Sunday, August 21, 2011

What are mobile friendly library databases offering? A survey

Just as mobile friendly library sites (including library catalogues) are becoming common (see my survey on library mobile sites and survey on library native apps), library vendors providing databases are keep pacing with mobile friendly databases either as a native app or more commonly as a mobile web version.

The main issue of course is do users actually want or desperately need the ability to search library databases on the go? The surveys done so far have being mixed.

The Cambridge and Open University study found that “it is not worth libraries putting development resource into delivering content such as eBooks and e-journals to mobile devices at present” as a vast majority of respondents stated they would never read an ebook or journal article on mobile.

The California Digital Library study collaborates this to some degree. Their survey shows that while users are likely to use their mobile phones to get “quick hits of data” only 10% were reading academic content on their mobile. Barriers included small screen size, difficulty to take notes and citation flow-outs are not designed for mobile phones.

Interestingly enough despite that only 10% were reading academic content from their mobile, 53% said they would like to search mobile databases from their mobile either “frequently” or “occasionally”. (See also the IFLA paper I coauthored with Tiffini Travis for a more in-depth literature review)

Of course, surveys asking users to predict their own future behavior is hardly concrete but I am not aware of any statistics out yet on actual usage on a mobile phone (though it no doubt exists) and certainly it would be interesting to notice if switching to a mobile friendly database actually helped increase usage on mobile phones.

In any case, a few mobile friendly databases have started to appear and I thought it would be interesting to compare the ones I had access to.

Please note, I don't have access to every database in the world, in particular I don't have access to Gale's iPhone app. As I focus on articles databases I left out databases that provide statistics like IMF's Datafinder or Naxos. I also left out databases that are just restricted to a single journal, particularly if search is not enabled (e.g. Wiley-Blackwell JournalsNEJM).

Lastly medical related databases in particular Pubmed which has a official mobile web site as well as half a dozen of unofficial Pubmed iPhone apps (e.g PubMedontap) have being left out, since Medical librarians are a different breed and I will let them evaluate those :)

I was curious about the following issues

a) Comparing Mobile web versions and/or native app versions to full desktop versions
  1. What were the default options? 
  2. What limiters were available in the mobile version? 
  3. What options were not possible in the mobile version? 
  4. What sharing options were available? 
b) With regards to the native app versions only
  1. Was there also a mobile web version, if so what were the differences? 
  2. Was there use of native functions like storage of articles, push notifications, GPS, rotation etc 
  3. How was authentication done? 
The table at the end of the blog post shows the comparisons but let me first point out a few things I noticed

Search options in mobile databases (web and mobile)

Of the databases I tested which I had access to, the default search is typically a keyword or "Anywhere" search. Some of them I couldn't tell at a glance, were probably the same as the desktop version. No doubt the default search in mobile databases follows what is found in normal desktop versions, but I can't help but wonder if this is a mistake.

I haven't really done any usability testing of any sorts, but while doing literature review for the IFLA paper, I noticed that most of the use cases mentioned were mobile usage were actually known item searches.
Some examples include - looking up paper or book mentioned by professor in lecture (so one could place hold, download), getting a paper you read before again to check some detail etc. Conversely most people couldn't imagine doing a research type search on a mobile phone which is where a "everywhere /keyword" search would be most useful .

Of course even with a default keyword search, if you typed enough of the title and hopefully the title isn't too generic, it would usually be a hit, but given this is mobile, typing is very awkward and error prone.....

Even more frustrating is when you realize there seems to be a trend towards not adding title search only as a search option. In my survey among others, Cambridge Journal Online (mobile web), Ebscohost mobile (mobile web and native app), IEEExplore (mobile web), ScienceDirect (native app), SSRN etc did not have a title only search option.

Ebscohost mobile web version was particularly odd, there was a field codes link (see above) which just linked to a page on field codes you could use. I mean literally it was a help page on that (see below).

Ebscohost mobile showing fieldcodes

Unfortunately I suspect most users wouldn't bother with fieldcodes even if they understood, and again we are talking about entry on a mobile phone so even a librarian would find it way too much trouble to type that in. Also unlike other databases, I believe Ebscohost's algothrim actually gives preference to matching terms to the subject headings compared to title, which makes known item searches with title names even more problematic.

