Scholars Increasingly Embrace Some, but Not All, Digital Media

April 07, 2010

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."