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Issues in Science and Technology Librarianship
Fall 2000


Comparing Patterns of Print and Electronic Journal Use in an Academic Health Science Library

David H. Morse
Associate Director for Collection Resources

William A. Clintworth
Associate Director for Information Services

Norris Medical Library
University of Southern California


A study was undertaken in an academic biomedical library setting to compare the usage of a matched set of biomedical literature available to users both in print and on the web. The study results showed that for journal volumes in the study subset (the 1998 volumes of 194 titles), users accessed the electronic versions more than ten times as often as the print versions during the six-month study period. The results further revealed a remarkably similar usage curve in the print and electronic data, with just 20% of titles accounting for nearly 60% of usage in both study sets. Conversely, the bottom 40% of ranked titles in both the print and electronic study sets accounted for just 9% of total usage. Studies like this one demonstrate the overwhelming preference of users for electronic access when it is available to them, especially when they can link directly from databases to the full text of the articles indexed. They indicate as well that the large spread in usage levels between titles, which librarians have long observed in the print domain, is being duplicated in the electronic one.

Introduction and Study Goals

Although reliable usage data on electronic journals continue to be difficult to obtain, it is clear that library users in increasing numbers are opting to view and print articles off of the web rather than photocopy from printed issues (References 1-4). What is less clear is how fast the transition is occurring and to what extent patterns of use of journals in electronic format are duplicating the patterns of use of their print counterparts and to what extent usage of electronic journals demonstrates usage patterns that are distinctly different from their print counterparts.

In the study reported here, the investigators examined the use of a subset of the journal literature (the 1998 issues of 194 biomedical journals) that was available to library users both in print and on the web. The study sought to determine the overall ratio of print to electronic usage of this subset as an indicator of the degree to which the predominance of usage was switching from print to electronic form. In addition, the study attempted to investigate whether there would be the same concentration of use on the most popular titles in both the print and electronic domains. The working hypothesis was that usage of electronic versions of titles would be more evenly spread among the 194 titles than it would be among the same titles in print, because the ease of access to the electronic versions might make users less selective about the articles they viewed, i.e., that they would show a less pronounced preference for the high-prestige titles. If this proved to be true, it would suggest the need for rethinking collection development guidelines that were designed for the print world.


The setting of the study was the Norris Medical Library at the University of Southern California, a biomedical library serving a broad range of health sciences disciplines and a major academic medical center. The library holds print subscriptions to 2,200 titles, of which 650 are also available to library users on the web. The primary online research tool is the suite of databases and online journals provided through Ovid Technologies, and all of the 194 titles in the study are journals for which electronic access is provided through Ovid. Links to the full-text articles are provided from citations in the Ovid MEDLINE and CINAHL databases, and users can browse issues article-by-article if they want. The library's e-journals web page and its web-based online catalog also include direct links to each of the 194 titles. All of the library's web-based resources, including Ovid, are available at any station on the university's computer network and to users dialing in to the university's modem pool.


Usage data on 1998 print and electronic volumes of the 194 titles in the study were gathered for a period of six months, between July and December 1999. Data on electronic use were derived from Ovid transaction logs. The logs indicate every user transaction that occurs on the Ovid system, including each viewing of a full-text journal article. The entries for full-text journal viewings were filtered to include only 1998 articles, and then sorted and subtotaled by title. The logs were carefully examined to ensure that there was little or no double counting of articles, as, for instance, when users click on links to references and then return to the full-text.

Usage of the print volumes was tracked by scanning of barcodes on journal volumes during the reshelving process. Data from the handheld barcode scanners were uploaded into an Access database, where they were merged with volume-specific data downloaded from the library's Horizon integrated library system. As with the electronic usage data, the print data were filtered to include only usage of 1998 volumes, and then subtotaled by title. Because the journal volumes are available in open stacks, it is possible that some usage data were missed when users did their own reshelving. However, informal observation of user behavior indicates that very few users in this library go to the effort of reshelving journals after use.

Finally, lists of titles in rank order by number of uses were prepared for both print and electronic use.


The single most striking observation to emerge from the data comparison was the sheer predominance of electronic usage compared to print usage. During the six-month study period, there were approximately 28,000 electronic viewings of full-text articles from the study subset, compared to only 1,800 uses of the corresponding print volumes. Because collection of usage data for the print collection did not precede the availability of the electronic versions, the study could not determine how much of the electronic usage represented a migration of use from print, i.e., simply replaced a corresponding print use, and how much represented use of the journal literature that was completely new. However, it seems reasonable to assume that whereas some portion of the electronic use is simply taking the place of a print use, the overwhelming magnitude of the electronic usage must primarily represent the satisfaction of needs that were previously unmet in the print domain.

Results of the analysis of patterns of use among the 194 titles in print and electronic form were almost as surprising. As Tables 1 and 2 demonstrate, contrary to expectation, the concentration of usage on the most popular titles was almost identical for the print and electronic lists. In both cases just 20% of the titles accounted for nearly 60% of total usage, and, conversely, the bottom 40% of both ranked lists accounted for only 9% of total usage. The working hypothesis, that ease of access in the electronic sphere might lead to a flatter distribution of title use, turned out not to be the case.

As might be expected, there was a significant overlap among the most popular titles in print and electronic form, with 25 titles (almost two-thirds) common to the top quintiles on both lists (Table 3 and 4). Wide discrepancies of the rankings for individual titles were not unusual, however, and generally confirmed anecdotal evidence about the degree to which different user groups have embraced electronic journals. For example, nursing and occupational and physical therapy journals generally ranked higher in electronic usage than they did in print usage. This supported an observation from faculty members that students in these disciplines were beginning to depend entirely on articles available in electronic form. The relatively weak showing of some basic science journals in the ranked list of electronic use confirmed the fact that many basic science faculty members continue to use PubMed rather than Ovid for MEDLINE access, because of Ovid's clinical emphasis.


