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How do researchers really look for and find content for their research? That’s a pretty fundamental question! So I turned to the research project “A Day in the Life of a (Serious) Researcher” with great anticipation to identify that part of the researcher activity relating to seeking and finding information. I found the survey exciting but at the same time questionable in some of its conclusions.

The research project was carried out at Cornell University Library, during 2015, and was carried out by a team including Nancy Fried Foster, based at Ithaka S+R, who has the marvellous job title of “senior anthropologist, libraries and scholarly communication” – there can’t be many people with that title.

The goal of the project was simple: to look at “what academic researchers do day-to-day and how they acquire, use, and share information in the course of their daily activities.”  

The project identified several related activities, either starting from searching or involving searching –  very wide range of skills indeed:

finding and digesting the work of others, conducting one’s own inquiries, working things out conceptually, writing, and sharing work with other scholars. The larger set of activities includes discovering, acquiring and assessing the quality of varied literatures and formulating problems through interaction with these literatures; organizing sources, notes, and other documentation; getting support; managing data, sources, and one’s own writing across platforms and formats; collaboration and co-authoring; the cultivation of professional, interpersonal relationships in communities of scholarship; and much, much more.

These varied activities correspond to a large extent with the famous infographic created by Jeroen Bosman and Bianca Kramer of the University Library of Utrecht, which groups scholarly activity into six main areas:

  1. Discovery
  2. Analysis
  3. Writing
  4. Publication
  5. Outreach
  6. Assessment

What did the survey tell us? According to the authors of the study, there were five main conclusions:

  1. Search is idiosyncratic and is not important
  2. Research has no closure
  3. Note-taking is idiosyncratic
  4. Experts rule
  5. Research is collaboration

By themselves, these statements are not very clear, and when I did understand them I disagreed with some of them. But before looking at them in more detail, here are some of the limitations I think made the survey less valuable than it might have been:

  • There were too few interviewees – it was a qualitative survey of just 21 researchers in both arts and science subjects, selected for being active in research. If you are going to do a qualitative survey, you must be very careful not to  introduce your preferred topics. For example, just two of the respondents reported problems with copyright clearance when publishing their articles. I’m sure they had problems, but I don’t think it is connected with the daily life of the typical researcher.
  • Even a sample of 21 might be sufficient, but this survey covered too wide a range of academics, from undergraduates to senior academics – they will have very different research strategies and requirements.
  • The survey was too ambitious, covering not only how researchers access information, but also how they take notes, how they interact with each other, how they organise their work, how they identify and clear copyright for republication, even the appropriate design of library space – each of these topics could be a research project in itself.

In the discussion below I limit the comments to searching and retrieval of information.

What were the most interesting results?

Highly valuable are the obstacles identified by researchers, including (I have selected the relevant ones):

  • Too much to read
  • Too many documents and files to manage
  • The difficulty of discovering good literature and the sometimes even greater difficulty of obtaining what one has discovered.

An important distinction used in the survey is that between “search” and “research”. What did they mean that search is not research? This is never clearly stated, although search is defined as: “an iterative process with no clear closure. It is a starting point”, so I assume that research is therefore the seeking of specific information with a precise closure, e.g. when the Battle of Hastings took place.  Actually the survey authors appear to have had a wider definition of research, but rather than define the term, they describe the process in a rather cumbersome circular description as “all the academic activities in support of this endeavor, such as seeking information by using search strategies for both general and academic library resources (the search vs. research), thinking about the search and the research (brainwork, reading, note-taking), and expressing those ideas (writing). So research is “brainwork, reading, note-taking” – which seems an odd definition of research.

What other useful insights did they discover?

  • when a researcher is unable to accomplish a particular search task, they are quite likely to abandon their current approach (or tool or technology) rather than figure out how to make it work: “I used to use Web of Science a lot and then I found that it was for some reason difficult for me to access it, and I kind of stopped using it because of that” 
  • interviewees expressed a common preference for online sources, particularly for reference works such as dictionaries.
  • Researchers skim material to evaluate its relevance, and then decide when to engage more deeply.
  • Researchers assess information quality by two parameters: authority and currency.
  • Researchers check lists of references and follow cited-by links, not only to verify the authority of the source, but also to aid their own comprehension.
  • Connectivity: “most researchers worked either with physical sources spread out around them (printed articles or books), or online sources at the same time.”
  • Email is an essential information management tool – although not in ways you might expect, e.g. they email themselves to move content to their preferred device.

Now back to what the survey authors claim are the five main conclusions – and where I disagree with them:

  1. Search is idiosyncratic and is not important – by this, I think they mean the heuristic individual users have for searching differ widely from user to user. There is no one single best method of searching – and it doesn’t matter too much which method they use.  In my view, given the hopeless muddle that most untrained users make of searching, I think that searching should be taught, and that there is certainly good practice that can be learned.
  2. Research has no closure – I think they mean that research is potentially infinite. I’m OK with that.
  3. Note-taking is idiosyncratic – I understand this to mean an activity that is done differently by different individuals.
  4. Experts rule – they mean here that serious researchers consult “the expert” (a.k.a. a library staff member) when their information-seeking skills are insufficient. I don’t think I agree here; only a tiny proportion of researchers ever talk to library staff. In any case, how do researchers know they have not found sufficient information?
  5. Research is collaboration – again, I disagree. It may be, or it may not be. I certainly don’t think that the library of the future has to support collaborative writing.

All in all, a fascinating project. Perhaps we should have an anthropologist advising us on every survey of scholarly activity.