Researchers reject need for resource discovery training

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Researchers use a bewildering array of tools to find the information they need. David Mort and James Brown examine a new report that sheds light on how these tools are used and perceived

Search and discovery are integral parts of the research process. New findings describing the information-seeking habits of researchers in the higher-education sector show that they are confident in their ability to find the information resources they need for their research. The general picture that emerges is one of general satisfaction with the research discovery services available across the disciplines and researchers in the sciences are most satisfied with the resource discovery services on offer.

The findings, drawn from a survey of almost 400 academic researchers and 50 librarians, are set out in Researchers and Discovery Services, a new report published by the Research Information Network (see box). The study considered a range of institutions, subjects, career stages (from postdoc onwards) and geographical locations.

Researchers feel confident about finding information

The results of the study showed that researchers are generally happy to devote a considerable amount of time and effort in order to discover material that they require for their scholarly work. The report also confirmed that most of them are confident about using a wide range of search and discovery tools despite the fact they have been largely self-taught in the use of these tools. Most researchers felt that they require little or no training in this area. Only just over a third have had any formal training in using research discovery services but most did not see this lack of training as a problem.

Another key finding was that, contrary to what many in the industry believe, researchers do not feel overwhelmed by information. The respondents in this survey saw searching as an integral part of the research process, and were generally satisfied with the discovery services that they use. They were far more concerned about the possibility of missing information that is important for their work, and therefore usually felt happy about large sets of search results which they could then refine down.

The main frustration was not with the research discovery services themselves but with the problem of subsequently accessing identified sources and materials. Lack of access to journal articles because of a subscription barrier was the most frequently-expressed difficulty experienced.

A wide range of tools are used

Those surveyed used a wide range of resources such as journal articles, books and book chapters, grey literature, conference proceedings and datasets. These resources can be widely-scattered across many different physical locations and websites. For this reason, the discovery services – the means that researchers use to discover and locate these information resources – are also diverse in nature.

The study highlighted that these discovery services correspond to a wide variety of tools, both established and more newly-developed. Although Google is ubiquitous, researchers also reported using a bewildering variety of highly-specialised discovery services. These included abstracting and indexing services, citation indexes, library catalogues, subject repositories and portals as well as specialist services. Most researchers used a range of resource discovery tools and selected an appropriate tool for a specific inquiry, depending on whether they were, for example, tracking down a reference, carrying out a literature search, researching a new area or finding an individual. There were relatively few examples of individuals relying on just one or two sources to deal with all their research enquiries.

In addition, libraries and librarians themselves are important resource-discovery services. And other people also act as a ‘service’ for many researchers: asking a colleague can be the fastest way to identify a relevant resource. Indeed, research colleagues remain one of the most important sources of information for virtually every type of enquiry. They also featured as important providers of advice to colleagues about resources and tools, and sources of recommendation for new services.

Social networking tools such as blogs were not yet seen as a significant feature of researchers’ approach to discovery; moreover, in relation to this, there was little difference in habits across career stages. While blogs hardly registered as resource discovery tools, the majority of researchers were obtaining regular information updates and alerts from services pushing information to their desktops. In particular, they mentioned receiving alerts and tables of contents from journals.

Search engines and library portals are most popular

While researchers do use a wide range of routes to information, there are inevitably some favourite approaches. Figure 1 offers a guide to the popularity of specific resource discovery tools, while Table 1 provides a more detailed analysis of key resource discovery tools used. The three used ‘very often’ or ‘regularly’ by a majority of researchers were: general search engines (including Google); internal library portals and networks; and specialist search engines.

The only other services and sources used by a majority of researchers were research colleagues and subject-specific gateways. Traditional sources, such as bibliographic databases and citation indexes were only used often or regularly by a minority of researchers although researchers in the physical sciences used citation indexes more often than the survey as a whole.

Improving the development of discovery services

These findings are not only interesting in their own right, but also provide a basis for guiding the further development of discovery services, particularly those that are aimed specifically at the research community.

As the report shows, researchers are indeed distinctive in their approach to discovering and locating the information sources they need. Understanding how they do it, and seeking and listening to their views, are the first essential steps towards improving services, and the efficiency of the research process as a whole. Over the coming months, the RIN will be working with the full range of information providers, as well as with researchers themselves, to consider how they might most effectively help to meet that end.


David Mort is director of IRN Research. James Brown is communications officer for the Research Information Network.

The people behind the study

This report was commissioned by the Research Information Network (RIN), an organisation set up in 2005 to lead and co-ordinate the provision of research information in the UK. It forms part of the group’s work to promote better arrangements for researchers to find out what information resources relevant to their work are available, where these are, and how they may have access to them.

The project was led and managed by Rightscom, a consultancy specialising in solutions for the management, trading, and protection of intellectual property rights and digital content. The primary field research, including telephone interviews with the survey participants, was carried out by IRN Research, a UK-based market research and information company specialising in the analysis of European information and content markets.