Supporting the Changing Research Practices of Religious Studies Scholars
Ithaka S+R’s Research Support Services Program is a series of projects that investigate the research support needs of scholars by their discipline. In 2016 Ithaka S+R examined the changing research methods and practices of academic religious studies scholars in the United States, with the goal of identifying services to better support them. The project was undertaken collaboratively with research teams at 18 academic libraries and the American Theological Library Association with guidance from an advisory committee. The goal of this report is to provide actionable findings for the organizations, institutions and professionals who support the research process of religious studies. One hundred and ninety eight scholars were interviewed during the project and Ithaka S+R sampled 102 of the resulting transcripts towards the analysis for this report. Ithaka S+R identified three major thematic areas in which religious studies would benefit from improved or new services: Discovering and accessing information. When available, digital discovery and access have greatly improved these scholars’ research experiences with relatively few challenges. Scholars located in some seminaries and those conducting research on religions and religious cultures beyond the West experience greater challenges when conducting primary and secondary source research. Information management. Scholars contend with the challenge of managing vast arrays of information that they produce and collect in the process of conducting their research and engage in idiosyncratic practices for organizing and storing their information. They struggle with digital approaches to citation management and information storage and experience uncertainty around destroying and preserving information following their personal use. Audience, output and credit. Scholars’ primary focus remains on traditional scholarly outputs due to the expectations associated with tenure and promotion. Overall awareness and engagement with open access is low but the perceived importance of more freely sharing work as enabled by social media platforms is high. The report concludes by highlighting key issues and providing recommendations from across the findings that have wider implications for how religious studies research support is conceptualized and prioritized. Religious studies scholars’ ongoing lack of awareness of and engagement with digital research methods, including those associated with the digital humanities, reflects major structural barriers to methodological innovation within the discipline necessitating intervention at various levels. While religious studies scholars continue to rely on their institutional libraries, particularly for access to secondary materials, their use of the library is placed among many other strategies for finding and accessing information. Supporting religious studies scholars in their capacities as collectors is one entryway for re-thinking how research support can be cohesively defined and delineated.