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How are the ways scholars find and engage with research outputs changing? And what does it mean for academic journals?

From 2005 to 2021, Renew Publishing Consultants ran a series of large-scale surveys to find out compiling periodic reports. The latest “How Readers Discover Content in Scholarly Publications” report spans discovery and delivery method preferences for academic journal articles and videos based on a survey of over thirteen thousand researchers, including university faculty, students, and other information professionals, conducted from January through March of 2021 in collaboration with a dozen scholarly communication organizations, among them Kudos, the American Psychological Association, and the American Society for Microbiology.

Building upon previous findings, the new report reveals trends and changes in reader behavior over time. As explained in the introduction of the 2021 report, the aim of Renew’s ongoing surveys has been to fill lacunas in research journey data due in part to institutional proxies making it difficult for analytics tools to pick up readership details like country of origin and referring website. All of which can help publishers determine the content dissemination channels they should prioritize to make research as broadly available as possible. The surveys also offer a window into readers’ perceptions of their content discovery preferences and the publisher website features they value most.

In this blog post, we highlight key insights from the 2021 report related to academic journals and the implications for publishers.

Abstracting and Indexing databases remain top search starting points, particularly for those in the life sciences

Since the first “How Readers Discover Content in Scholarly Publications” survey in 2005, a trend that’s persisted is scholars’ reliance on Abstracting and Indexing (A&I) databases. The latest report states, “A&Is are still the most important discovery resources, and actually have grown in importance since 2018, back to 2012 level.”

In the 2021 report, Renew Publishing Consultants acknowledges that the results of its 16-years of survey data show “responses biased towards (but not exclusively) researchers working within STM subjects, in academia, in the US and Europe.” So it’s unclear whether A&Is would be dominant in a more disciplinary and globally representative analysis. The report also states the apparent dominance of A&Is may be due to having a large concentration of survey respondents in the life sciences and medical sector. Digging into the data, they find “academics rate Google Scholar as just as important, if not more so than A&Is […] It is only those in life sciences who value A&Is more than Google Scholar, and this is likely to be down to PubMed.”

It is interesting to note that since 2012, the relative importance of A&Is has been reported less among scholars surveyed in the humanities, social sciences, physics, computer science, and maths. For respondents in chemistry, A&Is were equally as important as academic search engines.

Even with fluctuations in A&I use across disciplines, A&Is remain leading research channels, and there’s little question that they’re sticking around. So journal publishers should continue to prioritize applying to relevant abstracting and indexing services as well as streamlining A&I content deposits. For those who use Scholastica’s digital-first production service and/or open access publishing platform, we offer various automations to help, including integrations with Crossref, the Directory of Open Access Journals (DOAJ), and PubMed Central.

The steady rise of Google Scholar continues

Among the most evident trends observed in the 2021 report is increased use of academic and general search engines in virtually all disciplines, particularly Google Scholar, which has grown in importance since 2018. Only respondents in the medical sector exhibited an apparent decrease in reliance on academic search engines in 2021 compared to previous years.

In the humanities and social sciences, in particular, trend graphs of responses from 2012 - 2021 find shifts towards academic search engines and decreases in reported library webpage and aggregation service use. The 2021 report states, “Google Scholar is by far the most important discovery resource for people working and studying in the broad area of Humanities and Social Science.” Though, further subject-area analysis does show some variation finding “people in humanities who rely on library provided resources just as much as Google Scholar.”

While Google Scholar and Google remain the top academic search engines globally, the 2021 report finds a notable shift occurring in China, where both browsers have seen reported use declines since 2012. At the same time, the Chinese search engine Baidu has seen marked increases in use. So publishers should be paying attention to Baidu also.

As we noted in our 2018 report recap, with the rising popularity of academic and mainstream browsers, website search engine optimization (SEO) is becoming essential to growing and retaining journal readership numbers over time. We break down ways to make journal articles more SEO-friendly in this blog post and Google Scholar’s specific indexing criteria in this blog post.

For more digital content production, hosting, and dissemination best practices to expand the reach and impacts of the scholarly journals you publish, check out Scholastica’s eBook, “The Small Publisher’s Guide to Digitally Driven OA Journal Development.”

Preprint use is still concentrated among researchers in physics

While preprint use has been expanding beyond its origins in physics and maths into other disciplines in recent years, including the social sciences and biology, the latest “How Readers Discover Content in Scholarly Publications” report finds the perceived value of preprints still remains highest among scholars in physics. The report states, “people in physics value preprint repositories significantly more than A&Is, and significantly more than people in other fields.”

