Information-seeking Behaviour by Academics: A Preliminary Study

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  • Information-seeking Behaviour byAcademics: A Preliminary StudyDENNIS N. OCHOLLA


    Information-seeking behaviour by university academics at MoiUniversity, Kenya, is analysed. A survey, in the form of a pilotstudy, was conducted and data collected through questionnairesand interviews among 27 academics randomly sampled fromfour faculties: Health Sciences, Information Sciences, Environ-mental Studies and Education. The results obtained establishedthat a great number of academics depend on libraries andcolleagues for information and that although the academicsheavily depend on textbooks for information, they display greatinterest in, and use, current and research-oriented informationsources. It was also established that the nature of discipline andlevel of programme influence the information-seeking behav-iour of academics and that lack of awareness of informationservices, and non-use of current awareness services and sourcesavailable at the university contribute to limited access and useof the information resources. In addition, academics indicatedthat they need information mainly for career development tocircumvent the publish or perish syndrome, but also for theirprofessional and occupational needs. It is concluded thatdespite insufficient relevant information resources at theuniversity library due to budget cuts, academics still depend onthe library for their information needs. Work colleagues arealso an important source of intra-university information. It issuggested that the library would benefit the academics if equalattention were paid to current awareness services as well as

    I wish to acknowledge the contributions from the following persons. Stephen Kathurima forcollecting data on the Faculty of Information Sciences, Charles Kirui Bett and James Ndegwa Nderitufor collecting data on the Faculty of Education, Elly Okoti Mutimba for collecting data on the Schoolof Environmental Studies and finally Juliex Waswa for data on the Faculty of Health Sciences.

    Author address: Dr Dennis N. Ocholla, Professor and Head, Department of Library andInformation Science, University of Zululand, Private Bag X1001, Kwadlangezwa 3886, Republic ofSouth Africa.

    Intl. Inform. & Libr. Rev. (1996), 28, 345358

    1057-2317/96/040345 + 14 $25.00/0 1996 Academic Press Limited

  • publicity and promotion of information products and services.Similarly, methods should be devised by the university tostrengthen the academics overall accessibility to information.In this way, the circulation of information between academiccolleagues can be maintained.

    1996 Academic Press Limited


    Moi University is one of five public universities in Kenya. According to1994/5 figures, the University had 5175 students (including 223 M.Philand 44 D.Phil), 586 academics, 101 administrative staff and 1568 supportstaff. It is financed almost entirely by the Kenya Government. TheUniversity is located in a rural setting where access to informationresources is minimal. Due to financial constraints affecting most publiclyfunded institutions, financing of university academic and researchprogrammes and activities by the government has been significantlyreduced. Campus information systems and networks such as the universitylibrary, telecommunications, mass media, access to conferences, seminarsand workshops have been adversely affected. The academics teachingand research productivity is being curtailed by this situation.

    Many universities strive to achieve academic excellence throughteaching, research and extension service. Universities in Africa have givencommunity services significant attention in recent years to broaden theirroles and value in society.

    The information environment changes very rapidly as alternative andsupplementary information sources emerge, such as the informationsuperhighway, which clients can access for information. Libraries have tocompete with such emerging services and systems to justify their existence.Paul Sturges and Richard Neill1, as well as this author2 have described thefinancial difficulties which affect acquisition in the university libraries inAfrica. Little data is available on how academics seek for and obtainrelevant information sources. Two major questions arise: how are otherinformation sources utilised along with those of the university library?Does the under-resourced university library still have a role to play in theuniversity information system?

    With the Structural Adjustment Programme (SAP) urging for accounta-

    1Sturges, P., Neill, R. (1990) The quite struggle, Libraries and information for Africa. London; Mansel, pp.7579.

    2Ocholla, D. N. (1993) Scientific Information and Scientific Communication. In Ocholla, D. N. andOjiambo, J. B. Issues in library and information studies. Nairobi: Jomo Kenyatta Foundation, pp.103119.

    346 D. N. OCHOLLA

  • bility and cost effectiveness in all spheres of university life and theuniversities struggling to maintain their goal for academic excellence,knowledge of the trends in information-seeking behaviour by academics isnot only vital for the improvement of information services but also for costeffectiveness and cost benefit analysis of the information provisioncentres.

    The purpose of this preliminary study is to investigate academicsinformation seeking behaviour within the university under the informa-tion resource limitations. It is hypothesized that budget cuts in acquisitionsfor the university library jeopardize access to and use of information bythe academics, who resort to alternative sources of information for theirinformation needs. The study explored this question and also identifiedalternative sources of information and how they meet the academicsinformation requirements compared, with those of the university library.The university library is just one of the sources for information andacademics may rely on other sources.

    The preliminary studys objectives were to identify the types ofinformation resource frequently used by academics, which differ bydiscipline, and to find out how academics learn of the existence of theinformation sources they use. Knowledge of the existence of informationresources depends on several variables: the users knowledge, skills,experience and exposure; and the users emotional and physical ability togo through the tedious and demanding search and retrieval informationprocess. One last element is the use of the identified information resource.The discipline or rank of academic does seem to determine knowledge ofthe existence of information materials.

    A third objective was to find out how academics generate professionaland academic ideas, such as thinking, brainstorming, reading, attendingconferences, and seminars. All of them demand sufficient backgroundknowledge for the incumbent to make meaningful and sensibleconclusions.

    A fourth objective was to establish the reasons for seeking information.This is a uses and gratification criterion discussed exhaustively by Fiske3

    and is the driving force behind the active consumption of informationresources. In the university environment, the reasons for seekinginformation, as discussed by this author in a seminar in 19954, include:career development commonly known at the university as, publish orperish or invent or perish; to enlighten others; for professional and

    3Fiske, John (1990) Introduction to communication studies. London; Routlege, p. 151163.4Ocholla, D. N. (1995) Academic Research and the Society. The Challenges. A paper presented at

    the Moi University Graduate Students Association Seminar, Eldoret, Moi University 6th7thApril.


