The search for scientific literature: how readers discover content

By Lilian Nassi-Calò

Photo: Mark Deckers.

Photo: Mark Deckers.

The Internet has definitely changed the way in which scholarly literature is published and made available. If there was a substantial increase in information sources, it has been accompanied by the emergence of numerous possibilities of search and location of literature. Search engines, databases, indexing services, aggregators, the journal’s and/or the publisher’s websites, social networks, tools to annotate and share publications and many others were created and perfected over time, offering readers several ways to retrieve the same content. Little is known, however, about the search habits of readers of scientific literature – how scholars, researchers, students, teachers, and professionals search and select content of interest through the overload of information available.

A detailed study by Tracy Gardner and Simon Inger, specialists in publishing and management of scientific journals, published in March 20161, aimed to fill this gap. Through an online survey with over 40,000 readers between October and December 2015 worldwide, the authors built a broad overview of the reading habits of the respondents. The research adds knowledge to previous similar studies developed by the authors in 2005, 2008 and 2012, and allows to compare the evolution of readers’ behavior in the past decade. Moreover, the survey included data on the area of knowledge, country, academic level, and sector of respondents, making it possible to obtain a behavior profile according to these variables.

It is important to note, however, that despite the diversity of respondents, the results of the 2012 and 2015 surveys were standardized to suit the demographic samples of 2005 and 2008. Thus, the results of these ten years are predominantly from academic researchers in science, technology and medicine, working in European countries and in the US.

An important result is that while bibliographic databases continue to be the most relevant source, its importance has been decreasing since 2008, losing position to academic search engines, social networks and aggregator service such as EBSCO, ProQuest and JSTOR. Library services have gained relevance in 2012 and have maintained their position. Although discouraged by librarians, sources conveyed by journals and/or their publishers have grown in importance through the areas, sectors and country profiles.

When assessing the trend by area of knowledge, scholars from high-income countries in Life Sciences show preference for bibliographic databases (PubMed, typically), although the slight decrease compared to 2012, followed by academic search engines. In this population, social networks, aggregators and sources controlled by the publisher show increase over the same period. Analyzing this comparison with the area of Humanities (also among scholars of high-income countries), there is a very different picture. Between 2012 and 2015, only social networks have increased in importance, remaining, however, in low level as compared to bibliographic databases, aggregators, library services and academic search engines.

Despite the slight decline in importance between 2012 and 2015 in some areas such as Life Sciences, Medicine, Engineering and Earth Sciences, bibliographic databases continue to be the most used source by scholars around the world, growing in importance in Physics and Astronomy and Computer Science. Social networks, on the other hand, do not occupy a prominent position in the search for literature, but show significant increase in importance from 2012 in all areas of knowledge.

The journals’ and publishers’ websites grew in importance between 2012 and 2015 in all areas of knowledge, especially in Agriculture, Earth Sciences, Engineering, Physics, Life Sciences, Medicine and Social Sciences. This growth can be attributed to the marketing efforts of publishers mainly through social networks, which made improvements in their portals’ search systems, attracting mainly researchers.

Assessing the preference of non-academic professionals as the medical, government, and corporate sectors, the preference is mainly towards bibliographic databases, academic search engines and publishers’ and journals’ websites.

When analyzing the preference by geographic area, there are quite different behaviors. Academics from Asia, Africa and South America rank publishers’ websites, academic search engines and bibliographic databases at the same level of importance. On the other hand, their counterparts in Europe and the United States consider the first less important than the other two. Bibliographic databases are the main source of consultation between academics in South America. Aggregators are less important in Europe than in the US, and social networks are less important in Europe and North America than in other regions, presumably due to availability of complete texts in open access available from these sites. This observation is in accordance with the preference for these sources especially in low and middle income countries, as well as the publishers’ and journals’ websites.

The chart below lists the preferential sources used by Latin American researchers to search for articles in 2015 (in decreasing order of importance):

Bibliographic database
Academic search engine
Publisher’s website
Journal aggregation
General web search engine
Journal’s homepage
Library web pages
Journal alerts
Social or professional networking site
Society web page

Regarding the use of search engines, the study showed that in 2015 only academia prefers Google Scholar over Google, and the corporate sector is the one that least uses the academic search engine. In the academic sector, Google Scholar is more used than Google in the United States and most European countries, besides Brazil. On the other hand, Africa and Asia prefer Google, possibly unaware of its academic counterpart. In China, Google’s use is partially restricted, being replaced by Baidu. Together, Google and Baidu surpass Google Scholar in that country. Analyzed by discipline, Google Scholar is used preferably to Google by academics of the fields of Social and Political Sciences, Psychology, Medicine, Life Sciences, Environmental Sciences, Education, Earth Sciences, Computer Science, Economics and Finance, and Agricultural Sciences.