In the broad field of “Science/Technical/Engineering,” the 2021 report finds, “preprints currently account for around 10% of article downloads,” so preprint use outside of physics remains relatively low. In direct feedback, some survey respondents noted one reason for this is finding it more difficult to properly cite preprints in other fields.

The perceived value of journal websites has gone up

The importance of publisher and scholarly society websites for research discovery took a somewhat surprising turn in 2021, both seeing increases in perceived value compared to 2018. The 2021 report states, “publisher and society sites are more important as a discovery resource than they were in 2018, perhaps as a result of the amount of reader marketing publishers are carrying out.”

In past surveys, the use of publisher websites has varied substantially, with the latest report noting “publisher website popularity is quite volatile, this is maybe down to sample selection as the supporting publishers change from year to year.”

Drilling down by subject area, the 2021 report finds “people in chemistry and engineering/technology value the publisher website as a discovery resource more than people in other subject areas.” This finding could be due to greater publisher brand awareness and engagement among scholars in these disciplines.

The 2021 report also points out regional differences in publisher and society website use, finding “people in Asia, Africa, and South America think publisher and society websites are more important than general search engines and nearly as important as academic search engines. It appears that these groups are more engaged with publisher and journal brands than people in other regions.”

In terms of journal website features readers value most, “related articles or related content searching” (i.e., categories and recommendations) is a clear favorite. Once rated the most popular website feature, Table of Contents alerts have significantly decreased in perceived importance since 2005. As the 2021 report notes, “that is not to say journal alerts are not important per se, it could just be that people are signing up for alerts on other websites.”

Readers are actively looking for OA content

The 2021 survey was the first to ask respondents how often they specifically search for open access articles giving the options “frequently, occasionally, and never.” The report finds, perhaps unsurprisingly, that “people in poorer countries actively search for open access content far more than people in higher-income countries.” However, those in high-income countries are also actively looking for OA articles. Regardless of location or subject area, the report finds around 20% of respondents frequently search for OA content.

Whether actively seeking OA content or not, the report also finds “for approximately 60% of the time, readers in high-income countries in the academic sector are accessing articles from a free resource […]. This means that they are at least 1.5 times as likely to be reading an article from a free resource than a paid-for resource. In lower-income countries, this rises to over 2.5 times as likely.”

There was a notable difference in OA-specific searches by sector, with researchers in corporate environments searching for OA content significantly more than those in academia. The report notes, “this could either be an indication that corporate organizations are subscribing to less, or just that their access is less well organized and communicated.”

Researchers are stumbling upon articles on social media

With so many stats about researchers finding content via search outlets, whether academic search engines, mainstream browsers, or A&Is, it’s no surprise that the 2021 report states online search is the primary mode of conducting research across disciplines. But that doesn’t mean scholars aren’t stumbling upon content in other ways. One of the most popular places to find article recommendations and new publication alerts across disciplines is social media.

The 2021 report finds, “social media has grown in importance across the board but is particularly important in Earth Sciences. There is indicative evidence that it is at its least importance in medical subjects.”

It is interesting to note that respondents in North America rated social media as far less important for research discovery than those in other parts of the world.

Questions surrounding mobile usage

Notably, while the 2012, 2015, and 2018 “How Readers Discover Content in Scholarly Publications” reports encompassed data on research devices used (i.e., desktop, tablet, mobile), the 2021 report does not. If past trends are any indicator, mobile use is likely still on the rise. Surveys from 2012 to 2018 found increased mobile use among scholars across disciplines, particularly in developing countries.

Broadly, there’s no question that people, in general, are increasingly using mobile devices to browse for content of all kinds. Since 2016, mobile web browsing has consistently exceeded desktop worldwide.

Putting it all together

Building off of 16 years of data, the latest “How Readers Discover Content in Scholarly Publications” survey report is among the most comprehensive analyses of readership behavior over time. If one thing is clear from the findings, it’s that the ways readers find content are constantly evolving. So rather than focusing on a single discovery medium, publishers should strive to make their journals available via a variety of digital channels.

You can read the full 2021 survey report here. To learn more about how the 2021 report compares to previous data, check out our analysis of the 2018 survey here and 2015 survey here.