Aggregated Interdisciplinary Databases and the Needs of Undergraduate Researchers
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Aggregated Interdisciplinary Databases and the Needs of Undergraduate Researchers

After seeing growing frustration among inexperienced undergraduate researchers searching a popular aggregated interdisciplinary database, the authors questioned whether the leading interdisciplinary databases are serving undergraduates’ needs. As a preliminary exploration of this question, the authors queried vendors, analyzed their marketing materials, surveyed librarians and students, and examined what titles were being downloaded at 14 liberal arts institutions. Although librarians are satisfied with these databases, and vendors intend to continue the trend of adding more content, actual usage patterns suggest that these databases are not serving the purpose one might expect. Librarians should learn more about user experiences in order to influence the development of these products.


Librarians at Gustavus Adolphus College compared notes after teaching introductory library sessions for fall 2006 first-semester students. We realized that we all had found students more frustrated than in the past with the results retrieved in the aggregated interdisciplinary database, which we had considered a good starting point. Though students retrieved many citations, they were having a harder time than in previous years finding sources they felt were relevant. The inclusion of highly specialized science, technology, and medical (STM) articles, in particular, seemed noticeably higher than in previous years. As a result, it was growing harder to persuade our students that library databases could provide better resources for their research than Google.

This anecdotal impression led us to pose a question: do the current market leaders in aggregated interdisciplinary databases provide a product that serves the needs of undergraduates? We recognize that these databases are not just used by undergraduates, but our question is focused specifically on this population. To approach this question, [End Page 273] we queried vendors, analyzed vendors’ marketing materials, surveyed librarians about desirable traits for interdisciplinary databases for undergraduates, conducted a limited survey of students, and reviewed usage patterns of interdisciplinary databases at 14 undergraduate institutions. By examining the issue from multiple perspectives, we hoped to arrive at a clearer understanding of these resources and their suitability for undergraduates’ research needs—or, at least, to identify areas that bear closer scrutiny.

Considering the importance of these databases and their cost to academic libraries (or, more commonly, to the consortia that provide them to an entire state or region), there is remarkably little published on the topic. Tiana French and Naama Tal questioned the usefulness of scholarly journal articles found in these databases for high school and community college students, whom they believed are more likely to find overviews and less-technical information in books rather than articles.1 Péter Jascó called for clearer and more accurate information about the contents of these aggregated databases.2 Kelly Blessinger and Maureen Olle described differences in the title lists of the leading interdisciplinary databases for 2001 and 2002 and recommended that librarians develop a more systematic understanding of database contents.3 Shawn Lombardo and Kristine Condic reported that students had a great deal of difficulty finding articles in print format; as a result, nearly half of their subjects relied on full-text articles for their research, a percentage that may well have grown since 2000 when the study was conducted.4 Carol Tenopir found that students and librarians both value quality content and convenience, but librarians believe students, in particular, value full-text articles and a familiar interface. 5 Janice Lewis and John McDonald, who felt the needs of undergraduates were being overlooked by libraries engaged in periodical cancellation projects, drew up a core collection of 2,100 serial titles for undergraduate collections; one of the three criteria they used was the inclusion of the titles in an interdisciplinary database because they “actively target the undergraduate student population as a primary market.”6 Whether undergraduates remain a focus for these databases is open to debate.

Two critics suggested these general databases were simply too big. According to Scott Dennis, “Database vendors have a regrettable tendency to emphasize quantity of content over quality.7 Mick O’Leary suggested, “We may be at a point of diminishing returns with these mega-databases; they stretch the envelope so far we may be better...