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  Research Findings

E-Journal User Study
Report of First Survey
March 2002

Ten Themes from Unsolicited Comments in Reaction to a Survey of Scientific and Medical Society Members

The first survey of the e-Journal User Study project 13 was fielded from May 22 to June 20 of 2001. The project sent e-mail to approximately 90,000 members of (mainly American) scientific and medical societies, inviting them to participate in a Web-based survey regarding scholarly journals. We received 12,465 responses, from 99 countries. There was no mechanism within the survey form for respondents to submit comments, yet 107 individuals took time to substantively respond to the "Thank You" e-mail message that automatically followed each survey submission.

Amidst the other short transaction-oriented messages, these 107 responses ranged from testy complaints about technical problems to enthusiastic descriptions of users' daily practices and attitudes about e-journals.

Without specific data on these individuals and their institutional contexts (aside from the bits and pieces found in the comments themselves which we note below), we are limited to a brief analysis of the themes that emerge from these unsolicited responses. The majority of these spontaneous comments come from respondents who felt strongly about e-journals and were driven to communicate what they worried might be "left out" of the data. Respondents refer to practices and perceptions that were not covered, or were perceived as inaccurately reflected in the survey questionnaire. Thus, the comments can be read fruitfully as a companion to the first survey questionnaire and its results and as an elaboration or echo of many of the themes developed in E-Journal Usage and Scholarly Practice: An Ethnographic Perspective on the Role and Impact of E-Journal Usage Among Users of Biomedical Literature, May 2001. (Hereafter referred to as "qualitative report" or "qualitative research"). See http://ejust.stanford.edu/research_findings.html.

A. The idea of a tradeoff between paper and electronic formats is misleading; both are important tools for thinking and working.

B. The most significant current source of value from e-journals is in the scholars' ability to search them.

Several responses supported the idea, discussed fully in the qualitative report, that e-editions rarely completely replace print editions. Rather, print and e-editions of scientific journals exist in tandem and are used for different purposes depending upon the context of use. E-journals are particularly useful for searching and retrieving text. In the words of these respondents:

For retrieval purposes, e-journals are indispensable. However, for browsing through particular journals, the paper version gives you exposure to interdisciplinary topics that might not come up in a search which can be very useful. I do not think that either can replace the other. I subscribe to both methods -paper and electronic for different purposes. The presentation of information is enhanced by having both mediums available (respondent #11).

To me for keeping up-to-date I prefer (and will probably continue to do so) printed versions; for retrieval in any form I prefer and use mainly electronic access. (#64)

I prefer to search on line for journals some times (i.e. when I am looking for a specific article that I want right away – to avoid having to go [to] the library for it) but I prefer to look through journals at other times. For example, I would never want to read a journal on line, I much prefer to browse through Nature, Science, JBC, Molec Pharm and several others as written journals. (#57)

A. No single pattern of usage predominates for e-journals.

B. Convenience, efficiency, and cost drive usage of e-journals … and they are relative terms among scholars.

As explored in the qualitative report, scholars use e-journals in idiosyncratic and varied ways, based on a host of factors including individual preferences, occupation, stage of career, institutional infrastructures, information task, research cycle, time and place. For instance, a clinician reported frequently using electronic sources, but for purposes other than what he or she considers academic research. He/she therefore approaches e-journals with a different set of information needs.

My only comment is that the survey is written as if doctors looking up articles electronically are doing research. This is far from the reality for many of us. We look up material for educational and clinical reasons more of the time. I was an academic radiologist at the University of Toronto for 10 years, since I returned to a general hospital post in Ireland my academic output has been zero, but I use electronic sources of information far more. (#31)

Diverse use patterns are often underpinned by scholars' evaluations of what is most convenient and efficient. As several of the responses noted, notions of convenience and efficiency themselves are relative and contingent terms.

It can be more time-consuming to download PDF files than to go to the library–because I have to download and print files (on my really slow printer). While my technician/student can take a list to the library. The solution is to share my password/username for the online subscription with the technician/student but I hesitate to do that at this time. (#49)

Here, decisions about the efficiency and convenience of e-journal use are shaped by the individual's access to an assistant, lack of access to adequate printing facilities, and concerns over privacy.

For another respondent, discrete paper editions were "easier" to access than a group of different Web sites, each with their own protocols.

It is still easier to stack up the journals as they arrive and grab them when I want than to remember to log on to 15 different Web sites every X days to check for new content. (#61)

One respondent complained that current efforts to use e-journals for more convenient, more efficient submission of papers were actually costing him or her significantly more time and energy.

