Finding Articles and Journals Via Google Scholar, Journal Portals, and Link Resolvers: Usability Study Results

Lydia Dixon, Cheri Duncan, Jody Condit Fagan, Meris Mandernach, and Stefanie E. Warlick

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Finding journal titles and journal articles are two of the toughest tasks on academic library webpages. Challenges include choosing the best tools, using terms that make sense, and guiding the user through the process. In addition, the continued development of Google Scholar raises the question of whether it could become a better tool for finding a full-text article than link resolver software or journal portals. To study these issues, researchers at James Madison University analyzed results from two usability tests. One usability test focused on the library homepage navigation and had two tasks related to finding articles by citation and journals by title. The other test asked participants to find citations in three web interfaces: the library’s journal portal, Google Scholar, and the library’s link resolver form. Both usability studies revealed challenges with finding journal titles and journal articles. The latter study showed Google Scholar provided more effective user performance and user satisfaction than either the journal portal or the link resolver form. Based on the findings from the two usability studies, specific changes were made to the library webpages and to several library systems, including the catalog and link resolver form.

In the academic environment, finding articles by citation and finding journal titles are two common tasks. Letnikova found 86 percent of the twenty-two academic library homepage studies she reviewed included a task asking participants to find a journal title in print or online.1 Although many users will simply search Google, the library still needs to provide intuitive pathways for these tasks from its website. The library website should remain an authoritative source, with definitive answers about the institution’s access to a particular article or journal.

Finding known articles and journals poses a challenge for many users. New students may not understand what a journal is or what different elements of an article citation mean. Even experienced students and faculty struggle with potential complications such as embargoed holdings, platform changes, or subscription lapses.

Most academic libraries have two pieces of software to assist users with these tasks. Journal portals provide a quick journal title search. Results show what dates of coverage are available for each title, broken down by information provider. Link resolver software connects users from one provider’s database to full text in another provider’s database. Link resolver software also features a web form in which users can enter an article citation to obtain full-text options. Google Scholar can also find journals and articles and has the ability to use link resolver software to connect users with their local library.

It is important to note that many libraries are exploring “discovery tools”—an emerging type of software combining library catalogs, journal lists, and articles into one search interface.2 The investigation of such tools is in its infancy; however, they may provide additional options for finding journal titles and finding citations without requiring the user to differentiate between these two tasks.

In the fall of 2009, many librarians at James Madison University (JMU) were unfamiliar with the libraries’ link resolver form and relied heavily on the journal portal for finding journals by title and articles by citation. The library homepage navigation also reflected this emphasis on the journal portal. Yet anecdotal evidence suggested that users found the journal portal extremely confusing.

This article therefore investigates three research questions:

  1. What difficulties do users encounter when trying to find a journal title from the JMU Libraries’ homepage?
  2. What difficulties do users encounter when trying to find an article by citation from the JMU Libraries’ homepage?
  3. Of the three interfaces easily available to the library, which web interface supports finding an article by citation most effectively: the journal portal, the link resolver form, or Google Scholar?

These questions were examined by analyzing results from two usability studies conducted at JMU. While these studies’ findings are specific to JMU Libraries, most libraries have similar journal portal and link resolver software, and everyone with an Internet connection has access to Google Scholar.

Literature Review

Conducting usability studies of a library’s web interface provides concrete evidence about user behavior and preferences. The literature documents the benefits of usability studies along with basic principles and practices.3 While there is little evidence that systems that incorporate user input in the development stage are more efficient or effective end products, users excel at determining whether an interface is intuitive and able to be efficiently navigated. Bailey notes that users provide much-needed insight into novice user behavior and are better at defining the parameters of the system rather than contributing to design of the infrastructure.4 Usability studies provide guidance by gathering information from an end user perspective.

Specific usability methods have been developed for libraries,5 and Letnikova provided a summary of academic library usability case studies and compiled a standard list of questions for testing.6 Most library usability studies are qualitative in nature, using as few as five test subjects to inform design characteristics.7 For a quantitative usability study that allows the results to be generalized to broader user behavior, twenty users need to be observed.8

The JMU studies touch on several relevant areas of information-retrieval and search behavior. In a seminal article, Kuhlthau urged researchers to add user-oriented approaches to information-seeking studies as opposed to solely focusing on systems.9 In their 2004 article, Järvelin and Ingwersen suggested system efficiency can be assessed along several dimensions, including not only the quality of documents retrieved but also the searcher’s effort (time), satisfaction, and the tactics employed. “The real issue in information retrieval systems design,” say Järvelin and Ingwersen, “is not whether its recall-precision performance goes up by a statistically significant percentage. Rather, it is whether it helps the actor solve the search task more effectively or efficiently.”10 It is within Kuhlthau’s and Järvelin and Ingwersen’s context that the present article’s study is situated. Rather than study a statistical sample of citations in the three systems examined, this study focused on how effective the interfaces were at helping users complete the tasks.

Lookup tasks, or known-item searches, have been studied repeatedly by information scientists in the context of the library catalog.11 Known-item searches, wrote Marchionini, begin with “carefully specified queries” that should “yield precise results with minimal need for result set examination and item comparison.”12 This article examines known-item searching for article citations, which is a common physical and virtual reference need.13

When usability studies at libraries have concentrated on known-item searching, these studies have involved locating specific journals or books, rather than articles.14 Letnikova noted finding journals proved to be one of the most difficult tasks on academic library homepages.15 Ipri, Yunkin, and Brown included a journal title task on a fourteen-task test with five graduate and five undergraduate students. They found many users had trouble distinguishing “Journals” tabs from “Articles and Databases” tabs and combined article and journal searching on one tab.16 Mvungi, de Jager, and Underwood found confusion among their five participants over the difference between electronic journals and print journals.17 In contrast, Whang and Ring tested twenty undergraduate and thirteen graduate students and found that 90 percent of undergraduates and 100 percent of graduates were able to find a specific journal title using either the library catalog or the library’s SFX journal finder.18 These studies show differences depending on local context.

Fewer studies have examined the task of finding an article by citation. Ascher, Lougee-Heimer, and Cunningham had eight participants perform five tasks at a health sciences library, one of which was finding an article given the citation.19 In this study the participants were instructed to find the article from the library homepage rather than from a particular interface. Most of their participants used PubMed, and all users successfully found the journal’s page. However, they experienced problems related to local authentication.

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