal websites to find content, developing a digital journal presence and taking steps to promote and resurface content is becoming more important than ever for journals.

Variations in preferred search outlet by subject area

The SIC report also breaks down where scholars conduct online searches based on their fields of research. Among the key findings of how those in different fields search for journal articles is that:

  • People in the corporate sector tend to favor free online search engines like Google and Google Scholar
  • Scholars working in academia tend to favor A&Is and library databases
  • A&Is remain the top research starting point for medical scholars as well as life science scholars, though life science use of A&Is has seen a slight decline in recent years
  • Engineering and technology scholars rate Google web searches as slightly more important than academic search engines
  • Social and political science academics rely heavily on search engines for research

The report also found that scholars studying and working in STEM subjects (apart from physics) were slightly more inclined to use social media to find articles than those working and studying in the humanities and social sciences. Additionally, the SIC’s report found that preference for Google verses Google Scholar search varied by discipline, with scholars in the social sciences, education, law, and business preferring Google Scholar and scholars working in the humanities and religion and theology preferring Google.

There were also regional differences in researching preferences, including that scholars in Asia, Africa, and South America placed more importance on using journal websites for research than those in Europe and North America. People in Africa and Asia also still perceived value in getting journal table of content (TOC) alerts, whereas the majority of scholars feel TOC alerts have declined in significance.

Top journal website features scholars seek out

In addition to overviewing the outlets scholars use to find journal articles, the SIC report delved into scholars’ experience on journal websites and the features they value most. By far the most popular website feature, and the only area to see a real increase in utility since 2012, is “showing related articles and related content.” For example, showing related articles could mean having article categories listed on a journal website or featuring related article suggestions beside the article a scholar is reading.

Since the SIC’s 2012 survey many website features have gone down in popularity, including:

  • Table of contents alerts
  • Personalization
  • Searching
  • Citation alerts
  • Editors’ choice articles
  • News and announcements sections

To learn how journals are revamping their websites to meet the needs of today’s digital scholars be sure to check out Scholastica’s new eBook, The Journal Editor’s Definitive Guide to Digital Publishing.

Mobile usage on the rise

By far the greatest change in the way scholars find and access journal articles that was observed in this ten-year survey period was a rise in mobile and tablet usage. Though mobile still only accounts for about 10% of device usage in scholarly research, it is growing fast, particularly in lower-income countries. The survey found that in low-income countries, since 2012, there has been a shift from using desktop computers for research to using phones and tablets. Comparatively, in high income countries there was only about a 4% drop in use of personal computers for research in favor of mobile and tablet devices. The report also found that in the medical sector throughout the world there has been a rise in the use of mobile and tablet devices for accessing articles.

One tension that will likely become more apparent with the growth in mobile and tablet use for research is that many academic A&Is and library discovery services are not yet mobile-friendly. This fact, coupled with the rising use of mobile and tablet, may account for scholars’ increasing reliance on search engines such as Google and Google Scholar for research. Additionally, scholars’ growing affinity for mobile devices may impact their journal website browsing habits. Scholars may begin to favor publisher and journal websites where they can easily skim for articles on the go via their mobile devices. For journals, now is definitely the time to think about the importance of having a modern, mobile-friendly website design.

You can access the full report, “How Readers Discover Content in Scholarly Publications: Trends in reader behavior from 2005 to 2015” by clicking here. We’d love to know your thoughts on the survey findings and what they mean for scholarly journals!

Danielle Padula
This post was written by Danielle Padula, Community Development
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