Thursday, September 17, 2009

First thoughts on: Nicholas et al, Student digital information-seeking behavior in context

Journal of Documentation 66.1 (2009): p106-132. doi: 10.1108/00220410910926149 (University of Illinois Access)

Why should you read this: There's plenty of data in here to compare student versus staff/faculty aggregate use of e-journals and e-books. I didn't find the detailed level of transactional analysis I was hoping for: examining individual user's paths through the library web site and these resources, and back, but I'm not exactly disappointed by this. That level of sophisticated user behavior monitoring requires an extraordinary amount of information collecting at the point of use (often requiring tracking users using cookies, and applying this tracking across multiple domains, many out of the libraries control), not to mention exhaustive vetting by IRBs and full disclosure to potential participants. This level of study is something I hope to see being generated in the near future, and I wouldn't be at all shocked to see it come from Nicholas et al. :)

In brief: Deep log analysis of a community of users (students, teachers, researchers) from the four year long Virtual Scholar program, consisting of more than three million transactions. This study analyzes users' actual interactions with two e-journal (Syngery- Blackwell, 700 journals and OhioLINK, 6000 journals) and one e-book collection (Oxford Scholarship online, 1200 titles). The researchers contrast their own findings of pervious research that generally has relied on self-selected/reported research methods (and less in-depth transactional log analysis). Also includes a very good lit review. "The university studied [regarding Synergy] has more than 2,500 full-time faculty members, slightly less than 3,000 full-time members of staff and about 9,800 students of which about 4,000 are undergraduates." p. 119 " University College London was studied with regards to Oxford Scholarship Online. University College London " has more than 4,000 academic and research staff and about 19,000 students of which more than a third are at graduate level." p. 125

Interesting quotes and my thoughts:

Highlights from their excellent review of the literature:

"students… were more likely to undertake longer online sessions." p. 106

"The literature shows that undergraduate students opt for the easiest and most convenient method of information seeking (Valentine, 1993), and appreciate the time saving characteristics of electronic resources (Dalgleish and Hall, 2000). Students are said to rely heavily on simple search engines, such as Google to find what they want. (Dalgleish and Hall, 2000; Becker, 2003; Drabenstott, 2003)." p. 108

" The young web users tended to examine briefly the first few hits on the initial results pages before performing new searches, rather than examining every hit in detail." p. 108-9

" Prabha et al. … showed that undergraduate and graduate students tend to stop looking for information when they find the required number of sources for an assignment." P. 109

And highlights from their research/findings

"In terms of the type of page viewed, surprisingly perhaps, undergraduates proved to be the biggest viewers of abstracts… The use of PDFs increased as users moved up the academic scale… Perhaps undergraduates were much more interested in cutting and pasting, something much easier to do in HTML format?" p. 114

My own experience with undergraduates makes me think this might be because undergraduates sometimes consider an abstract "enough" information (satisficing). In a study I'm currently conducting, several undergraduates explained to me that they often just looked for good sources (meaning sources their instructors had indicated were acceptable, not necessarily any analysis they were doing to determine quality for themselves) to cite. They went on to explain that they had, in the past, simply attributed some statement in a written assignment for a class to a likely article based simply on reading the abstract. They indicated that they did this because they were confident that their instructor would not perform a detailed enough analysis of their paper to discover that they had not actually accessed, let alone read, the materials they were citing (and were more confident this would be the case if an item wasn't easily accessible online).

" Most Synergy sessions did not feature the use of the internal search facility but of those that did undergraduates, as might have been expected, were the most likely to use it… Undergraduates undertook the greatest number of searches, 10 per cent of all sessions saw more than ten searches being conducted. What is not clear is whether this constituted effective searching or not" p.115-116

"While nearly two-thirds (65 per cent) of staff searches used advance search… this was true of just over half (54 per cent) of searches conducted by students. Students were more likely to undertake a search using only a simple search." p. 124

"A third of UCL usage related to the student halls of residence network, which considering that the Oxford books were monographs (thought to be more suitable for staff) rather than text books, showed a strong interest in e-books amongst students, something which conflicts with the findings of others (Anuradha and Usha, 2006)." P.125-6

I don't see this finding at all in conflict with the findings of Anuradha and Usha. To make such a claim would require comparing this particular population's use of e-books against their use of print books, especially given the extremely small size of the e-book collection (1200 titles) compared to the UCL print collection of nearly one million volumes. In fact, I now feel the need to go dig up my old notes (from my pre blogging days :) on Anuradha and Usha's work. Since those are already written, they'll get posted before this review. There, done. See my post First thoughts on: Anuradha and Usha, Use of e-books in an academic and research environment: A case study from the Indian Institute of Science. The only fact I can draw from this data is that students seem to use more e-books than staff do (at least students in residence halls and staff in their offices- who knows about staff use from home or off-site office/coffee shops, etc) and not that students, generally, use e-books in any substantial sense when compared to their use of print books (or other electronic information sources, like free web sites, electronic journals, etc)

"Finally, students were more likely to find OSO titles via the Library catalogue… [than]… staff." p. 126

This is more evidence that, for undergraduate students at least, it is vitally important to make sure that access to e-books is provided via the catalog, or via whatever tool is the default/go-to tool for students when looking for library provided information. This could just as easily be a meta/federated search tool that incorporated book the library print and electronic bibliographic information, e-journal collections, and librarian generated electronic content, rather than a traditional catalog, so long as it was the primary tool for locating information- something most likely facilitated by making it the most prominent search (or only search) off the library's web site.

"Thus the usage profile [for the use of e-journals] of undergraduates is that they conduct many sessions but do not view a lot of pages during a session… This all fits the picture of students as "bouncers" established by the authors (Nicholaset al., 2007). However, this turned out not to be the case with e-books where students viewed more pages in a session than staff. This could be because e-books are a more appropriate form of e-resource to students, which seems logical." p. 128

"In regard to full-text viewing, the Synergy study showed that the use of PDFs increased as users moved up the academic scale, from undergraduate to professor/teacher." P. 128

"The OhioLINK study showed that students were more likely to record long online sessions lasting more than 15 minutes… Students were much more likely to read online than other academic groups and this was partly to do with personal preferences and partly to do with the print charges students are faced with in many institutions… a survey conducted by Outsell … found that undergraduates were more willing to rely on electronic resources than graduates and faculty, with approximately half using electronic resources exclusively or almost exclusively. A survey carried out at the University of Strathclyde… found that the majority of [student]users (94 per cent) read them on-screen." p. 129

" Overall… e-resource use… is on the increase and there is a reliance on simple searching, and students get better at searching as their skills as they progress to the higher stages of their studies." p.129

"It would be a mistake to believe that it is only students' information seeking that has been fundamentally shaped by huge digital choice…Virtual Scholar research has shown that a considerable number of users exhibit a bouncing/flicking behaviour, which sees searching conducted horizontally, rather than vertically. Power browsing and viewing appear to be the norm for many; reading appears to be undertaken only occasionally online, probably undertaken offline and in some cases not done at all." p.129-30