Electronic Journals : What Do Users Think of Them?

Dr Cliff McKnight

Department of Information and Library Studies
Loughborough University
Leics LE11 3TU, UK



The present paper describes a variety of user attitudes and behaviour towards electronic journals. It draws on projects conducted between the early 1980s and the present day. In general, electronic journals still do not support the tasks which users perform and tend to be negatively perceived. Because journal publishers tend to be author-oriented, they have ignored the human factors literature and produced electronic journals for which there is little demand.


Electronic journals; user studies; reader behaviour.


Loughborough University has a long history of digital library studies, dating back to BLEND [14] in the early 1980s, through Quartet [18], ELVYN [13], HyperLib [10], Cafe Jus [19] and the current SuperJournal project [17]. The electronic journal has been an object of study in most of these projects, with the focus being on the users of journals - or readers, as they used to be known!

Throughout the last 15 years, the level of technology has changed dramatically. For example, the BLEND system was limited to ASCII characters; movement through the articles was not easy and relied on a system of paragraph numbering. In contrast, a modern electronic journal may contain interactive multimedia elements (cf. the Journal of Interactive Media in Education [8]) with navigation being via a combination of context-sensitive menus in one frame and hypertext links within the article frame.

Not only has the level of technology changed dramatically in this period but the availability of this technology has also greatly increased. In the days of BLEND, few people had terminals on their desk and most people had to go to a terminal room which may have been down the hall or may have been in a different building. Not surprisingly, the BLEND project found that the frequency with which people accessed the system depended on the distance they were from the nearest terminal. These days most academics have a reasonably sophisticated computer on their desk.

The increased availability of computers has led to some changes in academic working patterns. For example, many academics now use word processors to produce their articles, presentation packages to produce their teaching materials and email usage has become almost ubiquitous. In Loughborough, staff were instructed to assume that everyone reads email regularly and its use has been positively encouraged.

Although changes such as these have taken place, more deep-seated working habits do not seem to have been influenced. Hence, although our various projects have looked at quite different implementations, the results have rarely surprised us. The present paper describes some of the user attitudes and behaviour observed in these and other studies.

People don't like reading from screens

When the BLEND project started, the typical screen was very low resolution, had a black background and the characters were white - the reverse of the ink on paper to which people were accustomed. Not surprisingly, therefore, people preferred to print out articles for reading, even though the available printer was only of dot matrix quality. At least it was 'the right way round'.

Since then, screen design has improved immensely and now the typical screen has relatively high resolution, has a white background and black characters. In the days when such screens were beginning to be developed, I had assumed that screen reading would gain in popularity as image quality improved. After all, John Gould's work at IBM [7] had shown that reading from screens could be as fast as from paper if the image quality was sufficiently good. However, recent results from Cafe Jus suggest that people still prefer to read from paper.

There are several reasons why people have been slower to change than I anticipated. For example, there is still an issue of resolution. The average screen has a resolution of about 75 dots per inch (dpi). Most laser printers have a resolution of at least 300 dpi, with 600 dpi printers becoming more common. A typical journal is printed at about 1200 dpi. In a field like mathematics, it is not possible to display complex formulae adequately on screen, as we found during ELVYN. Users were happy to scan an article on screen, but if they wanted to read it in depth and study the maths, they wanted a printed copy. Even the ADONIS system which boasted a 300 dpi screen was often not sufficiently high resolution to display the complex medical half-tone images that the journals contained.

The recent trend in mounting electronic journals in Adobe's PDF format also discourages screen reading and encourages printing. Such journals are far from easy to manipulate and read on screen yet print out perfectly well - not surprisingly, since PDF is based on PostScript, the page description language of most laser printers.

People like to annotate

Look through the average academic's collection of offprints and photocopies and you will usually see that they are annotated in one way or another. As one of Simpson's [15] subjects commented, 'I take a photocopy always, then I can highlight bits I want to.' Some people use a highlighter pen, others underline sections, some write comments in the margin. When Andrew Dillon, John Richardson and I worked in a research team, our collection of photocopies contained three different sets of annotations and we could tell who had made each annotation because our hand-writing styles were sufficiently different. These annotations were an important part of our research process.

