Society & Partner Zone Issue 11, Regional Highlights

Changing Online User Behaviour – What do we know so far?

The transition from a largely print-based to a predominantly electronic environment in scholarly communication has resulted in enormous changes on how scientific literature is discovered, accessed, and used. Most noteworthy, information scientists Carol Tenopir and Donald W. King have been researching the reading and usage behavior of scientists for more than 30 years. They were the first to show, among others, that researchers today read more journal article & book chapters than ever before (but in not much more time!), that they use many more ways to locate information, that the range of information sources has increased, and that they increasingly rely on electronic offerings.

Also, in the online environment, literature searching, browsing, and reading have changed dramatically: A recent study by CIBER describes users’ online behaviors: ‘… users demand 24/7 access to content, instant gratification at a click, and are increasingly looking for `the answer’ rather than for a particular format: a research monograph or a journal article for instance. They scan, flick and `power browse’ their way through digital content, developing new forms of online reading on the way that we do not yet fully understand (or, in many cases, even recognize).

Springer’s web statistics provides some evidence for this changing online behavior: Between 2008 and 2009, the number of online article downloads on SpringerLink increased by 19%, from 92 million to 109 million. Even more dramatically, in the same time period eBook downloads increased from 41 million to 56 million, a plus of 36%. Web statistics also provide hints as to the diverse sources through which users discover content: A significant – and increasing – share of customers use general search engines to access content on SpringerLink. In the first quarter 2010, 43% of SpringerLink article downloads came from general search engines, predominantly Google (43%). The second major ‘referrer’ is the library, with 22%. Abstracting and Indexing Services direct 19% of traffic to SpringerLink.

A recent survey of more than 3,000 faculty in North America by the non-profit organization Ithaca provides additional insight into the evolving roles of search engines and libraries. Search engines seem to increasingly serve as gateways to information. In comparison, the significance of library services for discovery purposes decreases. It seems less value is put on the library’s traditional value-added role as the gateway to information. Instead, faculty members most strongly support and appreciate libraries’ infrastructural roles, in which they acquire and maintain (online) collections of materials on their behalf.

And what about new forms of online scholarly communication? The Ithaca study suggests that researchers are hesitant in adopting new forms of communication like listservs, wikis, and blogs. In contrast, traditional scholarly conferences and symposia seem to remain the dominant form of scholarly exchange: Less than 10% of the surveyed faculty would agree to have ‘more valuable interactions with peers online via listservs, wikis, and blogs, than in more traditional formats such as scholarly conferences and symposia.’

The Ithaca study concludes: ‘Although there can be no doubt that online communications technologies have changed and will continue to change how faculty relate and interact, the evidence provided by this study suggests that, as yet, these changes have remained relatively marginal, and faculty members cannot imagine traditional forms of interaction being supplanted by online mechanisms.’

Society Zone thanks Springer’s Market Research Department for the research and statistics for this article.

Springer’s Market Research Department collects and analyzes information on customers and markets, and monitors and analyses the usage of Springer’s websites SpringerLink and – thus supporting the activities of Springer and of our Society and Cooperation Partners.


Tenopir, C.: Use and Users of Electronic Library Resources, CLIR 2003.

University College London CIBER Group: Information Behaviour of the Researcher of the Future. London 2008.

Schonfeld, Roger C. and Housewright, R. (Ithaca S+R): Faculty Survey 2009. Key Strategic Insights for Libraries, Publishers, and Societies. 2010.