In fact this lack of title search option might not be particular to just databases, I haven't surveyed the mobile friendly library catalogues throughly but AirPac for smartphones also does keyword search only.

Personally, I understand the lack of space might drive such decisions to leave out any search options, but I really think it would be good to have them as a option, either in advanced search or as a pull down etc.

Scopus (iPhone app)
JSTOR (mobile web)

Sorting of results & Refinement/Expansion options

For sorting of results, most didn't offer any options and just did default relevance ranking or offered by date which was reasonable I suppose.

Most didn't offer any refinement options or expansion options, though IEEExplore (mobile web), Annual Review did. Ebscohost (mobile web and native app) allows you to do a search for an article, then click on subject, source, author in the record to do a new search of that. 

IEEE xplore, clicking on Narrow Results, gives you options at the bottom.

In Ebscohost mobile, you can click on a record, then click on the Author, Source, Subject and do a search for items with the same (search expansion)

Annual Reviews refinement 

In Annual Reviews app, there is a refine button at the bottom right, clicking on it allows you to refine by many facets anything from keywords to Article Type, you even get to see the number under each facet. This is probably the most advanced implementation I have seen thus far. I hope more mobile databases will have this feature since searching is harder than browsing on mobile given the awkwardness of typing.

Sharing & Saving

Once you get a mobile smartphone, you essentially get another computing device which you need to manage data flow together with your desktop/laptop. How do you get something you read from there to  your other devices? In this context, it is probably less important to figure out how to get articles read/saved from desktop/laptop to your smartphone, though the reverse is definitely critical.

The easiest and most obvious way is to use email and it's pretty much the most common option. The question here is, what is emailed? Typically could be just a simple record but not the pdf.

But with social media on the rise how about tweeting or liking stuff? Scopus iPhone app allows you to tweet the article which you are reading which is nice.

Tweet article from Scopus iPhone app

But the Nature app probably takes the cake in terms of social media intergretion you can push to Connotea, Facebook, Google reader, Instapaper, Pinboard, Readitlater, Tumbler, Twitter, Papers! 

This list would be respectable even for a outright web 2.0 company.

Options for sharing on Nature iphone app

Of the Nature sharing options there are 2 academic networks, Connotea (a academic version of delicious) and Paper (a citation manager like EndNote). I don't have the later (and don't use Connotea) so I can't test it, but given we are talking about academic papers, I wonder if the whole article citation is captured as opposed to just doing a bookmark on the url.

Of the citation managers I am familiar with Wizfolio, EndNote, Zotero and Mendeley, the last is the only one that has a iPhone app. If the mobile database can open the article in PDF, on an iphone you can "Open with" the Mendeley app to get it in but it will get the pdf (which will sync with your desktop version).

Mobile web vs Native app

There's a big debate right now (and not just in the library world) about the merits of supporting mobile web or native app or both. The same dilemma is faced by library databases vendors as well.

Some like Elsevier seem to have gone the native app approach with Scopus and Sciencedirect apps, others like JSTOR, Cambridge Journal Online are mobile web only.

Ebscohost could be one of the few with both an native app and a mobile web version. Annual Reviews used to have both, but right now the native app seems to redirect to the mobile web?

The main advantage of a native app is a more personalized and customizable interface where you can store saved searches and preferences and more importantly the ability to carry saved articles on your phone to refer to anytime you want even without net access. Below shows some examples

        Ebscohost native app
 Scopus native app

ScienceDirect native app
IOPScience native app

    Nature native app
 Ebscohost native app

It seems to me in a mobile web app, you could have saved searches, saved articles etc, but it would require the user to login with a user account etc, which would be clumsy.

The other advantage of native apps is that they can take greater advantage of the smartphone's capabilities compared to something running on mobile browser like Safari Mobile.

I'm not quite sure though this makes any difference in the case of library databases. The main thing I can think of for iPhone apps anyway is the ability to send push notifications or alerts. The Elsevier apps seem to have this, with citation alerts and search alerts.

Some of the iPhone apps like Ebscohost's when rotated shows a different layout though if you rotate though I think this feature is actually negative as I find the rotated view useless (see below).

