Scholarly Reading – Where We’ve Been and Where We’re Heading


With cutting-edge, clock-racing research often in the news, the public is undoubtedly paying more attention to scientific literature than in previous generations. After all, before information was readily available on our devices, researchers were tasked with sifting through large volumes of information in print, usually inaccessible to the average person. Now, with both researchers and the public looking at more information than ever before, it begs the question: has scholarly reading evolved in the age of electronic information, and what does it look like?

How Much Content We Access vs. How Much Time We Read

Some things have changed.

Most readers choose electronic over print for their reading and information seeking, and the number of articles read per year has increased since that conversion. It was reported that the average number of articles read by faculty has grown from 150 per year in 1977 to 252 articles per year in 2012 (264 articles per year if you exclude humanities scholars.)

Scholarly peer-reviewed articles remain the most highly rated source of information. According to the latest in a series of studies on this topic, researchers and academics are most interested in journal articles, book chapters, books, and conference proceedings. This matches the feedback CCC recently received from our RightFind roundtables, where participants also included preprints and standards among their top rankings. Social media posts and blogs were rated lower as trusted sources, although they do play a growing role as pointers to articles and conference papers.

As the number of articles read and the number of works published increase, there is a trade-off in how to allot time: finding relevant content vs. carefully reading and evaluating information. This is where the availability of electronic resources has changed habits.

Many scholars now engage in what has been called “horizontal reading” which involves viewing more material for a shorter period of time. The electronic layout of articles and the UI used for access allows for strategic power browsing: viewing key parts of an article, checking citation counts, citations referenced, and analyzing fragments of content (while articles have largely moved to electronic reading, chapters of e-books are still more often printed out. At least that was true in studies reviewed to 2018.) This doesn’t replace careful reading; in most cases, this is used to gather candidates for more in-depth analysis or to flesh out a citation pool.

The Rise of Semantic Enrichment

Semantic enrichment, like the tools Copyright Clearance Center provides in partnership with SciBite, can play a role in helping to locate relevant items more easily. Semantic enrichment involves applying ontologies, synonyms, or natural language processing to identify concepts of interest, called entities. Relationships between entities are stated as assertions, such as “X facilitates Y” or “Gene A involved in Pathway B.” Significance within a larger body of text is determined using context and article structure. Semantic enrichment can come into play behind the scenes, via machine readable assistants, or be made available to the searcher via the interface.

A common way semantic enrichment is made visible is via curated auto-complete suggestions. When a user begins typing, suggestions made from semantic associations can decrease typing errors and lead users towards preferred terms. After a user submits their query, better relevance ranking of the results also increases the chances that items of interest will appear on the first page of results. Queries created via semantic enrichment can also be saved and run as alerts. Creating regular “push” notifications of new works matching the search criteria, even preprints as they are released, can get new and relevant articles noticed.

Semantic enrichment can also be used to further navigation within result sets, or even within articles themselves. For example, filtering by concepts or graphically displaying groupings of terms can assist the user in refining their search. Many sites also create recommendations based on concepts within the works selected or based on references. Links to related content, i.e. “Find More Like These” or citing articles, are reported as the most common click-throughs on many search sites.

More articles will be downloaded or saved than carefully read. Given that researchers are increasingly inclined to share content, the ability to use tags or semantic enrichment within a personal library enhances the ability to manage a growing archive. Features such as RFE Libraries with Semantic Enrichment allow a user to search within a PDF for particular topics in context, as well as to add tagging, comments or reviews. This also allows a user to seek topics between or within papers. The advantages for selecting the most relevant materials for teaching, writing, or sharing content greatly facilitate freeing time for more thorough reading.

“Reading with Purpose”

Careful and considered reading is a characteristic of scholarly reading. While the number of articles read per year has increased, the amount of time spent per article has remained steady. Scholarly reading is defined as “reading with purpose:” the outcome is expected to support research by strengthening existing work or suggesting new ideas. Scholarly reading feeds directly into writing research reports, proposals for projects or grants, or teaching.  Most articles read will go on to be cited or shared.  This ensures reading is a valuable use of time for academic researchers. If citations are a critical factor for career advancement, articles and chapters will remain firmly entrenched in the scholarly and academic ecosystem.

From what we gather, scholarly reading itself hasn’t changed much over the past few decades. But the mechanisms available to identify and disseminate articles of interest, and to synthesize the information therein, have made great progress, and with the growing body of literature available worldwide, the time to locate relevant work can be better spent reading.

Copyright Clearance Center works closely with SciBite to bring the power of semantic enrichment to scholarly information. Interested in learning more?

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Author: Elizabeth Wolf

Elizabeth S. Wolf is Data Quality Manager at Copyright Clearance Center. She earned her MLS at University of Maryland and studied health science reference under Winifred Sewell. Elizabeth is a member of the team responsible for the CCC Managed Data-Works Management System. She also provides User Acceptance Testing (UAT) for RightFind Navigate, an aggregated search platform enhanced by machine learning and contextualized discovery. Elizabeth leads the Expert Literature Search Service, including pharmacovigilance searching. She is a member of Metadata 2020, has served on two NISO working groups, and has extensive experience with ontologies.
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