Annotating electronic articles is certainly possible. Benest's [2] system allowed the user to select from three highlighting tools: a quill pen, a highlighter pen and a typewriter. Oostendorp [12] reported use of a system which used a graphic tablet and 'electronic pencil' to annotate scanned page images. Software packages now exist which allow different users to annotate texts. However, all these methods require far more resources than a simple pencil and all require the development of additional skills.

People know how to manipulate paper

A paper journal article is more easily manipulated than an electronic version. As one student subject in the Cafe Jus study remarked: 'It is easier to turn the page of a paper journal'. More than just page-turning, though, regular journal readers understand the structure of journal articles and use that knowledge to aid manipulation, providing rapid access to the information in an article. For example, Dillon [5] showed that people could reconstruct articles from a set of paragraphs with about 80% accuracy. They also displayed a similar level of accuracy in saying which section of an article isolated sentences had been taken from.

Watching a reader pick up an issue of a journal, skim through the contents, turn to an article and skim through it and then turn back to the contents, all in a matter of seconds, it is clear that such skills are largely automatic. Watching people trying to do the same thing in an electronic journal system, it is clear that people will have to learn a different set of skills.

People don't read journals at their desk

The issue of portability is also important when it is remembered that academics and researchers don't typically read journals at their desk. As Simpson [16] reported, journals are seldom read in the office or even in the library. In her sample, 65% said that all of their reading was done at home in the evenings. The most commonly cited reason for this was interruptions in the office. Only one person said they actually read journals in the library and only one said they did no reading at home, stating: 'I like to relax at home'. Some subjects reported that the majority of their reading was carried out while travelling on trains or planes. Hence, the aim of publishers to provide delivery of journals to the academic's desktop computer again encourages printing.

People don't sit still while they read

No matter where they read, people often move around while reading paper articles. They shift position in the chair or even change chairs in order to maintain a comfortable position, moving the paper nearer or farther away in order to find a comfortable reading distance. Usually the paper is held in a near-horizontal position with the head bent slightly forward in order to look down at it. Reading from a screen, it is usually necessary to maintain a single position, although some movement in the chair is possible. However, the screen is usually near-upright and viewing distance is generally constant.

People like to browse

As one academic interviewed in the ELVYN project remarked: 'I use the library like a supermarket, I wander round looking at what's on the shelves.' Most people browse by subject because that is how libraries are arranged. Hence, it is easy for me to look at the 020 section of current journals and see a wide variety of library and information resources. I often spend a lunch-hour browsing in the 780 section of the book stacks in order to see what new music books have been acquired recently.

Electronic journal systems such as Academic Press's IDEAL [8] can present readers with a list of journals in a particular area, but in order to browse at the title and author level it is necessary to go down several levels of the hierarchy before an issue's contents can be viewed. Even then, it is only possible to view journals published by Academic Press. If I want to read another publisher's journals, I have to go to their web site and go through another login procedure before I can dig down to a current issue. Apart from the poor ergonomics, a fundamental problem is that most readers do not know (or care) who publishes their favourite journals. I know who publishes the International Journal of Human-Computer Studies because I'm a member of the Editorial Board, but I haven't a clue who publishes the Journal of Library and Information Science.

The arrival of various subscription agents into the electronic journal field may go some way towards improving this situation. However, suppose my library has a subscription to Blackwell's Electronic Journal Navigator [3] and I log into that. The first thing I am presented with is a search engine, which is hardly conducive to browsing. If I select the 'Journals' button from the top of the screen, I am presented with a screen headed 'Journal Browse' but is again a search engine. Not only do I have to enter a search term before I can browse, I'm also offered the option to search by ISSN. I have never met a reader of a journal that knew the ISSN for that journal which leads me to suspect that this interface is not designed for 'end user' access. An alphabetical list of journals is available, but this is not particularly useful for subject browsing - an example of three consecutive journals are Aids Care, Aircraft Engineering and Aerospace Technology and Alimentary Pharmacology and Therapeutics.

Typically, an academic library will deal with more than one subscription agent and may also deal direct with certain publishers. However, as a library user I need know none of this. As an electronic journal user, will I need to know which subscription agent supplies which journals - should I log on to Blackwell's or do I need to go to SwetsNet?

