v32#3 Acquiring Scholarly Content: Is It Possible to Set Users on the Right Path, Even If They Start Off on the Wrong Foot?

by | Jul 15, 2020 | 0 comments

by Scott Ahlberg  (Chief Operations Officer, Reprints Desk) 

As anyone in our industry knows, the path to acquiring scholarly content is not concrete.  That is, there is no single, established route researchers take to find and obtain the articles they need for their studies.  And that creates challenges for librarians. 

Librarians work hard to help their users obtain content in the most efficient and cost-effective way possible.  But steering researchers in the right direction isn’t always easy.  As users move through their widely varied literature acquisition workflows, how can librarians ensure each user finds what they need, quickly and easily, while avoiding wrong turns and frustrating dead-ends?  At Research Solutions/Reprints Desk, we’ve heard countless stories from librarians about the obstacles they face.  Here are some of the top challenges we hear about — both actual and perceived:

• Academic users don’t want to pay for content, yet they don’t seem to be thorough about searching for free content.  Some Open Access resources seem to be surprisingly hidden from the view of many researchers.

• Users find library authentication and navigation cumbersome.

• Users sometimes seem to treat interlibrary loan (ILL) as a crutch, like an assistant who will do the work for them.

• Users are accessing content on sites that librarians, publishers, and vendors don’t want them to use — including pirate sites, which may be easier to use than legitimate sources, but can come with significant security risks.

Additionally, librarians say they want users to take advantage of the helpful resources the library has paid for — like content features and other added value on subscription sites, controlled vocabularies, and semantic searching. 

One of the concerns we hear is the risks involved in accessing free content.  These range from faculty using articles which might not be the version of record, to the possibility that pirate sites may compromise the credentials of researchers. 

And there is also the situation of a user encountering a paywall for content which their institution’s library has already paid for, simply because the user struggled to navigate through search results and authentication challenges to the library’s entitlements.

We know that there are mixed feelings amongst librarians about users accessing content independently of the library.  But wherever one stands on that question, it is certainly the case that this activity strips the library of valuable user data, which is critical to collection development and improving services.  This also undermines the efforts of publishers to produce high quality content in a commercially viable way.

An Anecdotal Look at Acquisition Workflows

To gain some insight into how users find and access content, we conducted an informal, small-sample study.  Fourteen post-graduate researchers at universities in the UK, U.S., Canada, and Australia participated via usertesting.com (an online platform for collecting real-time user feedback). 

We presented participants with a “known-item search” scenario — and mocked-up results to look like Google search results, including relevant live pages from:

PubMed

• Journal website (where the DOI resolves)

ResearchGate

• An experimental Article Page with links to 3rd party OA versions, rental and purchase options, and a pathway to navigate their institution’s authentication to access subscribed content

We then observed participants’ individual search workflows and concluded by asking the following questions:

1. When you’re searching for articles online, what website or service do you start with?

2. Were you familiar with the resources presented in these search result images?

3. What methods do you use to access the full-text articles you want to read?

4. If you can’t get to an article without paying, what do you usually do?

Some users were thorough and tried almost everything.  Other users either found what they wanted straight away or gave up quickly.  Because of this variability and the small sample size, we felt that compiling statistics from the results wasn’t the right thing to do.  Instead, we studied the audio and video from the user testing and pored over the written responses to compile our results.  As such, the results should be considered anecdotal — providing helpful insights rather than hard numbers. 

Key Takeaways 

Overall, we found that users often cherry-pick search results and go first to sources they trust or prefer (e.g., PubMed and ResearchGate).  They will often ignore unfamiliar sites, even though they might offer a pathway to a free version of the article. 

Somewhat surprisingly, no users mentioned pirate sites (we didn’t suggest these options, but because the questions we asked were open-ended, we expected some users might mention them). 

As librarians look for ways to improve their literature management systems and set users on the right path, here are four things to keep in mind:  

1. Familiarity is important.  Users confer “trust” on sites that have worked well for them in the past.  Specifically, they prefer to search Google, ResearchGate, and their library (in that order).  Similarly, ResearchGate and PubMed are preferred by many because the navigation is consistent and familiar.  This survey finding reveals an advantage for aggregators — and a challenge for publishers and libraries.  The hard truth is that many users try their library for full-text access only if other options don’t work first. 

2. Researchers can be impatient.  Even though they don’t want to pay for content, most respondents indicated they won’t do an in-depth search for a free version.  Users will often opt for alternate articles rather than pay for their first choice.  Some users lamented that there is no single source for all their content needs.

3. Logins are unpopular:  To avoid complexity and extra steps, users will often use Google or ask a colleague for a paper before authenticating. 

4. Format matters:  Users prefer PDFs for familiarity, consistency, and ease-of-use. 

Flexibility is the Key to Success

While there is no one-size-fits-all discovery-to-acquisition workflow that will work for everyone, understanding the varieties of typical user behaviors — and the reasons behind them — is an essential first step for improving service.  For example, if users are starting their research somewhere other than the library’s discovery environment, is there a way to bring them back to the library to access the content?  Are Open Access resources hidden because they’re not well integrated into what your library offers?  Are pathways leading to broken link resolvers and other dead ends?  Are they being forced to re-key citations on ILL request forms?  Do they find that it takes more time to authenticate than it does to ask a colleague for a PDF?  In other words, when users hit a fork in the road, what factors drive their next steps?  And what can librarians do to make the institution’s preferred path more efficient and enticing?  Armed with this critical information, librarians can identify areas for improvement — and then make informed decisions about how to address them.  The key is to create a system that has the flexibility to accommodate a broad set of users — in whatever means their search originates, no matter how many possible outcomes there may be.  

The author would like to acknowledge the contributions of the graduate student participants in the study discussed in this article.  The underlying research question in this project was inspired by conversations with Kieran Prince of OpenAthens and Michiel van der Heyden of Springer Nature.  Writing and editing was made possible by Karen Hittelman.

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