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Navigating Research: How Academic Users Understand, Discover, and Utilize Reference Resources

Released on June 23, 2017

Researchers need context and connection throughout the research journey even as users move away from traditional perceptions of ‘reference’ material

A new white paper published this week by Oxford University Press finds that recognition of ‘reference’ as a distinct category of resources is declining, however, researchers’ need for contextual information throughout the research journey remains significant.

“As we began to speak with researchers and librarians it became more and more apparent that reference works still have a vital place in the research process. We must now look at how these resources can be more easily discovered within the research journey,” said Patricia Hudson, Associate Director of Institutional Marketing, Oxford University Press.

Through a review of existing literature, interviews with librarians and library users, and a survey of over 150 librarians, the paper notes that the focus of reference publishing has shifted from simply providing facts to contextualizing information by situating particular topics within their broader fields of study and making clear their connection to related areas of inquiry.

The study additionally found that scholarly topic overviews remain important due to a growing focus on an interdisciplinary research approach and the increasingly specialized focus of research publications. Librarians and researchers alike noted that it can be a struggle to find these resources, which bridge the gap between general introductory works and specialist research publications, and highlighted the importance of discoverability in the success of any such resource.

Researchers at all levels tend to begin a research journey with an open web search on search engines such as Google or Wikipedia and regarded such a search as both the easiest and the quickest means by which to enter into a new topic area. These ubiquitous search engines now vie for position with what might traditionally have been regarded as the ‘reference’ space.

Librarians and faculty agree that students do not necessarily recognize overviews of scholarship as ‘reference’ content, or even know where to seek such resources. In fact, the declining recognition of ‘reference’ as a category means that in-depth resources are sometimes neglected by users who would benefit from them.

This poses both a challenge and an opportunity to both library professionals and publishers. As Damon Zucca, Publisher of Scholarly Reference at Oxford University Press, states:

Serious research faces significant challenges due to the staggering proliferation of information and misinformation online. This is a problem that scholarly reference publishers should be uniquely equipped to address, but with the dramatic changes in how reference is produced, disseminated, and consumed, it is difficult to form a clear view of the actual role reference plays in today’s research. OUP has undertaken considerable research into this topic in recent years, and we are pleased to have an opportunity to share what we are learning about the modern research journey and about how both reference publishers and libraries can help support research and learning in the current environment.

For more information and to download a copy of the white paper, visit

About Oxford University Press

Oxford University Press is a department of the University of Oxford. It furthers the University's objective of excellence in research, scholarship, and education by publishing worldwide.

OUP is the world's largest university press with the widest global presence. It currently publishes thousands of new publications a year, has offices in around fifty countries, and employs some 6,000 people worldwide.

It has become familiar to millions through a diverse publishing programme that includes scholarly works in all academic disciplines, bibles, music, school and college textbooks, children's books, materials for teaching English as a foreign language, business books, dictionaries and reference books, and academic journals.