Reference Services Review recently published an article: Student perceptions of federated searching vs single database searching. The article is authored by Annie Armstrong of the Reference Department at Richard J. Daley Library, University of Illinois at Chicago (UIC.) The 13 page article is available as an electronic download for $20USD plus $3 handling at the article link above. I purchased a copy for review.

The article aims to see how students feel about federated search vs. searching a single source. What do they think of the relevance of results from each? How easy do they find the two to use? A study was performed in which students were asked to answer qualitative and quantitative questions about the two search tools as used in a research assignment on a topic of their choosing. The article provides the expected background material, a review of the literature, and methodology. A bulk of the paper discusses the study’s results.

An important point caught my attention early in the paper. The “single database” used in the study was the EBSCOhost database Academic Search Premier. This is not what I think of when I think of a “single database.” Academic Search Premier, in EBSCO’s words …

… contains indexing and abstracts for over 8,450 journals, with full text for more than 4,650 of those titles. PDF backfiles to 1975 or further are available for well over one hundred journals, and searchable cited references are provided for more than 1,000 titles.

This is a discovery service. I think this is an important point to make because discovery services look to many people like federated search so it’s not quite clear what is being compared in the article. To many students the main difference will be that discovery services return results faster. I think a more appropriate title would have been “Student perceptions of federated searching vs use of a discovery service.”

It’s also important to note that no study compares all federated search tools. The federated search tool in this study is Webfeat so this article is specifically about how student perceptions of Webfeat (for relevance and ease-of-use) compare to their perceptions of EBSCOhost Academic Search Premier.

Another important detail is that the students who were targeted for the study attended library instruction sessions in which they were introduced to the online research process and they were inttoduced to the EBSCOhost tool. But,

“… many librarians have been hesitant to introduce students to the process of searching for articles using UIC’s qUICsearch, the federated search tool powered by Webfeat …”

So, before I even get into the meat of the article - the research findings - I’m very concerned about several biases: the specific tools being compared, the fact that one is much beefier than a “single database,” and the librarian bias against the Webfeat tool.

I won’t go into details about the methodology or the questions asked, but here’s a good summary:

Upon completing and recording searches in the single database and federated search tool, students were asked a series of quantitative and qualitative questions regarding ease of use, relevance of results, and overall preference between the two resources, likeliness of future use as well as other preferred research tools (if any).

What were the results? Thirty one students submitted the study. On relevance, 16 students picked the Webfeat tool, 10 chose the EBSCOhost tool, 3 felt the two were equal and 2 didn’t believe that either tool provided relevant results. On likeliness of future use, most students stated they would very or somewhat likely use either tool in the future.

The rest of the article includes a fair number of quotes from students describing what they liked and didn’t like in the two tools, and what they found effective and difficult in using each.

Do I recommend the article? Maybe. As I stated, I have the concern that the study is not as broad as the title led me to believe. I’m also concerned that the sample size, 31 students, is too small to draw conclusions from. If you follow the research on student perception of federated search and are looking for data to supplement that of other studies then this paper would be a good addition to your collection.

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This entry was posted on Sunday, September 6th, 2009 at 7:38 pm and is filed under papers. You can follow any responses to this entry through the RSS 2.0 feed. You can leave a response, or TrackBack URI from your own site.

2 Responses so far to "Review: Student perceptions of federated searching vs single database searching"

  1. 1 Steve Oberg
    September 7th, 2009 at 5:13 am  

    Just one comment: the Richard Daley Library is at a very different institution, the University of Illinois at Chicago, not the University of Chicago.

  2. 2 Sol
    September 7th, 2009 at 6:11 am  


    Good catch. Thank you. I’ve corrected the error.

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