Using, Citing and Publishing Scholarly Content in the Digital Age: Case Study of Humanities Researchers

David Nicholas
CIBER Research (UK) and Tomsk State University, Russia


The research upon which this article is largely based comes from a year-long international study of trustworthiness in scholarly communications in the digital age. Essentially, the main thrust of the project was to determine the impact of the digital transition and the new products it has ushered in, such as open access publications and the social media, on academic researchers’ scholarly practices. This paper focuses and reflects further on the disciplinary differences of scholarly researchers when it comes to using, citing and publishing and, especially, whether arts and humanities researchers are any different in the way they think and behave to their counterparts in the sciences and social sciences.

AAn international survey of over 3650 academic researchers examined how trustworthiness is determined when making decisions on scholarly reading, citing, and publishing in the digital age. The survey asked respondents whether or not they agreed with comments and quotes about scholarly behaviour obtained from pre-survey focus groups and interviews. Data from focus groups, interviews and the published literature are also used to explain further the results of the survey.

Results and conclusions
In general, it was found that traditional methods and criteria remain important across the board. That is, researchers have moved inexorably from a print-based system to a digital system, but have not significantly changed the way they decide what to trust, where to publish, what to cite or use. Social media outlets and (non-peer reviewed) open access publications are not fully trusted. However, there were some significant differences according to the discipline of the respondent and this papers focuses upon these differences by comparing the views and behaviour of arts and humanities researchers with those from other disciplines. The main findings were: a) journals and the metrics that surround them are clearly not so important to humanities scholars, but nevertheless still pretty important; b) humanities researchers take a lot more care about what they use and where content comes from; c) humanities researchers look slightly more favourably on the social media.

As far as it is known this is the first comprehensive study of digital humanities researchers and their decisions on what they use and cite and where they choose to publish.


Humanities. Disciplinary differences. Information seeking. Trustworthiness. Scholarly communication.

10 May 2014. Revised: 15 June 2015. Accepted: 16 June 2015.


The research reported in this paper comes largely from a year-long international study, ‘Trust and authority in scholarly communications in the light of the digital transition’, which was funded by the Alfred P. Sloan Foundation (UT/CIBER, 2013). Essentially, the main thrust of the project was to determine the impact of the digital transition and the new products it has ushered in, such as open access publications and the social media, on academic researchers’ scholarly practices.

The project’s broad research questions were then:

  1. 1. How do researchers assign and calibrate authority and trustworthiness to scholarly sources and channels they used, cited and published in? The study is unusual in covering scholars as both consumers and producers.
  2. 2. Whether social media and open access publications, children of the digital world, are having an impact on traditional practices of establishing authority and trustworthiness?

This paper focuses on the behavioural differences researchers according to discipline and especially whether arts and humanities researchers1 in the digital age are any different in the way they think and behave to their counterparts in the sciences and social sciences. Previous research suggests that they do. Thus in a study conducted for the Research Information Network Nicholas and Rowlands (2009; 2011) found significant differences in information-seeking and usage between researchers in the life sciences, physical sciences, economics and history. In particular there were large differences in the extent of e-journal usage and time spent online, the use of gateways and advanced search facilities and levels of concentration in reading in top n titles. For instance, half of all life scientists used journals every day, whereas only 16% of historians did so. However, when online, historians spent more time on each visit. This is in part due to the greater length and more discursive nature of articles in history as compared to the sciences, which means that it is less easy to scan a full-text article for a single fact or figure that is not present in the abstract. Historians search for and use e-journals in ways very different from their scientific and social science colleagues. Compared, for instance, with life scientists, historians were more likely to access e-journals via Google, and to use search tools, especially menus, once they are inside the publisher’s platform.

Housewright et al. (2013) offered explanations for these differences suggesting that humanities scholars: 1) are preoccupied with the past; 2) tend to research as individuals and not collaboratively; 3) have a marked preference for the book and monograph; 4) and partly as a consequence are more library-oriented. All factors which might lead to them being behind the digital curve. However, on the other hand, it could be argued that all scholarly behaviour is becoming standardised, by the common digital platforms that all scholars use, the tablet, smartphone and the search engine. This paper attempts to throw some light upon these issues.

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