Navigating research

A new Oxford University Press report explores the role of reference resources in research and teaching in academic institutions.

The report examines how users seek contextual information and guidance for areas of scholarship as they conduct research, and how reference resources can support their work.

The researchers conducted in-depth interviews with librarians, academic faculty and students and conducted a survey of 164 librarians working in the USA and the UK.

Summary of key findings

  • Recognition of ‘reference’ as a distinct category of resources is declining but the need for contextual information remains significant and some new needs are emerging.
  • Users are turning to free online sources for basic factual information.
  • Resources offering guidance to a field of study and its scholarship retain appeal to users, as a bridge between introductory materials and increasingly specialised research publications, and to support work in interdisciplinary fields.
  • Because users are decreasingly likely to identify ‘reference’ resources as a distinct category, their utilisation relies on visibility and discoverability. Since ways in which users discover and access content are subject to ongoing change, this is likely to remain a constant challenge facing publishers, librarians, and researchers alike.

Researching – the need for speed and efficiency

Users want to find relevant specialist sources as quickly as possible. They also expect that all searches will generate useful information. Even if a general search is not successful in finding relevant resources, it can be an efficient way to get a general sense of the topic or to discover useful keywords to help adjust search terms.  

Librarians reported that users seeking assistance would generally have conducted a discovery layer web search independently and would ask for help only if they were unsuccessful in finding appropriate resources in this way.   User interviews suggest that researchers have concerns about the reliability of information they may find by conducting open Web searches.  Librarians also referred to the value of subject guides which can provide users something more vetted than ‘just a Google search’.

According to one librarian, the ideal resources for early stage researchers should be “balanced between being comprehensive and brief, so they should give a good introduction without being too wordy or lengthy. They should be up to date if possible, and have a selective bibliography … listing key readings and classic works, and so on.”

The full research includes some interesting quotations from both librarians and researchers and is well worth a read.