One issue that is not addressed in the survey and may be beyond its scope is the concern many researchers have about the changes to publication process with on-line submissions. Ideally, this should save the authors time but in reality we spend enormous amounts of time preparing manuscripts for on-line submission. The assistance from the journals is minimal, we spend a lot of time in preparing the manuscripts and have to become both computer experts and publication editors. I am sure this will improve with time but as the responsibility of publication is now the authors it would be hoped that the cost of publication will dramatically decrease in the future. (#33)

Just as one scientist's efficiency may be another's waste, so do scholars differ in their evaluations of the real costs, financial and otherwise, of e-journals. The following responses represent very different calculations about e-journals' costs and convenience.

The main reason why online journals are a god send to those of us in New Zealand (with the dollar at 42 cents to the US dollar) is that our institutions cannot afford to subscribe to all the journals hard copy. So with e-journals we can see the papers and if we need a hard copy send to the author for a reprint or print out our own. I think this access is crucial for people not living in major centers.(#23)

I am fortunate to work at a University in a developing country that has access to Internet. But how many are not as fortunate? This is one of my main problems with this electronic publication business: science in the developing world is getting behind at a faster pace now...I wonder what is more expensive: subscribing to a journal or paying the high costs of modern systems of communication. (#92)

You always mention free journals - some journals I wanted to use are NOT free. My institution does not pay for individual e-journal downloading -> use your private credit-card or resign!

. . .instead of saving time, you waste time (searching, downloading), they seem to be free of costs (in reality you have to pay the Internet access, downloading, printing and a complete computer equipment which has to be replaced every few years) and sorting incl. storage of the low quality prints or *.pdf-files is your problem.

In many cases we don't act in that way, we would prefer! University management and policy force us to use (prefer) things which seem to be cheap - it does not matter how useful they are. (#12, Austria)

These scientists' choices about e-journal use are heavily influenced by their institutional infrastructure and their perceptions of what is convenient, efficient, and valuable.

III. Increased online activity decreases offline, face to face activity.

Survey results indicated that 74% of respondents strongly or somewhat agreed that the more they use online retrieval of research content, the less they bothered to obtain content offline. One respondent raised the concern that a decrease in alternative methods of obtaining material resulted in fewer valuable serendipitous, face-to-face encounters.

Going to the library insures to meet:
—good friends (and have a coffee with them later)
—some interested students
—the colleague you want to address informally about a formally very important point
—some of these retired colleagues which may not be at the top of current science but help to place science in a historical perspective (and form somehow a memory)
—and finally, a point which may not be politically correct in the US, a flirt with the librarian. (#56)

IV. Printing technology is key to e-journal use

As discussed in the qualitative report and by the respondent below, many scientists print e-articles to paper in order to read them more intensively at a later date. Thus printers and printing technologies are a key piece of the technological ecology in which e-journals operate.

All my colleagues who use e-journals PRINT (and store) the results! I do the same. (#12, Austria)

Most of us would like to have quality access to on-line journal articles and most would be willing to pay something for it–if it is good quality print and good quality illustrations, if I can print good quality hard copy using my computer / printer, if I can retrieve articles going back to the stone age (at least 1950), etc., the e-library will be a huge plus to the researchers, clinicians, and a magnum host of scholars. (#93)

Printing technologies, and access to them, have a significant impact on the way that scientists interact with graphic knowledge in e-journals. Using a range of different combinations of computers, printers, and photo-copiers, scientists have very different abilities to use and appreciate graphic data. The comments below give a sense of the spectrum of benefits and problems associated with printing densely colored or highly granular data.

I would just like to add that one of the best reasons to download rather than photocopy articles is that the color pictures come out. (#84)

For a permanent file record, the quality of the printout when printing an online article is far superior on a color printer compared to photocopy of a journal article using a traditional copier... And very important, the quality of figures online is often far superior to the print version, and the figures can be blown up for a close look at detail. For journals that insist on publishing micro-images, like Science, this is a godsend. Further, online there are now often video clips as supplementary material that greatly enhance the article's impact and believability in many cases. (#96)

In general, because of the desire to keep the file size down, the limitations on graphics resolution has led to figures (especially tone photos) that are remarkably worse than the actual photos journals used to publish. This is not an improvement. (#89)

At present, the quality of on-line images often does not come close to that in a good print of a photomicrograph. Furthermore, many people do not have printers or even computer screens of high enough resolution to do justice to the images. This is why I try to persuade the library to keep getting the print version (often outrageously expensive - esp. with our dollar having sunk into a deep ocean trench) of certain journals until the on-line versions have good enough images. (#91)

Your form had no place to talk about scientific figures. First they take up many MB and are hard to download. Second they are not as sharp as in the journals. take a look at Anat. Rec. That is one of the oldest journals and is full of illustrations of very high quality. I have thought a lot about e-journals and what with the old ones that are not ever going to be available on that media and the problem of histological and other figures, I am not certain what the real answer should be. I think Science Magazine (AAAS) is OK as an e-journal but its illustrations are not the highest quality or on complicated subjects. (#75)

