The Researcher Journey: Finding that needle in the ever-growing haystack

How long does it take to find the information you need?

The Researcher Journey - Click to view full-sizeWe recently carried out a survey with more than 4,500 researchers to find out more about their journey of search and discovery. It covered areas such as where researchers begin, how they retrieve information, how long it takes, and how many platforms they use to find it. As I scanned through the results I couldn’t help reflecting on my first research project and how things have changed…

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Back in the days

The year was 1998 and I was working on my final year research project at university. I was given the task of optimizing the production of the enzyme Subtilisin using the bacteria Bacillus subtilis. This was at a time when there was no Google, ScienceDirect or PubMed Central (Oh, how old I suddenly feel!) I recall running searches using the database in the university library. I would search for relevant articles, find out if we had the journals in stock, write down their location, walk upstairs to the journal section of the library, pass hundreds, even thousands of individual journal volumes, until I came to the correct one. I would flick through the actual physical copy of the journal until I came to the article in question and then - and only then - would I get to read it in full.

How easy researchers have it nowadays!

(…or do they?)

Just over an hourIt was interesting to see that full text services (e.g. ScienceDirect) are more likely to be a starting point now and library services less likely. This suggests that more searches happen at workstations away from the library, and that researchers know publishing sites offer this information.

The number of platforms used is also increasing and has now grown to an average of almost three per search. In other words, researchers are not just relying on one platform to deliver the answer or content they are looking for, but are regularly using up to three.

What is perhaps the most interesting takeaway from this survey is the average time it takes researchers to get from research question to exact answer; just over an hour.

At first I thought, that seems quite long. But is it really? Especially when you consider all the “distractions” that are now part of daily life such as WhatsApp messages, Facebook notifications, Skype calls, LinkedIn requests etc.

If we return to my research project back in 1998, even though I didn’t have a smartphone or tablet, I still had to search for the physical journal. And what if the journal wasn’t there? I would have to order it separately and wait days or even weeks for it to arrive…

Double-edged sword

While there is no question about how the internet and digitalization of content has revolutionized research, is the sheer amount of content available also making it difficult for researchers to find the right information?

If I go now to ScienceDirect and run a search on “Subtilisin” and “Bacillus subtilis” since 1998, I come across 804 results. That is almost the same number as the 100 years prior to that. Of course it has to do with the research topic itself but it gives you a sense of the explosion of information. In theory, a research student would now have twice as much to read through than I had to back in 1998.

Perhaps it’s no longer a question of finding a “needle in a haystack” but more of a question of first finding the right “haystack” to begin searching in the first place.

What do you think? Feel free to comment below.

Author biography

Darren SugrueWith a background in Biotechnology, Darren Sugrue worked in various laboratories throughout the world before he hung up his lab coat in 2006 for a career in marketing. In 2010 he joined Elsevier as Marketing Communications Manager and is currently on secondment as Researcher Communications Manager and Editor-in-Chief of Editors’ Update, Authors’ Update and Reviewers’ Update.

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