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How scholars share journal articles: implications for the library

By Colleen DeLory, Elsevier | Dec 07, 2015

Beyond Downloads wordcloud

Picture one of your faculty members in her office late at night, completing a first draft of a new research article. She is reviewing her document library in Mendeley and saving a few articles into it from emails colleagues have sent. Noticing a gap, she does a final search and downloads a few new titles from the library website. 


With each task she performs, there is an invisible line back to the library. By looking at many researchers’ processes like these, you can get a more accurate illustration of usage, and consequently, a richer story to report on the extent of the value the library delivers to the institution.


This is one of the goals of the Beyond Downloads project.



Project overview



The Beyond Downloads project is an international collaboration, sponsored by Elsevier, among the University of Tennessee, Project COUNTER, Ciber Research Ltd. and Elsevier. Research team leads included Carol Tenopir and Suzie Allard, University of Tennessee, Knoxville; Peter Shepherd (since retired) and Lorraine Estelle, Project COUNTER; Hazel Woodward, Board of Directors of COUNTER and retired Librarian of Cranfield University; and David Nicholas, Director of CIBER Research Ltd. Wouter Haak, Vice President of Research Data Management, is the primary liaison at Elsevier. (See complete Beyond Downloads project team.)


The team is attempting to answer four essential research questions:


  1. What are download counts missing?

  2. How much do scholars share and what do they share?

  3. What is a more complete use and value of articles?

  4. Are there ways to calculate or measure sharing?


To date, they have conducted focus groups and interviews with 29 scholars in the US and UK on how they obtained, saved, shared and used scholarly articles. These findings informed the development of an international survey.





From roughly November 2014 to mid-January 2015, Elsevier sent the survey invitation to 32,956 authors who had published in an Elsevier journal. The survey was hosted on the University of Tennessee website and 1,000 scholars responded to 34 questions, including rating scales, demographics and open-ended questions for commentary.


Highlights of survey results include:


  • Most respondents obtain their scholarly articles through library subscriptions or databases.

  • Half of respondents share full-text articles most frequently, while only 14 percent shared references and 16 percent shared URLs.

  • Respondents prefer to share articles (full-text or reference) for research purposes by email, internal networks and cloud services. They prefer email, internal networks and learning management software for teaching purposes.

  • Almost three quarters of respondents want to share the published version of their own work and 84 percent to share the final published version of other scholars’ work rather than preprints or accepted manuscripts.

  • Few scholars (5.6 percent) indicate that they would share less if all articles were available freely on the web.


“It’s clear from the survey results the critical role the library plays in providing access to research and that usage is substantially under reported,” says Carol Tenopir, University of Tennessee, Knoxville. “Libraries need to share these findings with their administration to ensure institutional leaders understand the scholarly environment and the role the library plays in facilitating research processes.”




Calculating usage


Peter Shepherd, Director of Project COUNTER at the time, led efforts to develop a full-text sharing calculator. This proved to be unfeasible given the difficulties in obtaining the data to calculate reliable results. As an alternative, the team suggests a range of sharing with an associated level of confidence be applied to download numbers to estimate a level of actual, post-download usage. 



Publications & Presentations


The University of Tennessee team members are in the process of writing journal articles on the Beyond Download results and anticipate publication in 2016. Articles, presentations and other Beyond Downloads artifacts will be listed on the Publications & Presentations page of the Beyond Downloads project website as they become available.


Team members from University of Tennessee, Project COUNTER and Elsevier have also presented at the 2014 and 2015 Charleston Conference and in a recent Library Connect webinar. Suzie Allard and Lisa Christian from University of Tennessee presented at the 2015 SSP Conference in May, and Carol Tenopir will speak about Beyond Downloads at the Annual General Meeting of Project COUNTER during the 2016 UKSG Annual Conference.





If you have any questions on the Beyond Downloads project, please email and we will query the project team and post responses on the website.