V. Scholars obtain more value from e-journals when the journal features support a wide range of information practices.

A few of the respondents took the opportunity to suggest features that would enhance the value of e-journals for them. They suggested that e-publishers "find ways to add value" by providing features that allow them to customize e-journal capabilities across domains or clusters of domains of information tasks (e.g. searching, retrieval, reading, printing, obtaining advance knowledge of research results, paper submission, e-mail) and across discrete units of content (articles, search results, journals, abstracts, citations). The responses below focus on the difficulties of reading online (explored further in the qualitative report), the desire for enhanced e-journal features to address the cluster of searching and retrieving search results, the importance of accessing discrete bits of information within an article, and the value of the abstract as a container for content.

[I want] a dedicated, convenient E-book for reading pdf and other e-documents. I do not want to use my Powerbook for this purpose. It's too heavy and not comfortable to sit and read with. . . . I don't need an expensive, full service, tablet-like computer but rather an electronic book with only limited if any other abilities. (#24, radiologist)

My real hope is a light device about the size of a full size journal in length and width but thin, with a really good high resolution screen and a battery good for 4-5 hours, into which I can download the latest issues of 2 or 3 journals (or, if storage device limits, 20-30 articles) and then can carry on a plane and read while stuck on the runway in O'Hare. When I get back I link to my PC and deal with links and such, save particular articles or a Web link to them in a personal archive, then exchange for a new set. When that happens I'll cancel my personal paper subscriptions to even the core favorites, and be happy to pay for the electronic ones, hopefully cheaper. (#95)

What I wish I had was a good on-line search engine, such as Carl Uncover, which included abstracts and was capable of delivering via e-mail to me the complete search results. I'm willing to pay some money for this (e.g. I bought the complete ESA publication stuff in database format from Absearch), but I won't spend hundreds of dollars on it. Finally, a challenge to publishers of on-line journals. Simply transferring information from one medium to another rarely is successful. You need to find ways to add value. Imagine a scientific article set up as a hypertext document . . . click on the figure citation to see the figure in a separate box, easily e-mail the authors, click on a reference and you are sent to the reference document, etc. Also, you can add material that doesn't get included in journals, such as complete datasets (I agree with Dan Janzen that often the data is more important than the analysis), video clips of the study site or study organisms, etc. (#36, italics added)

The ability to find one small detail (e.g. where did they get their materials from) without having to access the whole paper is important. (#69)

Even more frequently we use Medline abstract search as the starting point for researching a clinical problem. Not infrequently the abstract provides sufficient information to answer the current question. We need to teach authors how to write a meaningful abstract. I would guess that 90 percent of people read only the abstract on line. If the abstract is poorly written people will not proceed to download the full paper. (#106, clinician)

VI. Some users would benefit from more education on how to use e-journals and their features.

As noted by the respondent below, scientists in developing countries would clearly benefit from explicit, user-friendly information on how to take advantage of e-journal features and capabilities. Other groups who might benefit from more education are older scientists who may not feel entirely comfortable with rapidly changing information technologies, and clinicians who have less time to spend on research activities.

Like many scientists of my age and especially those living in the transitional or third world countries I experience the problem of how to re-literate myself to the computer age. It took me 20 or so years till I developed my style of handling and retrieving information and on how to "manufacture" a scientific paper. And then in the '90s the computer revolution hit this part of the world; and to master the computer literacy required an additional effort on the part of the established scientists who now have had much less time to invest in themselves by acquiring the new skill of computer literacy. Shall I say that it took me 6 months or so till I got accustomed to the vertical position of my PC screen instead of having the manuscript laying horizontally on the table? Writing on the margins were lost. Underlaying and crossing also, etc.. Many of my colleagues are reluctant to admit that they have only a superficial hand on knowledge on their PC and that they don't know how to get the best of it.

In conclusion, I think that at least some of the scientists of my age will benefit from an old fashioned step by step self-instruction tutorial on how to master all the possibilities offered by the Internet today. Including on how to read and download the e-journals. Many of the manuals are written with the tacit assumption that the readers already know the basics and this basics are sometimes beyond my actual knowledge. (#37)

VII. The online environment encourages a diversity of literature, but still overlooks some formats.

As discussed in the qualitative report, online scientific information resides within a larger universe of online literature, occasionally bringing scientists into closer contact with non-peer reviewed or commercial "gray literature." Two respondents addressed this issue. The first is able to access a wider, more useful body of literature than was previously possible through his or her institution; the second is concerned about the fate of the printed version of materials that are circulated outside of scientific journals.