People don't necessarily want to searchs

Obviously, it is easier to search an electronic journal than it is to search a paper journal, although subjects in Cafe Jus expressed some confusion about the range over which a search would operate. For example, search functions exist in Netscape, in Acrobat, and many of the journals also provide for searching across their issues. Also, Olsen's [11] data suggested a difference in attitude towards searching between different disciplines. She reported: 'Computerized searching was chosen only by chemists as the primary method for finding background information. It ranked a distant third for the sociologists and was practically never used by the humanists.' It seems likely therefore that not all disciplines will perceive searchability as an advantage.

People like to find things by accident

No matter how sophisticated the search engine, no matter how many Boolean operators it supports, no matter if it incorporates relevance ranking, academics often report finding things serendipitously. What is more, they seem to enjoy this process. Typically they go looking for a known article in a journal and then notice another interesting article in the same journal. They may have missed it on previous visits or it may not have been relevant at that time and so was forgotten. Olsen [11] reports that serendipity was identified as important by 82% of her sample of scholars.

People use more than the current issue

One of the reasons often cited for lack of use of electronic journals is that there is rarely a large enough corpus of information in experimental systems. For example, in ELVYN it was stated that having only a single journal with no back run was an obstacle to use. The half-life of information clearly differs between disciplines and publishers have yet to put any significant effort into making electronic versions of their back run, concentrating instead on the most recent issues. In Cafe Jus our postgraduate research students expressed concern about the fact that they could not follow references back because of the paucity of back issues. For a PhD student, it is important to trace through the literature no matter what the discipline.

People like stability

In the same way that I can pick up the current issue of a journal, I can pick up an article published a hundred years ago and read it. The same is not true of the electronic journal. It is perhaps understandable that experimental journals such as Computer Human Factors produced during BLEND are no longer available - ironically, when the computer on which it was mounted was decommissioned, the paper version [15] became the only version available. However, even within the lifetime of Cafe Jus we experienced difficulties of access typified by the error message 'Adobe Type Manager 3.6 or newer must be installed. Acrobat Reader will now quit.' Since this did not occur for all articles, it suggests that the publisher had changed the requirements for access. Readers found such messages extremely frustrating. Even if latest versions are available to download, students using public access machines on campus would not be able to install them.

Similar problems were also encountered in Cafe Jus when Chapman & Hall [4] completely redesigned their Web site. Users accustomed to their site suddenly found themselves confronted with a completely different interface design. Indeed, those users running Netscape version 1 suddenly found themselves unable to read the site because the new version was based on frames and required Netscape 2. Those with a frames-capable browser still experienced difficulty finding the journals listing, hidden as it was in a tiny frame in one corner of the screen.

So what do people think of electronic journals?

Despite the generally negative perception of electronic journals, users do see some potential advantages to them. For example, in Cafe Jus two thirds of the subjects saw the electronic version as offering easier access. Loughborough is a large campus university and people could see an advantage in being able to access a journal from their office rather than walk to the library. Additionally, it was remarked that the electronic version was readily available at any time whereas the paper version might be in use by another person. One subject commented 'can view lots of journals without having to go out of your mind trying to find all the paper versions in the library.'

Perhaps the basic difficulty is that, in the journals field at least, publishers don't really care about readers. A journal is published because its authors wish to publish. Publishers and editors know that if they can attract the best authors in a field then academic libraries, which are the major market for such journals, will be under pressure to purchase them. Most libraries purchase their journals through subscription agents so the publisher is even further removed from readers. This raises the interesting question of where, and with whom, publishers are conducting their market research into electronic journals. When I was conducting the feasibility study for ELVYN, I asked the publisher what the journal's editorial board thought about the development of an electronic version. I was informed that they knew nothing about it and had not been consulted.

People think the same about electronic journals as they do about any new development - 'what advantage does it have for me?' Unless readers can see a real advantage to electronic journals, why should they use them? Unless readers can do at least the same things - and preferably more - with electronic journals as they do with paper, what incentive is there for them to change?