While libraries struggle to balance competition between print and electronic journal collections, librarians have a pressing need to know how these collections are used in order to maximize their investments in acquisitions funds and staff time. Comparisons of print and electronic usage that do not take into account the broader coverage and longer backfiles of the print collection as compared to the electronic collection can create the impression that print is still very much the dominant and preferred medium. When a study, like the one reported here, compares usage levels for an identical subset of information available in both formats, the results are likely to show more clearly the degree to which electronic usage is overtaking print usage. As the archives for electronic journals grow in coming years, the phenomenon will become increasingly clear.

Although the library still lacks reliable usage data on its electronic journals that are not linked to the Ovid system, there is no question that a substantial percentage of the electronic journal usage reported here is attributable to the convenient full-text links provided in the heavily-used Ovid databases. User preference for electronic versions of articles that are not similarly linked to popular databases would be much less pronounced than that observed in this study. Clearly libraries need to consider the availability of such linkages when making e-journal purchasing decisions

Due to the relatively small data set of print usage reported here, it is difficult to draw specific conclusions about the degree to which usage patterns for individual titles differ in the print and online spheres. However, for this collection of titles as a whole, the striking similarity of usage distribution, i.e., a heavy weighting toward a handful of the most popular titles and extremely low use of the least popular titles, suggests that library users are exhibiting the same sorts of journal preferences in the electronic domain as they have in print. This conclusion reinforces the need for more and better usage data for electronic journals so that budget dollars, both for print and electronic resources, can be allocated in a manner that will achieve the highest ratio of usage to expenditures.

Distribution of Print Usage Among Titles Ranked by Usage Level

  # of print uses % of print uses
First quintile (top 39 titles) 1,048 58%
Second quintile (next 39 titles) 370 20%
Third quintile (next 39 titles) 228 13%
Fourth quintile (next 39 titles) 130 7%
Fifth quintile (lowest 38 titles) 38 2%
Total 1,814 100%

Distribution of Electronic Usage Among Titles Ranked by Usage Level

  # or electronic uses % of overall electronic uses
First quintile (top 39 titles) 15,836 57%
Second quintile (next 39 titles) 5,801 21%
Third quintile (next 39 titles) 3,511 13%
Fourth quintile (next 39 titles) 1,968 7%
Fifth quintile (lowest 38 titles) 661 2%
Total 27,777 100%

Usage Ranking for Print Use: Top Quintile (39 titles)

(Titles that also appear in the top quintile of online use are indicated with an asterisk)

JAMA* 78
Science* 75
Lancet* 70
N Engl J Med* 57
Nature* 53
Neurology* 49
J Urology* 33
Ann Internal Med* 31
Arch Internal Med* 31
Am J Health Sys Pharm* 30
Circulation* 30
BMJ* 27
Am J Nursing* 26
Am J Public Health* 26
Chest* 26
J Neurochem 26
Am J Cardiol* 25
Diabetes Care* 25
Am J Medicine* 23
Arthritis Rheumatism* 21
Am J Obstet Gynecol* 20
Annals Neurology 19
J Am Acad Child Psych* 18
J Clin Investigation 18
J Bone Mineral Res 17
Am J Psychiatry* 16
Ann Surgery 16
J Hepatol 16
Kidney International 16
Med Sci Sports Exercise* 15
Br J Surg 14
Ann Med 13
Arch Surg 13
J Am Geriatric Soc* 13
J Pediatr 13
J Trauma* 13
Am J Surg Pathol 12
Dis Colon Rectum 12
J Clin Nurs 12

Usage Ranking for Online Use: Top Quintile (39 titles)

(Titles that also appear in the top quintile of print use are indicated with an asterisk)

JAMA* 1323
Lancet* 1282
N Engl J Med* 1177
BMJ* 702
Neurology* 667
Am J Health Sys Pharm* 532
Ann Internal Med* 504
Arch Internal Med* 496
Science* 404
Am J Nursing* 392
Chest* 380
Diabetes Care* 366
Am J Public Health* 365
Am J Psychiatry* 363
Mayo Clin Proc 355
Nature* 343
Pediatrics 341
Circulation* 322
J Adv Nursing 320
Arthritis Rheumatism* 318
J Am Geriatr Soc* 316
Spine 315
Med Sci Sports Exerc* 308
RN 307
CMAJ 304
Br J Haematology 298
J Orth Sports Phys Ther 289
J Urology* 287
Stroke 261
J Neur Neurosurg Psych 246
Ann Emerg Med 233
J Trauma* 231
Am J Medicine* 228
Am J Cardiology* 221
J Am Acad Child Psych* 218
ACP J Club 214
Br J Clin Pharmacology 207
Pediatr Infectious Dis J 202
Am J Obstet Gynecol* 199


Degener, Christie T. 1999. The impact of electronic journals in the medical library setting. Serials Review. 25(3) 1999, 48-49.

Mercer, Linda S. 2000. Measuring the use and value of electronic journals and books. Issues in Science and Technology Librarianship. No.25, Winter 2000. [Online.] Available: [September 27, 2000].

Pedersen, Sarah W. and Stockdale, Rosemary. 1999. What do the readers think? A look at how scientific journal users see the electronic environment. Journal of Scholarly Publishing. 31(1) October 1999, 42-52.

Rusch-Feja, Diann and Siebeky, Uta. 1999. Evaluation of usage and acceptance of electronic journals. D-Lib Magazine 5(10) 1999. [Online.] Available: [September 27, 2000]

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