How do scholars search?

“Just google it” – The transition from analogue to digital archives and the recent explosion of online content offers researchers novel ways of engaging with data. Paper published at HRIDigital, University of Sheffield

The crucial question for ensuring a balance between the supply and demand-side of data is whether this trend connects to existing scholarly practices and to the average search skills of researchers.

To gain insight into this process we conducted a survey among nearly three hundred (N= 288) humanities scholars in the Netherlands and Belgium with the aim of finding answers to the following questions: To what extent are digital databases and archives used? 2) What are the preferences in search functionalities? 3) Are there differences in search strategies between novices and experts of information retrieval?

Google dominant – but a black box

Our results show that while scholars actively engage in research online they mainly search for text and images. General search systems such as Google and JSTOR are predominant, while large-scale collections such as Europeana are rarely consulted. Searching with keywords is the dominant search strategy and advanced search options are rarely used.

When comparing novice and more experienced searchers, the first tend to have a more narrow selection of search engines, and mostly use keywords. Our overall findings indicate that Google is the key player among available search engines. This dominant use illustrates the paradoxical attitude of scholars toward Google: while provenance and context are deemed key academic requirements, the workings of the Google algorithm remain unclear. We conclude that Google introduces a black box into digital scholarly practices, indicating scholars will become increasingly dependent on such black boxed algorithms. This calls for a reconsideration of the academic principles of provenance and context.

Implications for AXES

One of the user groups for the AXES project are the of academics; researchers, lecturers and students. In order to accommodate the research practices of scholars, and learn about their expectations for audiovisual search systems, WP1 investigates scholarly practices of information retrieval.

The findings of these studies were used as input for AXES RESEARCH, which is developed to suit the user requirements of both journalists and academics. A first study regarding scholarly use of search systems was conducted in 2012, for which the first article was recently published in the Proceedings of the Digital Humanities Congress 2012. We found that scholars mainly use textual sources such as scholarly publications and other text, and also make regular use of still images. When searching for information, it appeared scholars are heavy users of Google offerings such as Search, Images and Scholar, where they are used to a single search box allowing keyword search. When searching for audio-visual material, scholars tend to do so at YouTube, which offers the same search box. As these findings were similar for journalists, the user requirements could be derived similarly.

The AXES RESEARCH interface, present in the prototype delivered in September 2013, accommodated these findings by allowing advanced search technology to hide under seemingly simple keyword boxes, not demanding journalists or scholars to employ advanced techniques, while still being able to retrieve videos with limited metadata.

A Dutch scholar describes the advantages of an online database of Dutch pamphlets in terms of speed and space. As the database was available online, he had direct access to his material and no longer had to travel to a library in another city.

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