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Survey on U.S. Faculty Use of Scholarly Resources—and the Academic Library
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Posted On April 29, 2013


The Ithaka S+R U.S. Faculty Survey is designed to get an accurate picture of faculty members’ practices, attitudes, and needs with respect to research and teaching materials: How do they discover, access, and use journal articles, research reports, conference proceedings and the like? Results published on April 4, 2013, provide “libraries, learned societies, and academic publishers with insight into the evolving attitudes and practices of faculty members in the context of substantial environmental change for higher education.”

The Ithaka S+R Faculty Survey has been run triennially since 2000; 2012 constitutes its fifth cycle. Major topics covered by the survey include the following:

  • The scholars’ research processes
  • Teaching practices
  • Scholarly communications
  • The library
  • Scholarly societies

The sequencing of questions in this survey forced scholars to think about the difference in their actions when they search for something—an article, research study, book, data—as opposed to how they “discover” (i.e., randomly browse). Within that discovery process is an attempt by individuals to understand more—to go beyond what is known. What scholars do not appear to recognize is the curatorial role of libraries in assuring the re-discovering of resources they retrieve in that initial process and can direct others to what is known through arrangement and description. Academic libraries already do much to simplify the discovery process, for example, by aggregating resources and enabling federated search, and recommending resources or starting places for research, such as through Libguides.

Summary of 2012 Survey Results

Faculty at American colleges and universities employ a variety of tools, accessing and disseminating research in different ways. According to the report, it’s no surprise that “the role of internet search engines in facilitating discovery of scholarly resources has continued to increase” since Ithaka’s last survey. Academic librarians will cheer when they read, “respondents are generally satisfied with their (researchers’) ability to access the scholarly literature.”

The trend overall toward greater acceptance of a print-to-electronic transition for scholarly journals mirrors what is happening elsewhere. Similarly, researchers, like all of us, keep up with scholarship in their respective fields by attending conferences (71%), reading materials suggested by other scholars (67%), regularly skimming new issues of key journals (65%), regularly skimming table of content alerts of key journals (58%), and following the work of key scholars (54%). What they don’t do to any great extent is follow other researchers through blogs/social media (12%). Other findings of note from the survey include the following:

  • More than one-quarter of 5,261 respondents (26%) said that they find it “very frustrating” to use a variety of different tools and databases to find and access the materials they need.
  • Researchers interested in publishing an article choose a journal with coverage “close to my immediate area of research,” with a high impact factor and circulated widely (well-read).
  • Tenure continues to play an important role on junior faculty members’ selection of research topics.
  • Respondents value established dissemination methods among priority audiences in their subdiscipline more so than undergraduates or the general public.

What is the most important thing that libraries do? According to respondents of this Ithaka study, it is paying for the resources researchers need (i.e., academic journals, books, electronic databases). Scholars are least likely to turn to the library as starting points for their research, either the building itself or an online catalog. For example, scientists say that they begin the majority of their research by turning to a specific electronic research resource/computer database, secondarily turning to a general purpose web search engine. (But how many of those electronic database license agreements are managed by the library?) When asked how they obtain a scholarly monograph or journal article that they do not have at-hand, scholars say that they either search for a free version online or use interlibrary loan (ILL) or document delivery services provided by their library.

For most questions posed by the researchers, humanities scholars relied on the library more than social scientists; as a group, scientists rely on the library less than other scholars. Respondents perceive less value from many functions of the academic library (as compared with the last survey in 2009). “One notable exception is the gateway function, which experienced a modest resurgence in perceived value … Conferences remain at the heart of respondents’ perceptions of the role and value of the scholarly societies in which they participate,” both for the formal information exchange during presentation sessions and informal opportunities to network with peers.

“Undergraduate students have poor skills relating to locating and evaluating scholarly information,” according to 44% of faculty members. The presentation on the Ithaka S+R website simplifies the issue of responsibility for developing student information literacy skills indicating that 42% of scholars believe it to be principally their responsibility rather than the academic library’s (24%); the full report contains more detailed information and analysis of this topic, especially.

Ithaka posed a series of questions about library services to library directors and faculty; the disparity of responses between the two groups is noticeable, with library directors responding more positively to nearly every question than faculty. For example, more than 90% of library directors feel that “the library helps undergraduates develop research, critical analysis, and information skills” and “supports and facilitates faculty teaching activities” where less than 60% of faculty feel that these two statements are true.

Opportunities For Academic Libraries

The findings do indicate several opportunities for libraries. For example, more than 60% of respondents answered “no” when asked “Does your college or university library, scholarly society, university press, or another service provider assist you with any of the following aspects of the publication process?”:

  • Helping understand and negotiate favorable publication contracts
  • Helping determine where to publish a given work to maximize its impact
  • Helping to assess the impact of work following its publication
  • Managing a public webpage that lists links to a scholar’s recent outputs, providing information on areas of research and teaching, as well as contact information
  • Making a version of research outputs freely available online, in addition to the formally published version

Additionally, nearly 80% of respondents said that they preserve research data and materials gathered in preparation for a publication using commercially or freely available software or services. Few mention receiving assistance from a publisher or university library. One library going this extra mile is the Bernard Becker Medical Library (Washington University, St. Louis), which provides excellent guidance to authors. Its Strategies for Enhancing the Impact of Research project presents practical advice and strategies for authors preparing for publication, disseminating research, and keeping track of their research. 

For another view of how younger faculty (i.e., doctoral students who are instructors/teaching assistants) use and value academic libraries, Stephanie Mikitish and Marie Radford’s paper, “Initial Impressions Investigating How Future Faculty Value Academic Libraries,” is now available in the 2013 proceedings, Association of College and Research Libraries (ACRL). The researchers “interviewed 15 doctoral students about how they used their academic libraries for teaching and research, how they conceptualized library value … Those in coursework tended to rely exclusively on Google Scholar, while students in more advanced stages used a variety of library services … Participants were able to articulate differences between their previous and current academic libraries.” The authors conclude by pointing to “an opportunity here for librarians to endeavor to find out more about PhD students in their programs of study and to develop appropriate, systematic instruction and outreach during this impressionable stage in their careers, which can have a broader impact that could resonate throughout academe.”

About Ithaka S+R

Ithaka S+R is a strategic consulting and research service provided by ITHAKA, a not-for-profit organization dedicated to helping the academic community use digital technologies to preserve the scholarly record and to advance research and teaching in sustainable ways. Ithaka S+R focuses on the transformation of scholarship and teaching in an online environment, with the goal of identifying the critical issues facing our community and acting as a catalyst for change. A parallel surveying effort of faculty in the U.K. has been conducted. Findings from that project will be released in May 2013.


Barbie E. Keiser is an information resources management consultant located in the metropolitan Washington, D.C., area.

Email Barbie E. Keiser

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