Notes from our Bibliographer – April 2021

Survey Says… 

by Stephen P. Weldon

Readers may recall that a couple of years ago, I worked together with Kathleen Sheppard (Missouri S&T) and Margaret Gaida (Caltech) on a survey on “Digital Technology in Scholarly Research for Historians of Science and Allied Disciplines.” The first half of the survey covered digital technology in scholarship generally while the second half concerned the IsisCB specifically. There were 28 questions, both defined response and open response. We advertised the survey with members of HSS and SHOT as well as through H-NET and the Mersenne listserv, and over the course of just over three months, from 30 October 2018 to 5 February 2019, we received 465 completed responses. Here I share some of the findings of that first part of the survey. 

We received responses from a cross-section of the discipline. The three most identified subject areas of research were history of science (64%), history (23%), and history of technology (22%). Half of the respondents were HSS members and 15% were SHOT members; in addition, 18% were members of the British Society for the History of Science, and 11% affiliated with the European Society for the History of Science.

Most of the respondents were teaching/research faculty (33%), graduate students (16%), researchers (15%), or retired/emeritus faculty members (11%). The regional focus was primarily North America and Western Europe, 51% and 36% respectively, although we did have participation from all over the globe, including Africa, Oceania, South and Central America, India, and the rest of Asia. In terms of race and ethnicity, the vast majority identified as White (76%) or European (7%), with a small number identifying as Jewish, Black, Asian, and mixed race. We had a male/female split of 55% to 44%. The age range was widely distributed with 26% below the age of thirty-six, 37% between thirty-six and fifty-five, and 35% fifty-six and above.

The survey asked participants about their preferences related to functions and features of online scholarly resources, focusing on those things they would like to see and use in their research or teaching. Using a Likert-like scale with four preferences ranging from low interest (“would not use” and similar phrases) to high interest (“extremely useful” and similar phrases), we were able to assess the responses to 29 different functions or features that researchers might encounter when using web-based scholarly resources. In Table 1, I show the top eight items that had an average score above 3.0—in other words, the most desired items—and in Table 2, the bottom seven items with an average score below 2.0—the least desired. 


Table 1. The Top Most Valued Features or Functions. The table below shows the top eight most valued features based on an average score of 3.00 or greater. The scale runs from 4 (like) to 1 (dislike). The first column refers to the question number and item. Key to the full text of the questions can be found on this sheet

Feature FunctionCount 4Count 3Count 2Count 1TotalAvgRank
Links to archival material (Q15)3241201524613.661
Access to published work (Q15)3111272214613.622
Document Access (Q14)3071222834613.593
Biographical Info (Q14)2241686374633.314
Bib management (Q14)22114676154633.225
Access to unpublished works (Q15)19515892154603.166
Digital resource info (Q15)16018995134573.097
Value of collaborative resources (Q17)14823037254553.048

Table 2. The Least Valued Features or Functions. The table below shows the bottom seven least valued features based on an average score of 2.00 or less. The scale runs from 4 (like) to 1 (dislike). The first column refers to the question number and item. Key to the full text of the questions can be found on this sheet.

Feature FunctionCount 4Count 3Count 2Count 1TotalAvgRank
Blogs (Q18)9772461124441.9623
Computational tools (Q18)45641331974391.9024
Academia.edu (Q18)25661761824491.8525
Awards/honors (Q15)22562001774551.8326
Twitter (Q18)17571212544491.6427
Social media (Q14)17541332364591.5928
Facebook (Q18)3251033204511.3629

As you can see people valued access to full-text resources, ranging from archival material to published and unpublished documents, more than almost any other feature. Also high on the list are biographical and other “information about authors, publishers, and professional activities,” as well as help with bibliographical management tools and information about digital resources. Completing the list of most valuable features was a general interest in collaborative resources, for example, resources like Wikipedia that contain material collected and/or curated by many scholars.

At the other end of the scale, we found surprisingly little enthusiasm in social media of various kinds. Question 14 asked about whether the respondent would like to see “integration with existing social media tools” while Question 18 asked about how useful specific tools are for the person’s research, and for this question, we asked specifically about Facebook, Twitter, and Academia.edu. The results showed that the majority of respondents were as starkly opposed to social media as they were in favor of full-text resources. My cursory study of those people who embrace social media indicates that there is nothing in the demographic profile that stands out; gender, age, and even region seem to be generally disassociated with strong desire for increasing social media integration in research.

For those who want to see the whole list and how the rankings vary across age groups and regions, please see the Google Sheets file with the three sheets (Whole Survey, Age Comparison, and Region Comparison) here. Looking through these various cross sections of the population, I have not been able to find any dramatic differences in the rankings of the top or bottom of the list.

These general results point to a discipline in which access to resources and managing those resources through bibliographical tools are strongly sought after. In an increasingly digital world, our interest is closely focused on the data that we need to do our work. We tend to find collaboration critical to our work, but few of us are especially enamored with the current set of social media tools that we have at our disposal.

I would love to have someone with more data analytical experience than I look at the survey to see what else we might find in this fairly interesting collection of data. Meanwhile, those who are interested in access to the cleaned and anonymized raw data for the whole survey can view it here. Please contact me directly at stephenpweldon@gmail.com if you would like more information about this survey or if you have insights into that data that you’d like to share. 

More from the April 2021 Newsletter