If publishers do not care about readers, what do authors think about electronic journals? Early indications were that authors were suspicious of publishing their work in an experimental journal which may disappear. Even the recent Online Journal of Current Clinical Trials eventually had to offer related paper publishing in order to attract authors, and this in a field where immediacy of publishing is very important. However, most research has focused on readers rather than authors and for this reason I recently bid successfully for funding to study author perceptions and expectations of electronic journals, including their attitude towards the inclusion of multimedia content [1]. Hence, I should be able to provide some sort of answer to this question in a year's time.

If it transpires that authors are reluctant to move to electronic journals and publishers continue to ignore the human factors research, then electronic journals may well turn out to be no more than an expensive experiment, the cost of which will almost certainly be passed on to the consumer. By way of example, the American Chemical Society recently published its pricing policy [6], in which the electronic version of a typical journal costs more than the paper version. The Society bases this policy on the belief that the electronic version 'Iprovides scientists and librarians with important benefits to help them improve their use of the journalsI' I can only assume that publishers who adopt this stance have access to user research findings which have not yet appeared in the literature.


[1] Authors and Electronic Journals project details at: http://www.ukoln.ac.uk/services/bl/digital-library-research-projects/#11

[2] Benest, I.D. (1990) A hypertext system with controlled hype. In R. McAleese and C. Green (eds) Hypertext: State of the Art. Oxford: Intellect. 52-63.

[3] Blackwell's Electronic Journal Navigator site is at: http://navigator.blackwell.co.uk/

[4] Chapman & Hall's journal site is reached via: http://www.chapmanhall.com/

[5] Dillon, A. (1991) Readers' models of text structures: the case of academic articles. International Journal of Man-Machine Studies, 35, 913-925.

[6] Durniak, A. (1997) Rationale for ACS Web Journal Prices. Posting to CHMINF-L@LISTSERV.INDIANA.EDU, reposted to lis-elib@mailbase.ac.uk on 18/9/97.

[7] Gould, J.D., Alfaro, L., Finn, R., Haupt, B. and Minuto, A. (1987) Reading from CRT displays can be as fast as reading from paper. Human Factors, 29(5), 497-517.

[8] IDEAL, Academic Press's journal site is at: http://www.europe.idealibrary.com/

[9] Journal of Interactive Media in Education is available at: http://www-jime.open.ac.uk/jime/

[10] McKnight, C. and Dillon, A. (1993) User centred design of library information systems. In K.JClara and J. Van Borm (eds) Van Geautomatiseerd Beheer van Archieven en Bibliotheken naar Geautomatiseerde Informatie. Antwerpen: Vlaamse Vereniging voor Bibliotheek-, Archief- an Documentatiewezen, 163-170.

[11] Olsen, J. (1994) Electronic Journal Literature: Implications for Scholars. Westport, CT: Mecklermedia.

[12] Oostendorp, H. van (1990) Annotating electronic documents. Paper presented to the Interacting With Computers Congress, Noordwijkerhout, The Netherlands, December 10-11.

[13] Rowland, F., McKnight, C. and Meadows, J. (1995) (eds) Project ELVYN: An Experiment in Electronic Journal Delivery. Sevenoaks, Kent: Bowker Saur.

[14] Shackel, B. (1982) Plans and initial progress with BLEND - an electronic network communication experiment. International Journal of Man-Machine Studies, 17, 225-233.

[15] Shackel, B. (1986) (ed.) BLEND-5: The Computer Human Factors Journal. LIR Report N< 47. London: The British Library.

[16] Simpson, A. (1988) Academic journal usage. British Journal of Academic Librarianship, 3(1), 25-36.

[17] SuperJournal project details available at: http://www.superjournal.ac.uk/sj/

[18] Tuck, B., McKnight, C., Hayet, M. and Archer, D. (1990) Project Quartet. LIR Report N< 76. London: The British Library.

[19] Woodward, H., McKnight, C., Meadows, J., Pritchett, C. and Rowland, F. (1997) Use of electronic journals by academic staff and postgraduate students in an information-literate university. In New Book Economy: Proceedings of the 5th International BOBCATSSS Symposium, Budapest, January. 274-281.