The advantage of e-journals is the lack of prestige or rigorous peer review. In agriculture much of the material one needs is not of the nature which gets published in prestigious journals which are the only ones one can recommend to a library to purchase. (#13) 14

The other difficulty is that many important communications are not coming through journals but through newsletters and reports. I remember vividly that a few decades ago all important IBP releases came through their reports. I think we all agree that IBP brought ecology into "Big Science". Nowadays this is similar in certain branches of biophysics and gene technology. Some of them cannot use the Internet because they still need to keep results and topics among themselves. (#67)

VIII. Price structures matter

Perceptions about price, whether accurate or not, factor into individual decisions about how to access and retrieve journal material. Users are accustomed to free access to print-editions from libraries, while at the same time they are aware of the financial intricacies of institutional subscriptions. Putting scientific literature online opens up possibilities for new financial arrangements between individuals, journal publishers, and institutions. For example, some respondents expressed concern that putting journals online was increasing overall subscription costs for certain journals, thus limiting scholars' access to them.

Some journals are starting to charge absurd sums for online access at the institutional level (Nature and its subsidiaries, for example) and this is causing our institute to cancel subscriptions.. . .This disfavors online access. (#96)

As the following respondent noted, online access presents new complications when users are forced to negotiate different financial and institutional relationships for print and e-editions.

I would also state that how fully we switch over to electronics will depend upon how many journals are available and what the cost is. Also, I hate being coerced by journals that split the subscriptions so there is print personal only and then have Web-only features and articles that I cannot access because we don't have an institutional subscription. (#32)

One international respondent also mentioned the extra costs (in money and time) of accessing materials via the Internet.

For the international research community, all this quarrelling is absurd. We want to have access to the journals "period". At the cheapest cost as possible! We also must have several (mirror) repositories of the world archives. Don't forget that Internet 2 only works in few places yet, and that getting a paper on line can cost anywhere from 30 sec (if I2) to one hour or more when the normal Internet is congested. Having closer mirrors sites would help (In Europe, in Japan etc.) (#35)

IX. Technical problems and institutional accounting practices currently prevent some scientists from paying for online information.

The results from the survey found scientists nearly evenly split on the question of whether they would be willing to pay for scientific information online or not. Several of the unsolicited responses highlighted important barriers to online payment — institutional accounting practices that conflict with available online payment options, and technical difficulties with online payments.

Right now I have no way to pay for articles except to put them on my private credit card. If I send a student to the library to get an article, it is paid for by my research funds, not my private funds. So right now, because I have no easy way to pay for articles on line out of research funds, I use students. This does not mean that I am not willing to pay for Internet access to scientific articles. I would be thrilled to give the $500 or so dollars that I spend each year for journals to an Internet group that gave me access to full copies of all scientific journals. (#44)

Obtaining anything online usually requires use of a personal credit card. One then has to submit paperwork to obtain reimbursement from the company for these expenses, and justify why they were needed. This adds to the time involved in getting an article. This justification step also means that one does not obtain and read articles just because they are interesting, instead one only obtains those that are related to a work project. In the long run this causes one to be too narrow and focused. (#94)

The reason that I do not wish to pay to receive e-journals is not the cost. It is the inconvenience of making small payments by Internet. (#13)

X. Some scientists have environmental concerns over the use of paper

While environmental concerns did not emerge as a theme from the qualitative research (and were not explored in the first survey), six respondents did bring up the issue. Four directly linked the potential benefits of online scientific information to a reduction in the use of paper.

Hard copies of journals (particularly as individual subscriptions) use a large amounts of non-recycled paper, and I really think that the use of e-journals is a great way to decrease this waste of paper, and is a positive step toward stopping the destruction of great amounts of trees. That would be for me a major reason for switching to e-journals subscriptions. (#34)

I now live overseas and I don't want hard copy — it is bulky, takes up lots of storage space and kills trees. (#82)

My primary reason for wanting online full-text journal articles is to salvage an environmental target of this industry: Trees. (#103)

I also think an important motivator for switching is the reduced paper production needed for electronic journals. Although I do not know whether the semiconductor industry uses more or less water than paper mills. (#32)

Since many users of online scientific literature print e-articles to read them in depth, it is unclear whether e-journals use more or less paper. Another respondent feels that e-editions encourage more people to print out article copies, in effect increasing the use of paper.

Another minor point is that when everyone in an institution is printing out papers, it uses up an enormous volume of paper, because of course you only print on one side, whereas journals print on two sides of the page. . . There seems to be a greater temptation to print out articles than to go up to the library and photocopy them from journals. In the library, you can sit comfortably and read papers before making a decision about whether to photocopy them or not. (#91)

Please share your reactions to the Survey Findings by filling out a simple form. Your feedback is a valuable component of the Electronic Journal User Study.

Last updated: 03-29-02

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