The survey also asked respondents what proportion of journal articles they access from different sources. Analyzing the academic sector by their countries’ income class, it is noted that journals’ and publishers’ websites, full-text aggregators or journal collections are the most common, regardless of the country profile. Possibly, programs like Hinari, Gift and Agora in low and middle income countries contribute to this result. Then came institutional repositories, which are most frequent use by researchers in high-income countries, since its use requires the institutions to create them. The use of thematic repositories, on the other hand, appears to be independent of the users’ country profile, for its more global character. In equal proportion are academic social media like ResearchGate, Mendeley or The alternative of articles’ copies sent by colleagues or by the authors is used in low proportion and on equal level by countries with different socio-economic profiles. This indicates that the search for open literature is a common practice, even among scholars of high-income countries, which presumably rely on efficient library resource to access subscription journals.

The use of mobile devices like tablets and smartphones to search and read scientific papers has been increasing in recent years. From 2012, the study authors have included in the questionnaire questions on the frequency of their use. In low-income countries, there was a significant drop in the use of desktops in favor of tablets and smartphones in 2015 as compared to 2012, but the use of laptops remained unchanged. In high-income countries, however, the drop in desktops use in favor of mobile devices was only 4%. This trend reinforces the growing use of these devices in low and middle income countries for various academic purposes. However, this trend is not observed only in the developing world. The medical industry worldwide showed virtually the same behavior regarding replacement of desktops by mobile devices to access journal articles. This trend is causing publishers’ and journals’ websites to offer proper interfaces for tablets and smartphones. The use of applications on mobile devices to access and read articles, however, is still quite restricted, being more frequent in low and middle income countries and in areas such as Medicine.

Given the number of users that indicated journals’ or publishers’ websites as main source of consultation, the survey asked respondents what resources they find useful in these sites. The results indicate that content alerts that were considered relevant in 2005 are no longer so over the years, reaching the lowest score in 2015. On the other hand, the suggestion of related articles increased since 2012. Links to references, search service by topic or author and image download also grew in importance since 2012. On the other hand, news, article level metrics, and social media sharing do not attract the attention of scholars in general, contrary to expectations due to the popularity of social networks for sharing of scientific literature.

The results of this study and previous editions indicate that there is a huge diversity in the way users from different sectors and areas seek and access scholarly literature. A common denominator, however, is the knowledge about the existence of various options at then users’ service. Efforts undertaken by publishers and library services to enhance their websites resources have been recognized, considering the increasing popularity of these sources. Traditional bibliographic databases, however, continue to be the most important source of information in almost all sectors and areas of knowledge.


1. INGER, S. and GARDNER, T. Scholarly Journals Publishing Practice. Academic journal publishers’ policies and practices in online publishing. Fourth survey 2013. 2013. ISBN: online 978-0-907341-46-8; ISBN 978-0-907341-45-1. Available from:


How Readers Navigate to Scholarly Content – 2008 Edition. Renew Training. 2012. Available from:

INGER, S. and GARDNER, T. How Readers Discover Content in Scholarly Publications. Trends in reader behavior from 2005 to 2015. 2015. ISBN 978-0-9573920-4-5 Available from:

INGER, S. and GARDNER, T. Scholarly Journals Publishing Practice. Academic journal publishers’ policies and practices in online publishing. Fourth survey, 2013. ISBN: online 978-0-907341-46-8; ISBN 978-0-907341-45-1. Available from:

Survey Discovering Journals and Books 2015. Available from:


lilianAbout Lilian Nassi-Calò

Lilian Nassi-Calò studied chemistry at Instituto de Química – USP, holds a doctorate in Biochemistry by the same institution and a post-doctorate as an Alexander von Humboldt fellow in Wuerzburg, Germany. After her studies, she was a professor and researcher at IQ-USP. She also worked as an industrial chemist and presently she is Coordinator of Scientific Communication at BIREME/PAHO/WHO and a collaborator of SciELO.


Translated from the original in portuguese by Lilian Nassi-Calò.


How to cite this post [ISO 690/2010]:

NASSI-CALÒ, L. The search for scientific literature: how readers discover content [online]. SciELO in Perspective, 2016 [viewed ]. Available from:


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