Navigating Research” is the name for an impressively large-scale report that sounds from the title as a study of how users find academic content. On reading the subtitle, and the main conclusions of the report, its real focus emerges. The subtitle is “how academic users understand, discover, and utilize reference resources” – not quite the same thing. The first bullet point in the executive summary states:

Recognition of ‘reference’ as a distinct category of resources is declining but the need for contextual information remains significant and some new needs are emerging

That’s an odd first conclusion for a report into “navigating research”. Who mentioned reference?

The report was carried out by Oxford University Press, who of course have a vested interest in promoting reference publishing and how it might (or might not) form part of the process of what they term navigating research. It then explains the second conclusion, which for most users is distinctly underwhelming, but for reference publishers seems to sound a death knell:

Users are turning to free online sources for basic factual information.

Is this news? I wouldn’t say “turning to” – surely they turned to free online sources over ten years ago! So if this report is about where reference fits into the academic discovery framework, I would draw some rather different conclusions:

  • The term “reference” was already in decline as Google and Wikipedia became widespread. Many of the people who use reference are not aware that it is reference, although this does not diminish its value. Perhaps the problem is with the term and its associations. We live in a world where reference publishing appears to be in decline and yet people are looking things up more than ever – they just don’t call it reference.
  • Basic factual information is today a commodity, and users will expect Wikipedia and/or Google to manage this requirement without difficulty.
  • “Contextual information”, which provides introductory guidance for students, would be valuable if students encountered it at the appropriate point in their discovery user journey, and in an immediately usable form. The precise point on the journey may well differ between undergraduate, postgraduate and faculty.

For me, the report revealed the following:

  • The research identified two main components to finding information. It distinguishes “language context” (identifying the vocabulary of the topic, the key terms used within that topic) and “big picture context”, understanding how a particular topic fits into a wider field of scholarship.
  • A widespread dissatisfaction with the library discovery layer as a way of identifying resources relevant to users’ research needs. While undergraduates were most satisfied with the discovery layer, even they reported general dissatisfaction – fewer than 50% were “completely” or even “moderately” happy with the library discovery layer, which reads like an indictment to me.

What I think the report lacked

  • The needs of undergraduates, postgraduates and faculty for discovery differ widely but are not distinguished in the report. The report seems to alternate between distinguishing these three types of user and bringing them all together. To be precise, undergraduates don’t typically navigate research – they navigate well-established information. It’s postgraduates and academics who are navigating cutting-edge research, and even in this case they look for introductory tools as well.
  • If the term “reference” is outmoded, does it make any sense to ask users if the library discovery layer identifies reference resources? Would users understand that question?
  • Librarians in the study confirmed that they were only asked for help by users in a minority of cases. Twenty years ago there used to be reference libraries; today they no longer form part of the discovery journey for many users. Is it possible that users find out factual information from Google without ever thinking of it as a reference resource?
  • As for level, the report is strangely unbalanced. Of the 18 end-users interviewed, 15 were postgraduate or faculty, and only three undergraduates. In other words, this is not a very representative survey of both undergraduate and postgraduate practice.

Like many reports into user behaviour, this one is better at identifying dissatisfaction than proposing solutions. If you ask me what “navigating research” should be, it would be something along the lines of providing assistance on the journey to discovery. That could be as simple as a curated reading list of resources (books, articles, websites), all of them ranked by level (introductory, advanced), and with some annotation on any particular kind of approach the author of that resource follows. There should be a glossary of the subject available alongside each use of the relevant term.  A good library discovery layer could include both definitions of terms and some introductory background descriptions available as part of any search.  How and where this information is provided is of course the key. What reference publishing does not seem to have grasped is that it has moved from the position of being the only provider of information to one in which it competes with a multiplicity of information providers. As the report states, the information landscape has indeed ‘shifted from one of scarcity of resources to abundance and overload”. This means the reference content has to be provided in a more targeted way, and in the right form.

It’s hardly new that “users are turning to free online sources for basic factual information”. This report itself states that already in 2014 “where reference publishers once trad­ed on collections of facts, the “contextualization” of facts is now a core mission.’ It’s not that contextual information “remains significant” – in fact it is more a requirement than ever.  The problem is, using Google, or Google Scholar, to find out about (say) the French Revolution isn’t going to get you very far, if you don’t know much about it already.

The report doesn’t really get us very far in determining what this new kind of search should be. The report states that, of the 18 users interviewed, discovery searches seem to be split equally between three main groups:

  • the library’s discovery system;
  • Google Scholar or Google Books (6);
  • a database such as PubMed or the MLA International Bibliography (6).

This is a very strange finding. The first two of these might be used by undergraduates, but PubMed and the MLA Bibliography are designed primarily for advanced users, in life science and literature respectively. There are plenty of BA students who never once consulted the MLA Bibliography as part of their first degree. The screenshot above shows what you see in PubMed when you search for “heart attack” – not a very user-friendly screen.

I would argue that none of these resources is a good starting point for research in a new topic, but neither are they comparable resources.  So the report leaves us with the tantalising conclusion that all is not well in the discovery journey, but without identifying or clarifying how to improve it.

In a future post, I will suggest some ways that this contextual information could be provided.