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OUP launches second reference publishing white paper

Released on April 17, 2018

A new multinational survey, carried out by Oxford University Press, indicates that 75% of university students surveyed rely on library-acquired reference content in their studies, in addition to using freely available resources. That figure increases to 92% among students surveyed in the US and UK.

Paths to Reference: How today’s students find and use reference resources, a new white paper published by Oxford University Press, shows that for university students, reference works support a range of use cases, encompassing most aspects of independent study. Besides research, reference information supports students in class preparation, general reading, and studying for exams. Furthermore, while students generally rely on free resources for brief, factual information, a majority of students rely on their library for in-depth background information.

Paths to Reference draws on a survey of over 1000 undergraduate and master’s students from the US, UK, Australia, New Zealand, South Africa, and India. Results of the survey were further explored through in-depth interviews to gain a deeper understanding of these students’ needs and research behaviour.

“Much of the discussion around students’ use of scholarly reference has previously focused on formal research. We widened the scope of our discussion with students to see how they find contextual information. We were interested to find how much students rely on library resources to support them in a variety of use cases. Students rely on vetted resources, not only when conducting research, but when trying to understand a topic, struggling to follow a lecture, or preparing for exams,” said Patricia Hudson, Associate Director of Institutional Marketing, Oxford University Press.

The study also finds that students have different levels of engagement with different sources, whether looking for brief, factual information, introductory overviews on a topic, or more in-depth background information. For every type of reference, students using library-acquired materials spend longer finding and reading content than those using freely available material.

Damon Zucca, Publisher of Scholarly Reference at Oxford University Press said, “By comparing student research practices in different parts of the globe and by looking at the variations between practices in different disciplines, this study is able to surface deep, nuanced insights into how reference use is evolving. I was surprised by what we discovered and think these findings are important for how we approach reference publishing in the future.”

Paths to Reference builds upon an earlier Oxford University Press study – Navigating Research: How academic users understand, discover, and utilize reference resources – to explore how undergraduate and master’s students use reference resources. It considers the nature of students’ needs, their circumstances, and their decision-making in order to understand how they seek this information and how it supports their work.

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


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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.

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