Research Information Network. E-journals: their use, value and impact. London: Research Information Network, 2009. 50 p. Free. Available from the Website.

It is generally believed by both academics and librarians, that electronic journals have transformed the process of access to scientific, medical and technical information, and is increasingly doing so in the social sciences and humanities. This report, based on research undertaken for the Research Information Network (hereafter, RIN) by the CIBER research group at University College London, confirms that belief.

RIN, for the benefit of those who have not previously come across the organization, was established in 2005 by a consortium consisting of the Higher Education Funding Councils in the UK, the British Library, the National Library of Scotland, and the National Library of Wales, and the seven Research Councils. According to its Website:

The RIN's fundamental role is to undertake evidence-based research into information and data issues that relate to professional researchers and particularly academic researchers and to develop policy, guidance and advocacy on that basis.

Clearly, then, how academic researchers are making use of electronic journals and how their use and the value of e-journals to their work, are matters that may guide future UK policy on access to information.

This report is quite brief, and is presented in a style common to management consultancies - lots of white space, good graphics and a minimal amount of text in short paragraphs and bullet points. This achieves its aim; the rapid assimilation of the main findings of the research and its implications. The disadvantage is that the information on how the research was conducted (which will be of interest to information researchers) is not presented in detail; for this detail we have to go to another document (also on the Website). The main report simply tells us that ten institutions were used as case studies, that the investigations covered six subject areas, that usage logs were analysed and that bibliometric data were also used. The supplementary document, however, goes into much more detail on these matters. I shan't provide more detail in this review, since the paper is so readily available.

I doubt if the report will provide any surprises for university librarians and those who research the information access field. However, it may well come as something of a surprise to government, to the researchers themselves and to the lay reader that the e-journal has made such a rapid rise. Some results may be found surprising even to those who are generally aware of what is going on. For example:

Users are by-passing carefully-crafted discovery systems. Just four months after ScienceDirect content was opened to Google, a third of traffic to ScienceDirect's physics journals came via that route. This effect is particularly notable since physics is richly endowed with information systems and services.

Of course, while academics are able to make free use of e-journals, they are not free to the institutions. Indeed, the report notes that in the academic year 2006/7, UK institutions spent a total of £79.8 million on licences for e-journals. This is reckoned by the researchers to be value for money, since the average cost of a download (102,000,000 in that same year) was £0.80. The researchers also explored the possibility of linking e-journal use with research outcomes, and had some apparent success. For example, session length appears to correlate with the research rating of an institution (as measured by the Hirsch index); the greater the use of e-journals, the more research papers are published per academic; the greater the number of PhD awards from the research councils; and the greater the value of research council grants.

There is much more of interest in this excellent report, which I suspect will be pored over by university librarians everywhere, as well as by students of academic librarianship, but to say more would be to take away the necessity of reading it. And read it you must!