The recently published 2012 Survey of UK Academics, carried out by Ithaka S+R, JISC, and RLUK gives some help in answering this question:
Possibly the first question should be are UK academics using digital publications?
The answer is emphatically yes. When starting out a research project the vast majority of academics interviewed would go straight online with 40% going first to a general purpose search engine like Google and about a third opting for a specific online database or research resource. Only 2% of those interviewed would head out to the library building when they first start their research.
When trying to find resources further on in their research the interviewed academics also tended to favour online search tools; with those in STM disciplines most often using specialist research databases and those in the HSS often seeing the library’s online catalogue as their first port of call.
So what sort of resources are people looking for? And where?
What is ultimately shown is that researchers rely on a variety of different resource types and various ways of getting them. But there are some interesting trends and they tend to differ depending on which discipline academics work in.
It’s not surprising to learn that for those interviewed the peer-reviewed journal article remains the primary mode of research dissemination. This is true across subject areas. Second place, however, does vary by discipline. Those in STM disciplines tend to view not-yet-published preprints and working papers to be the second most important source of information whereas colleagues in HSS disciples are more likely to view monographs and edited volumes as their second most valuable resource.
The survey also shows that most researchers are happy to use electronic journals article with a majority of those interviewed not too perturbed by the thought of the digital format completely replacing the physical. Most academics interviewed also see an important role for ebooks in the research landscape but, unlike with journals, these are seen as a complement to the physical book, not a replacement. There is a little disciplinary variation with those in the arts and humanities less likely to fully embrace digital formats than colleagues in the sciences.
The library--with its physical collections and subscriptions to journals and databases--is still seen as the most important source for these resources. However, free online content is, if this survey is to be believed, becoming an increasingly important part of the research landscape with over 60% of respondents describing these as a very important resource for their research.
Can researchers always get the resources they want?
No. Around half of the respondents agreed that they are often not able to get the resources that they are looking for.
And what do researchers do when they are initially unable to get a resource?
Often they give up, at least according to this survey. Over 60% of respondents said that if a resource was not immediately available they will often just give up and move on to a resource that is available. Interlibrary loan is a next resort and over 30% of researchers say that they will often purchase a resource themselves if it is not available through their library.