Top discovery channels in online user behaviour

As part of the ongoing reseach the Spotlight project is doing on how to improve discoverability of digitised collections, a couple of weeks ago we blogged asking for suggestions of recent studies on online user behaviour in resource discovery and add them to a Google document we set up.

After all suggestions were received (thank you!), Sero Consulting conducted a literature review and produced a preliminary summary of discovery behaviours in relation to researchers, students and teachers131118 Spotlight – Discovery Behaviours Literature Review v3 final

These findings were also discussed at the second Spotlight Expert group meeting on 16 October and here are some of the highlights from Sero:

“There has been a number of significant publications in this space, with the Jisc ‘Visitors and Residents’ study currently ongoing. However, some literature is now dated and so of doubtful reliability given the emergence of new services (for example, social media) within and beyond the HE community, general changes in online user behaviour (such as the growth of mobile) and demographic shifts towards increasingly born digital undergraduates.

The most useful reports used in compiling this synthesis have therefore been:

• The Researchers of Tomorrow report 2012 , even though this is confined to doctoral students
• The Ithaka S+R | Jisc | RLUK UK Survey of Academics 2012 has a section on resource discovery with valuable data
• The two RIN reports on information practices in the humanities and the physical sciences pinpoint disciplinary differences
• The Digital Information Seeker report synthesises a range of research findings although these are now quite aged
• The 2011 report If it’s too inconvenient, I’m Not Going After It:” Convenience as a Critical Factor in Information-seeking Behaviours unpicks that concept and demonstrates how it can trump other factors in user discovery behaviour
• The report on Learner Use of Online Educational Resources for Learning was also useful and correspondence with its authors confirmed that there was little known about teacher discovery and use of online resources.

The latter observation highlights the biggest gap in the information and findings that can usefully guide the Spotlight project. We could simply assume that university teachers select materials for teaching purposes and make recommendations to learners using exactly the methods and skills that they deploy as experienced researchers.

However, discussion with the expert group confirmed our suspicion that other factors are likely to be at play; for example, the role of validation processes and formally approved reading lists in determining what is recommended to students and the extent to which lecturers might be encouraging students to engage in collective resource discovery as part of the learning process.

The range of things happening in the teaching space, potentially impacted by the role of VLEs and by practices emerging through MOOCs, was therefore agreed to merit further investigation, perhaps beyond the scope of the current project.

Our synthesis of the literature suggests a dozen or so channels to discovery, which may be used as they stand or wrapped up in more complex behaviours, to be taken account of if we are to enhance discovery and sustain discoverability of scholarly resources.

Whilst some are reported as particular to beginning undergraduates (for example, family and friends) or to more experienced researchers (such as citation chaining), it seems that many are in use across the spectrum of user ‘personas’, not least the global search engines epitomised by Google.

Channel & examples (not all from the literature and not necessarily in priority order)
1. General search engines: Google mainly, also Baidu, Bing, Yahoo, Yandex
2. Google services: Google Scholar, Google Books, Google Earth
3. General web services: Wikipedia mainly, also YouTube and Flickr
4. E-journal databases: Ebsco, A-Z list
5. Online library catalogues: Traditional OPAC, or a more wide-ranging ‘Next Generation’ Discovery Layer
6. Online research resources, collections or databases: Astrophysics Data System, Cambridge Digital Library, Connected Histories, Old Bailey Online
7. Personal contact with peers and others: Face-to-face at university or conference, via email, formal or informal group work
8. Online social tools: E-mail lists, RSS feeds, blogs; limited use of Facebook and Twitter
9. Recommendations from teachers: Reading lists, personal recommendations
10. Following experts: Local professor, highly cited academic leader
11. Asking family and friends: Who have been to university or know the subject
12. Citation chaining from prior reading: Follow bibliographic references; access new fields from ‘state of the art’ overview articles
13. Monitoring key journals: Contents services such as Zetoc
14. Preprint article databases: arXiv, PhilPrints, PubMed Central

The literature provides many strong messages, not least about the importance of Google, Wikipedia and YouTube. However there are behaviours that lack clarity, especially relating to specialised tools for finding stuff, perhaps on account of:

• The questions asked – the persistent research challenge regarding the way the research was presented and phrased to participants, perhaps in this field exacerbated by the absence of a common way of describing ‘discovery’ process(es)

• The technology fug – the question of underlying understanding of the software applications referenced on the parts of both researchers and respondents; this is an especial concern given the panoply (or confusion) of ‘finding aids’ offered by curators and their suppliers and the associated cycle of change (e.g. OPAC to Discovery Layer)

Finally, the Expert Group expressed a concern that formal research cycles and digital development lifetimes are, to a certain degree, incompatible, carrying the likelihood that research is reporting on what has been with a less than strong likelihood that it still persists.

Nevertheless, there is much in the literature that can inform the Spotlight quest to ensure reliable and persistent discoverability of resources and also to increase the likelihood of discovery in terms of channels and behaviours favoured by target users.

As well as further investigating some of the grey areas highlighted in this post, our next task is to map the key behaviours on to possible interventions that might be driven by curators (whether individual academics or entities such as archives and libraries) and / or supported through national interventions.”

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