The Impact of Research Accessibility on Future Research, Part 1: Researchers’ Information Seeking Behavior

I was recently visiting a friend who has recently started a Master’s and PhD program at a large U.S. university; while I was visiting him, he had to work on his research, as many graduate students have to do in their “spare” time. After doing some searching he determined that the nearest book available on the topic he wanted was in Ireland, and since he needed the information in the next couple of days, he decided not to request the book through interlibrary loan (ILL). This got me thinking, so much of what people do happens so quickly, that there isn’t much time to wait to get access to research. This made me wonder, how much of future research is impacted by whether someone can quickly and cheaply gain access to other research?

Taking the book from Ireland, for example, how much does the fact that the nearest copy of a publication is in another continent affect the future of someone’s research? If I’m working in a field that’s emerging, it stands to reason that there’s not an abundance of publications available on these topics. And if I can’t access a certain piece of information I want quickly or cheaply enough, I’m likely to forgo reading it, and rely on other sources that comply with my time and money constraints. If research builds upon other research, does the inaccessible research get lost?

It’s nearly impossible to design and carry out a study that could measure this definitively, because there are so many variables like the subscription resources offered from institution to institution, the availability of research from different disciplines, and the variability of how quickly a researcher needs the research they seek.

As I started looking into this question, I realized there are many components to this, so I focused on two areas, and I’m publishing this post in two parts. The first part, is about researchers’ information seeking behavior, and how their behavior towards research that is not quickly accessible may affect future research.

The next post will be about how open access and subscription articles affect the future of research.

My friend’s behavior sparked an interest in me, so I sought research on this topic. I first looked at what research may exist that looked at information seeking behavior as it related to scholarly articles and books from students and professors in an academic setting.

Researchers’ Information Seeking Behavior

In 2007, Anne Beaubien, now the director of MLibrary Document Delivery at the University of Michigan, wrote a white paper on Interlibrary Loan (ILL) services and general trends in this aspect of academic librarianship. She observes that,with flat or decreased budgets, research libraries have a hard time maintaining their collections.. Part of the problem, she reasons, is that journal prices have increased dramatically, as publishing output has increased. “As a result, academic and research libraries are unable to purchase as large a percentage of what is published and must rely more on ILL to fill in for little used materials” (2-3).

Since many researchers rely on libraries to make research available, whether it is a part of the collection or not, ILL requests have increased, which makes sense. However, Beaubien also finds that,

Most individual research and academic library users do not want to expend time and effort to figure out multiple places to obtain the materials they need for research and scholarship—they just want the item and the convenience of ordering it from one place…Users are not interested in determining the publisher and searching for multiple Web sites to purchase single articles at their own expense. In fact, most researchers cannot absorb these costs on their own (3).

Above, Beaubien acknowledges the cost for a researcher to find the desired piece of information is too much for most individuals to be able to, or want to pay. To give an example, my friend, who did research as a part of his job before he went to graduate school, said of the 1192 papers he has read since graduated with a bachelor’s, he paid for no more than three. Beaubien also says that researchers also prefer “one-stop shop” ordering. For her, this means increased requests for ILLs, but this information behavior is unlikely to only increase ILL orders. If a user is unable to access a certain article quickly through their library, how likely are they to keep searching until they can find research that fits their interests, and is available immediately, even if what they do end up finding isn’t their first choice in article?

A second article on the information seeking behavior of academic researchers was published a year later, in 2008, in the Journal of Academic Librarianship. This article published the results of an observational study at three different universities in Stockholm, Sweden. This study revealed that “… While this study focuses on the impact on libraries and is observational, we see more evidence that researchers are mostly interested in immediate access to electronic information. However, this study also did not share what costs, if any the researchers were willing to incur to view these articles they found, and if those potential costs could have been avoided if they had contacted a librarian. This article also did not test the number of articles researchers went through before they found one they could read for free, that pertained to their subject of research. This study probably has more insights that I can share with you, like the disciplines of the researchers, and hard data on the use of Google. I cannot share that with you because, ironically, I was unable to get access to the full-text of the article, and I could only read the abstract.

Part One Summary:

While the research on this is not definitive, it looks like accessibility to research does have an impact on ongoing and future research. The extent of the impact is hard to measure, and it seems to have less influence in more traditional academic and research circles where there are resources and systems to request materials for little or no cost. The institutional libraries for these places are able to provide the researchers with almost all of the information they need, but only if they are aware of the library’s offerings.

 

References:

Beaubien, Anne K. “ARL White Paper on Interlibrary Loan.” Association of Research Libraries, Association of Research Libraries, June 2007, arl.nonprofitsoapbox.com/storage/documents/publications/arl_white_paper_ill_june07.pdf.

Haglund, Lotta. “The Impact on University Libraries of Changes in Information Behavior Among Academic Researchers: A Multiple Case Study.”Volume 34, Issue 1, The Journal of Academic Librarianship, The Journal of Academic Librarianship, 24 Jan. 2008, Abstract Retrieved from ScienceDirect database. sciencedirect.com/science/article/pii/S0099133307002169.

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dhrutikaribhagat

I am a librarian who works on many different parts of librarianship in many different roles.

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