Search results
 Rotated view

To my knowledge the issue of mobile apps vs web apps in library databases has being addressed so far most in-depth by Stephen Francoeur here and here . He makes very good points on why mobile web is probably better but one point he makes is that authentication of native apps is "clunky" and "Idiosyncratic".

What he means is, with the mobile web sites, users can authenticate using the usual methods like ezproxy. Native apps have to use other methods, typically you have to "prove" that you have subscription access to the database by some-means first before the native app will work. This can be by getting the vendor to email you a special code, or by "pairing up" while on mobile web. Most will also force you to do this every x days so you cannot have access indefinitely even after you leave the University etc.


Like everything in mobile, everything is in flux right now and I get the impression, library database vendors, publishers are feeling their way around like everyone else. As librarians with direct contact to our patrons as well as experience with using databases, we can help by voicing our what we like or do not like about mobile friendly interfaces in databases.

Most mobile versions are simply stripped down versions of desktop versions, one wonders though if one can do something completely different particularly for iPad versions (though some feel iPads aren't mobile due to the size of screen) . For sure I would love a flipboard type experience on a iPad version of say ScienceDirect.

So dear readers, what are your experiences using mobile friendly databases so far? Do you think they will take off? Do users appreciate them? Or will they end up like RSS feeds, a function that is probably used by a small subset of people but ignored by most?

DatabaseDefault SearchOther
field searches
Advanced Search
Sorting optionRefinement/search
Annual Review (iPhone app)AnywhereAuthor, Title, Abstract, DOIJournals of interest vs all journalsRelevance, Most Recent, Most Cited, Most DownloadedRefine by Author, Keywords, Series Title, Article Type,
Content Type, Date range
Search expansion by author and keyword
EmailDevice pairing, browser pairing (30 days)Rotation yes
Browser pairing
No true back button.
arXiv (iPhone app)Alltitle, author, abstract, idNoneNoneability to browse by author from authorNone?FreeRotation yes
Cambridge Journal Online
(mobile web)
AllAuthorNoneNoneNoneEmailUsual web method e.g EzproxyNA
Ebscohost (iPhone app)Same as default desktop? NoneFull text, Peer Reviewed, Autocomplete, Publication
Publication Date range, results per page
Relevance and datesearch expansion ability to browse by
 subject, author,  source from article
Email   Generate authenication key for 9 months from
Rotation in results list and details

Saved searches, recent searches, Saved articles
Ebscohost (mobile web)Same as default desktop? noneSame as desktop versionNoneNoneEmailUsual web method e.g EzproxyNAField code option just shows help file?
Relevancy bar - useless?
Can't browse?
(mobile web)
AllNoneSearch within , narrow result by
content type, publication year, author, affiliation, publication title,
publisher, subject, conference country, conference location, Standard
Email "send the article link to your e-mail address
or authenticate via IP address"
IOPScience (iPhone app)Title & AbtractsAuthor
Browse by Most recent, journal, subjec
NoneNoneNoneEmailFree ,20 articles download per monthRotation yes, Downloads (20 per month)
(mobile web)
Same as default desktop? Author, title, Abstract, Caption
Browse by title, Discipline
Article, Review, Editorial, Data range, LanguageNoneNoneEmailGo to full site  first  NA
Nature (iPhone app)Same as default desktop? NoneNoneNoneNoneEmail, Connotea, Facebook, Google reader, Instapaper,
Pinboard, Readitlater, Tumbler, Twitter, Papers
??Rotation yes
PLOS (iPhone app)Same as default desktop? NoneNoneNoneNoneEmailFreeNo rotation, except pdf
ScienceDirect (iPhone app)AllAuthor, JournalNoneRelevance and dateNoneEmailValidate with institutional email and ScienceDirect
Account, 6 months expiry
Push for search alert
No rotation for search results page

Personalized home (Search alert)
Saved articles

Scopus (iPhone app)"Title-abstract-keyword"All, Title-abstract-keyword, Author, Source Title,
Affiliation, ISSN, DOI
NoneDate, Citation Count,Relevancy orderNoneEmail/TweetSame as ScienceDirect?No rotation for search results page and details page
Search alerts, Citation alerts (push)
SSRN (iPhone app)"Title, author, abstract, Keyword"NoneNoneNoneNoneFree No rotation

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