Understanding User Experiences with E-Resources During the Pandemic

Despite the disruptions and distresses of the last year, we are seeing the reassuring normalcy of spring’s green shoots in the northern hemisphere and the cooler days of autumn for the southern continents. This season also brings heaps of COUNTER usage reports into academic libraries’ collection development assessments and decisions for the coming school year.

In a recent webinar, I had the pleasure of joining Lisa Hinchliffe from the University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign and Robert W. Boissy from Springer Nature to illuminate the impacts on e-resource usage during campus closures and other emergency measures taken by colleges and universities during the global COVID-19 pandemic. You can view a recording of the webinar here.

Before the novel coronavirus changed our everyday lives, trends in the academic user experience with library e-resources were relatively well documented. Digital-first strategies were commonplace in academic libraries, meeting user demand for anytime, anywhere access. Libraries around the world were finding ways to meet the challenges of mobile usage and remote IP-based access, proxy services, device pairing, or single sign-on.

In the before times, we often saw users being quite nomadic, where many preferred to download and go, grab the citation or PDF they sought, and be on their merry way. Libraries and content providers were creative and proactive about putting e-resources in the information landscapes our users inhabit – such as LMS platforms and popular, mainstream solutions. Library discovery services, journal aggregators, publisher’s websites, and general web search engines were among the most common information-seeking starting points. We saw gaps between high- and low-income countries in information practices and search habits. Equity of access and “digital poverty” were a known problem that impacted trends in e-resource usage.

Then, along came the novel coronavirus and the public health crises we continue to face. The pandemic hit academic institutions hard, they were among the first institutions to shut down. In the US, nearly two-thirds of colleges were fully or primarily online by the fall of 2020. Universities around the world are seeing record demand for distance learning and remote research collaborations, so libraries have been working to maintain continuity of service under incredible pressure. Pivoting all face-to-face services to a digital environment was quite a scramble and there are some impressive use cases out there of the innovation and ingenuity at work.

Faculty and researchers are also feeling this pressure. Public health and social justice crises of the last year have underscored the risks we already knew regarding digital divides and inequities. Studies are showing how female researchers with families and younger researchers struggled most from crisis-related impacts on their work. Early-career researchers reported being under extra pressure to drive innovation in research practices while still being assessed via traditional rubrics for success. The effects of burnout and stress were noted to impact instruction and research alike, across the disciplines, and around the world. All of this is undoubtedly influencing the digital resource usage trends we’re seeing – as I think this last year has proven what we already knew about the impacts of stress & uncertainty on academic info-seeking and research practices.

Libraries have reported a “lean in” strategy with e-resources, looking for databases and software-as-a-service platforms to answer user demand, and to maintain continuity of access. From this season’s conferences, I’ve learned that many libraries have seen uneven volumes of lending requests coming into interlibrary loan departments. Resource sharing across consortia became critical. E-book chapters are common stand-ins for what previously may have been print loans.

Publishers like Springer Nature have seen two- and three-fold increases in usage of all kinds, journals and books, both traditional and open access. We’ve seen a spike in demand for public health, biomedical, life science, and pandemic-related content. Preprint readership and submissions are up in many fields, and journal submissions are generally up across the board. I was interested to hear at ER&L recently that some publishers are seeing a spike in demand for digital humanities and social science materials, both journals and books alike. JSTOR, for instance, saw a dramatic lift in usage of their e-books overall – and high demand for their religion, philosophy, law, music, and history collections. This may partly be due to those scholars previously drawing on print resources, now reliant upon databases.

Publishers have generally seen higher overall usage, with familiar ‘twin peaks’ of usage in spring and fall. Many providers expanded access to unlicensed resources and several of these programs have carried into 2021. Open Athens recently shared aggregated data with higher-than-ever digital resource usage, and many publishers are continuing to see those numbers climb. But some content providers are seeing uneven performance and, of course, print sales are all over the place.

Most publishers I’ve heard from are unable to track institutional user journeys the way they did in the before times and some patterns aren’t matching expectations. Some report that the percentage of anonymous or unknown users is up, which means some data can’t help us better understand what user journeys look like in these crazy times. Whether the current usage trends are a temporary disruption, or a lasting trend is the big question to be answered. Since we are not yet living in a post-pandemic world, additional research is needed to better understand academic information experiences during this unique time.

Has your organization experienced challenges and changes that affect your bottom line? Maverick’s team of publishing associates can work with you to develop a digital strategy, implement a plan for digital transformation, and create workflows that ease the user journey. Contact us to schedule a free consultation.

By Lettie Y. Conrad, Senior Associate, Product Research and Development

Lettie Conrad is North American Editor for Learned Publishing and is a ‘chef’ with the SSP’s Scholarly Kitchen blog. Lettie has a master’s degree in Mass Communication from California State University, Northridge, and is currently a candidate for the Information Science PhD Gateway Program from California State University, San Jose, and the Queensland University of Technology, Brisbane.