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Issues in Science and Technology Librarianship
Winter 2002

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[Board
accepted]

User Perceptions of Current Awareness Services: A Faculty Survey

Leila Fernandez
Science Librarian
Steacie Science Library
York University
leilaf@yorku.ca

Abstract

A survey was sent out to science faculty at York University to determine researchers' use of current awareness services. Responses indicate that faculty use a variety of approaches to keep up to date with their research and that there is overall satisfaction with these services. The implications of their choices are discussed with particular reference to future library services.

Introduction

The Steacie Science Library at York University recently decided to cancel its existing subscriptions to Current Contents on Diskette and to promote current awareness searching through the Web of Science as an alternative. The library subscription covered three editions: Life Sciences, Physical, Chemical & Earth Sciences, and Agriculture, Biology & Environmental Sciences. The declining use of this product on a stand-alone workstation in the library provided the justification for cancellation. In an attempt to determine the alternatives used by science faculty to keep current, an e-mail survey was sent out to 58 researchers in the departments of physics, chemistry, earth and atmospheric science, environmental studies, biology, and kinesiology. Faculty were asked to answer a series of questions regarding their research interests, how they keep current in their subject areas, and the kinds of developments in current awareness they expect to see in the future. Questions are listed in the Appendix. Their responses form the basis for discussion in this paper.

Results

In all, 25 responses were received giving a response ratio of 43%. Responses covered the disciplines of biology (12), chemistry (7), kinesiology (3), geophysics (1) and environmental sciences (2). No responses were received from physicists. The years of research experience of respondents ranged from seven years to 40 years, with a median of 18 years.

Choice of services varied and were largely related to subject disciplines. These are reproduced in the following table.

Users' Preferences for CA Services
Current Contents 6
Subject-specific databases 6
Journal tables of contents 14
Forthcoming articles 10
E-mail alerts 14
Learned Society web sites 5
E-Print repositories 1
Chemweb/Biomednet 6
Organism web pages 1
E-mail other researchers 14
Informed graduate students 9
Internet search engines 12

Other choices were PubMed (4) and browsing journals in the library (1). When asked what they consider to be most significant, PubMed, scanning journal tables of contents, and e-mail alerts were most frequently mentioned (14 in each category). Among the chemists, three found Scifinder Scholar to be very valuable, one found Science Citation Index most useful, while another found the Cambridge Structural Database adequate for his needs. As expected, two senior faculty members mentioned that browsing journals in the library was their first choice. Frequency of use varied with the service, ranging from daily to monthly. In fact, some PubMed users may search the database several times a day.

Satisfaction with their choices ranged from excellent (7) to good (9) to fair (5). Only two users appeared dissatisfied with the options they chose, while two others failed to respond to this question. Over half the respondents indicate they would be unwilling to pay for these services.

Responses to the question on peer-reviewed services were mostly negative or uncertain. Views on future developments varied but included some interesting comments which are reproduced here.

Regarding subject-specific database searching, one researcher who uses the Web of Science, the General Science Index, and the Applied Science & Technology Index mentions it is "easy to miss papers if keywords are not universal." Another says, " I think Current Contents is useful for all the stuff that is not included in PubMed (which can be quite a lot). I don't think it is as easy to find and does not provide as much information as would be liked -- but perhaps I am not familiar with using it or its possibilities." Still another thinks that "in a few years search mechanisms may be as valuable as the suppliers presently claim them to be." And finally the need is expressed for "a more elaborate, systematic literature alert system for scientists who would provide a research interest profile to a central organization/database. This already exists for keywords but is not sufficient." Perhaps Biomed Central's new service Faculty of 1000 would be an answer to this researcher's needs.

A couple of researchers see present options available as "very well organized," or "pretty well developed already." Others feel that " everything will be online," there will be "easier access, improved access to online articles. Another has a suggestion for the library, " all journals will eventually be e-print or paper, or e-print only and it will be important for our library to subscribe to these e-pubs."

Concluding Comments

Current awareness providers are hard put to keep up with the proliferation of web-based services that keep scientists updated. The currency of PubMed and Scifinder Scholar and the ready availability of linked full text and tables of contents have made these options popular among scientists. Consistency in indexing practices continues to plague scientists, but in spite of this there is overall satisfaction with the way things are. Users also feel that they should not be expected to pay for these services. A recent article by De Stricker (2002) reinforces some of these conclusions and provides a prescription for providers. The appearance of "holistic services" is mentioned in the context of users' needs. ISI's Web of Knowledge is one such service and is discussed in detail by Quint (2001).

Results also indicate a tacit acceptance that there is useful information to be gleaned by using Internet search engines. A couple of respondents mention their use specifically to search pharmaceuticals. Recent moves by Elsevier and Chemical Abstracts Service to include search engines in their products -- Scirus in Science Direct and E-science in Scifinder and other CAS offerings -- are in line with these sentiments. The inclusion of web contents with Current Contents Connect also reinforces the conclusion that the web adds value to traditional sources of scientific information.

The existence of peer review in current awareness services is an entirely new approach and is to be found in a new service being offered by BioMed Central called Faculty of 1000 where well known scientists rate and evaluate the biological literature and highlight the most interesting papers in a field. It is reasonably priced for individuals although there is also a subscription option for institutions. It remains to be seen how well this satisfies the needs of biologists.

Regarding user perceptions of future developments in current awareness services, particularly with regard to online journals, it appears that the Steacie Science library is well positioned to respond to their recommendations. Subscriptions to e-journal suites from most of the major publishers and a recent decision to adopt online as the only viable format augurs well with the expectations of science faculty at least.

In summary, web resources have achieved prominence as faculty struggle to keep up with the literature. Results of this survey provide a snapshot of how faculty perceive current awareness services. From our library perspective it is unlikely that the Web of Science with its limitations in coverage and searching capabilities will ever be viewed by faculty as a replacement to library subscriptions to Current Contents. However, faculty are well served with a multiplicity of other sources and appear satisfied with their choices.

References

BioMed Central. Faculty of 1000. [Online]. Available {http://f1000.com/ [January 22, 2002].

De Stricker, U. 2002. Keep me posted but not too much : challenges and opportunities for STM current-awareness providers. Searcher 10(1): 52-56.

Quint, Barbara. 2001. New ISI Web of Knowledge integrates Web of Science with Current Contents. Information Today 18(7): 42.

Appendix

Current Awareness Survey

This survey aims to find out how researchers keep current in their field of expertise, the services they use, how frequently they are used and the level of satisfaction with these services.

Information on Respondent;
Male/Female:
Status:

  1. For how many years have you been doing research?

  2. Can you briefly describe your field of research.

  3. How do you keep current in your subject area? Please indicate with an (x) wherever applicable.

    1. Use Current Contents.
    2. Run a saved search profile against subject-specific databases.
    3. Scan tables of contents of journals.
    4. Read forthcoming articles from journal web pages.
    5. Get e-mail alerts
    6. Access learned societies' web sites.
    7. Search e-print repositories.
    8. Subscribe to membership in online communities such as Biomednet, or Chemweb? (If so, please name service).
    9. Access organism web pages? (for biologists only)
    10. Communicate with other researchers through e-mail.
    11. Get the latest information from graduate students.
    12. Search the web using Internet search engines.
    13. Other. (Please elaborate)

  4. Which of the above would you consider most significant? How frequently do you use them? (Please specify)

  5. What is your level of satisfaction with these services?

  6. Is there peer-review associated with these services?

  7. Are there any other associated benefits? Please elaborate.

  8. Are there charges involved?

  9. If not, would you pay for these services?

  10. What kind of future developments do you see in the area of current awareness?

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