  • occupational needs (for example, for a dissertation, research reports);personal ego and prestige which relate to the number of publications andsometimes their quality; to confirm or refute an issue; to announceownership and priority in a publication, an invention or innovation; tojustify the existence of, for example a department or research unit, whichrelates to accountability as noted in a recent study.5

    A fifth objective was to find out the sources of information used by theacademics. This item relates to the second objective on how the academicslearn the existence of the information sources they use. A final objectivewas to find out how academics disseminate information once they get it.A large number of academics disseminate information through teachingand most of them publish. If academics disseminate information then theinformation provision systems are achieving their social role of makinginformation widely available to users.


    This was a pilot or preliminary study which will become a full scaleresearch project at a later stage. Preliminary findings are being reported toget feedback from readers. A survey was targeted to academics in fourfaculties, out of 11 at the university, with approximately 100 teaching staff(staff mobility is high at the university so it is safer to approximate). Theseincluded: Faculty of Health Sciences (FHS), Faculty of Education, Schoolof Environmental Studies (SES) and Faculty of Information Sciences(FIS). The study sampled 40 teaching staff, 10 from each faculty. Out ofthat number 27 responses of 40 were received (70%), distributed asfollows. Health sciences 8(80%), information sciences 8(80%), environ-mental studies 5(50%), education 6(60%). The teaching staff includedprofessors, associate professors, senior lectures, lecturers, tutorial fellowsor assistant lecturers and graduate assistants. These groups were sampledaccording to faculties and departments. Data were collected by handdelivered questionnaires mainly, but also through interviews where the useof questionnaires was not possible. It was observed that most academicswere unwilling to participate in this exercise and demanded feedback fromthe data collectors. Although many academics complain of lacking time itwas surprising to find some of them readily available for interviews whichtook a much longer time than completing a questionnaire. The resultsfrom each faculty were analysed separately both qualitatively, andquantitatively and presented in frequencies, percentages, tables and

    5McDonald, S., Feather, J. (1995) British library and information Science Journals; a study ofquality control. Journal of Information Science, 21(5) pp. 359.

    348 D. N. OCHOLLA

  • textually. Summary findings from the four faculties have been consoli-dated into this preliminary report, detailed presentation of quantitativesummaries will be provided when the actual study is completed. Thequestionnaire is appended. Many respondents were uncomfortable withthe details demanded in the questionnaire and the instrument wasmodified.


    The results have been presented under eight subheadings below.

    Departments and faculties where academics belongThe academics came from the four faculties already noted above. Detailson departments are still incomplete.

    Rank and position in the academicsOverall responses came from all academic ranks. The largest number ofresponses was from the lecturer levels with professor levels providing thelowest return. As a young university, the teaching staff at Moi universityare mainly at the base level of the academic pyramid. Some professorswere either unwilling to participate, or were occupied elsewhere, and, asa result, it is not possible to determine whether the rank of the academicinfluences the information-seeking habit. Adequate samples from all ranksof academics need to be collected for a clear user profile to be developedfor an effective information service.

    Information resources frequently used by the academicsThe respondents were provided with a long list of information resourcesto choose from. These included: journals, patents, conference literature,dissertations and theses, research reports, bibliographic literature, diction-aries, thesauri, directories, yearbooks, handbooks, reviews, encyclopae-dias, translations, current trends and prospects, indexes, abstracts, tables,almanacs, monographs, textbooks, research reports, annual reports, on-line databases, professional associations, mass media, casual conversa-tions, standards, guides, pre-prints and others.

    The differences in responses from each of the four faculties related tothe nature of the programmes, the resources available to staff, the goals ofthe faculty and the nature of the staff. Overall, the four faculties rankedthe information resources they use in the following order of frequencies:journals, textbooks, research reports and conference literature. Others


  • were: theses and dissertations, monographs, casual conversations, encyclo-paedias, reviews, dictionaries, professional associations, bibliographicliterature, manuals, thesauri, handbooks, current trends and abstracts.The remaining sources are not used because they are either not available,such as online databases, or they are not directly relevant, such as patentsfor the faculties of information sciences and education.

    The academics in the SES and the FHS rated journals, textbooks,research reports and conference literature highly. The two faculties arewell provided with resources through local and international linkages andcan afford, through such linkages to improve resources at all levelsincluding the procurement of current journals, text books and occasion-ally, attendance of staff at conferences and seminars. They also haverelatively more experienced teaching staff. Unlike the FHS, the SES is agraduate programme with emphasis on research. The Faculty ofInformation Sciences ratings were more or less similar to those of SES andFHS. It has also benefited substantially from external resource supportthrough the Overseas Development Authority (ODA) of Britain; however,this support did not include funding for current journal subscriptions.This is lacking and cannot be supported by the university library financialresources.

    The Faculty of Education ratings were slightly different from the threefaculties already covered: encyclopaedias, journals, text books andresearch reports. This is the faculty with the largest number of studentsand the least external funding. It relies heavily on the collectiondevelopment programme of the university library which is often affectedby financial problems as regards acquisition of information resources.Although this situation has improved slightly in the recent past, since staffstill rate encyclopaedias most highly other information resources must belacking.

    Gaining knowledge of the existence of information sourcesRespondents were provided with a list of suggestions. These were: casualconversation, from journal regularly scanned, from journal subscribed to,from a cross citation in another paper, common knowledge, from a reprintreceived from an author, through an abstracting service, from a referencework, through current awareness service, through correspondence, from areview article, through a formal report at a meeting, by chance, from abiblio...


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