Libraries are for Use

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How researchers stay up-to-date

Like Moore’s Law, the growth of scientific information (as measured by journal articles published) appears to follow a stable and steep model.  A few years ago, bibliometric researchers Lutz Bornmann and Reudiger Mutz estimated that this growth is about 8-9% annually, thus doubling every 9 years.  This trend is not new – indeed, Bornmann  & Mutz traced the trend back to the middle of the 18th century, rising from 1% to 2-3% in between the world wars,  and up to its current rate.  Many publishers, software engineers, and librarians have been researching how researchers manage to stay current with such a high growth rates.  The latest of these attempts was published in JASIST (pre-pub for issue #1 of volume 11):

Pontis, S., Blandford, A., Greifeneder, E., Attalla, H. and Neal, D. (2017), Keeping up to date: An academic researcher’s information journey. J Assn Inf Sci Tec, 68: 22–35. doi:10.1002/asi.23623.


Keeping up to date with research developments is a central activity of academic researchers, but researchers face difficulties in managing the rapid growth of available scientific information. This study examined how researchers stay up to date, using the information journey model as a framework for analysis and investigating which dimensions influence information behaviors. We designed a 2-round study involving semistructured interviews and prototype testing with 61 researchers with 3 levels of seniority (PhD student to professor). Data were analyzed following a semistructured qualitative approach. Five key dimensions that influence information behaviors were identified: level of seniority, information sources, state of the project, level of familiarity, and how well defined the relevant community is. These dimensions are interrelated and their values determine the flow of the information journey. Across all levels of professional expertise, researchers used similar hard (formal) sources to access content, while soft (interpersonal) sources were used to filter information. An important “pain point” that future information tools should address is helping researchers filter information at the point of need.

Rather than simple surveys or even “critical event” interviewing, the authors used a qualitative approach based on a theoretical framework of “infromation journal model”.  This framework was synthesized from research by Blandford & Attfield and described as such:

The information journey encapsulates phases of:

  • Recognising an information need (also called an “anomalous state of knowledge” (Belkin et al., 1982a)).
  • Acquiring information (possibly through active searching, or maybe by serendipitous finding or being told).
  • Interpreting, and often validating, that information.
  • Using the interpretation (e.g., in writing or decision making)

Belkin, N., Oddy, R., and Brooks, H. (1982a). ASK for information retrieval: part I. Journal of Documentation. 33(2), 61–71. 2.2, 4.2

Blandford, A., & Attfield, S. J. (2010). Interacting with information. San Rafael, Calif.: Morgan & Claypool. Page 29.

Here is a figure of the Information Journal framework:


In this study, the authors use the framework to “structure the data analysis; insights add detail to its phases: that is, dimensions that shape researchers’ information interactions during the journey,” specifically, the researchers’ expertise (as measured by seniority) and the kinds of “channels” that they use.  Specifically, they wanted to answer these questions:

  • How does a researcher’ level of seniority influence information seeking?
  • What is the role of information intermediaries (soft channels)?
  • What other dimensions not initially considered influence the information journey?

The authors interviewed 61 researchers from 3 continents (Europe, North America & Asia) in four broad areas of knowledge: medicine, engineering, natural sciences, and social sciences.  The ratio of men to women was about 2.5:1.  The researchers were fairly evenly distributed by seniority.

Based on the information they collected, the authors developed a model of five dimensions distributed unevenly across the four phases. These five dimensions include:

  1. level of seniority
  2. type of information source
  3. the state of the project
  4. the level of familiarity with the current project
  5. how well-defined the relevant community is

This is illustrated as such:


With different degrees of influence, the five dimensions that emerged from the analysis are involved in each phase of the information journey (based on Blandford & Attfield, 2010). The dominant dimensions of each phase are indicated in black.

While the authors state that this work would be useful for information systems designers and other information behavioral researchers, I believe that librarians would similarly be able to use these results to inform their own services.  For example, because junior & mid-level researchers are more focused on their own research projects, staying up-to-date in the field (“general” information need) is a lower priority than “specific” needs; conversely, more senior researchers do want to be aware of develops more broadly than their specific projects.  Thus, providing current awareness services for lower-level researchers should be more focused than for the more established researchers.

I believe that librarians would benefit from considering this model and the information journey framework as they develop or modify or eliminate services or resources.  Asking where this fits in the model may provide the insight needed to make the best decisions.


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This entry was posted on December 27, 2016 by in Academic Libraries, LIS Research.

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