In 2015-2016 Taylor & Francis and Loughborough University worked collaboratively to explore both how Postgraduate Research students (PGR) approached information seeking. It was always clear that the study could only provide insight to the Loughborough University context and would not necessarily be representative of the sector, but the results did reinforce some of our broader understanding of PGR behaviour, and raise some useful findings that can be used to inform service delivery. Alongside generating these valuable insights into the User Experience (UX) the project also surfaced some very important and difficult questions that need to be addressed by the University and Publisher if services are to continue meeting PGR students’ information needs.
Here, Graham Walton (former Assistant Director of Loughborough University Library and currently Honorary Research Fellow in the Centre for Information Management at the University), and Project Steering Group member shares his own views on the questions raised:
Loughborough University Library has a footfall that is rising year on year, together with demands for increased opening hours and more space. These pressures are from undergraduate students and the evidence from the project indicates that for these PGR students, the physical library building was not important. This question forces the library to decide between various options for the future development of its physical space. These include creating a differentiated space that only PGR students can use, accepting that the space is only needed by undergraduates, or developing all space so that it is relevant for PGRs. It also means libraries need to strategically and operationally develop services that acknowledge that their relationship with most PGRs will be virtual.
One of the findings that emerged was that the PGRs did not understand or attach high value to the role that the Library could provide in supporting their research. For example, it was quite a surprise to them to find that the university library had a range of informative web pages specifically on research support. This does challenge how effective are the existing workshops, leaflets and the other marketing approaches used by the library to convey its values to the PGRs.
This question is not new but it still came as a surprise to see the emphases placed by PGRs on Google Scholar. The fact that repeated use was made of Google Scholar would point to PGRs being regularly satisfied with the information it provides. There was no indication either that they were sophisticated in their search techniques when using Google Scholar. The obvious conclusion to draw from this finding is that library and information services are in direct competition to Google (and Amazon and Wikipedia and other free to the user information services). The library has to endeavour to convince students that its services can compete with these other sources by outperforming them around quality and full text access.
The main reasons PGRs chose to use Google were its ease of use and speedy discoverability. The approach that the library and publisher are taking is to explore how these features can be demonstrated by their systems and services just as Google appears to be doing. For publishers, it also underlines the need to invest in search engine optimization and content discoverability.
The PGRs at Loughborough University very much saw their supervisors as being the major influence in most aspects of their research, including their own skills’ development. This poses various challenges to the university library as there is no guarantee that the supervisors have the requisite skills, current knowledge and awareness themselves. At the same time, PGRs were very aware that they needed different information skills at different times depending on where they were in their research journey. Coming up with library strategies to improve information literacy which take into consideration both the supervisors’ influence as well as timeliness is a challenge.
The PGRs expressed their information seeking behaviour frustrations which ranged from it taking too much time to not having access to the information they needed. When the Project Team explored these experiences in more detail, very often the information was there but it was invisible to the researcher. This has again provided a focus for the University Library to determine how these frustrations can be overcome.
The PGRs place great value and appreciation of the opportunities provided for their research by social media. These opportunities started at the early stage when they were looking for information and continued through to when they were disseminating their findings (and all stages in between). This does point to the need for the Library and Taylor & Francis to also use social media in their service delivery. Making this decision is easy but how this is precisely done is not so clear. Whatever approach is used, it has to fit in with what the PGRs needs and also be applied in an appropriate manner and style.
Loughborough University Library is increasingly realising that it has to have a detailed insight into how students and academics access its services. If this is not in place, the library is in danger of providing services that are seen as being irrelevant at best. There are various layers of complexity if this is to be achieved including the library having many different categories of user – all of whom have different characteristics and expectations. A further challenge is choosing the best approach to gathering the information that captures the users’ experience. The project between Loughborough Univeristy Library and Taylor & Francis enabled detailed insight to be developed into a small number of students but it took a lot of time to administer and oversee. Data collection approaches that are also cost effective are needed to gather the UX evidence for all the different user groups.
Read more about the findings of our Postgraduate User Experience in the Library project.