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The implications of usage statistics as an economic factor in scholarly communications Morrison, Heather 2007

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The implications of usage statistics as an economic factor in scholarly communicationsBy Heather MorrisonAbstractUsage statistics for electronic resources are needed, and highly desirable, for manyreasons.  It is encouraging to see the beginnings of quality, reliable usage data.  This datacan form the basis of economic decisions (selection and cancellation) that make a greatdeal of sense in the context of the individual library.  However, the cumulative effects ofsuch decisions could have serious implications for scholarly communications.  Forexample, the journals of small research communities could easily be vulnerable to masscancellations, and might fold.  Fortunately, open access provides an alternative.  Thequestion of whether the impact of local decisions on scholarly communications as awhole should be taken into account in collection development policies is raised.  Thepossibility that usage statistics could form the basis for a usage-based pricing system isdiscussed, and found to be highly inadvisable, as usage-based pricing tends to discourageusage.The Need For, and Development of, Usage StatisticsThere are, and always will be, real needs for usage statistics for information in theelectronic format.  Authors, publishers, and funding authorities, as well as librariesthemselves, need to know whether or not costly resources are being used.  A lack ofusage can alert a library to a resource that has not been set up properly.  Low usage ratesmay indicate a resource that needs better promotion.  High usage is an indication of thevalue of a resource to the library?s users.  The timing of usage statistics tells us the hoursthat library users are active, which can inform other decisions such as scheduling ofvirtual reference hours.Usage statistics can also provide information to help us to better understand users andtheir information-seeking behavior and needs.   Through usage statistics, Ohiolinkdiscovered that about 15% to 35% of the titles received through the ?big deals?, which noOhiolink library had previously subscribed to, were actively used.   (Gatten and Sanville2004). Statistics have helped the open access Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy (SEP)to make a case for funding for ongoing open access, by providing evidence of heavyusage, and also by providing details about who is using the resource.  In other words,statistics indicate that the SEP is used not only by the professional philosophy researchersfor whom it was designed, but also by many departments across many campuses; thus,the case was made that the SEP was a good resource, and that libraries, as well asphilosophy departments should financially support the project.  (Zalta et al 2005).Important strides have been made toward the development and standardization of usagestatistics for electronic resources.  This is largely due to the efforts of the InternationalCoalition of Library Consortia (ICOLC) and the COUNTER (Counting Online Usage ofNetworked Electronic Resources) project (http://www.projectcounter.org/).  ICOLCdeveloped a set of guidelines, ?Guidelines for Statistical Measures of Usage of Web-Based Information Resources? (ICOLC 2001).  COUNTER further developed the ICOLCguidelines, and provided a means of auditing compliance with the standards.Thanks to these efforts, librarians are now beginning to see usage statistics, based onthese standards, which are comparable across resources and platforms.  A great deal morework needs to be done, however.  There are still many vendors and publishers who stillneed either to adopt usage statistics reporting mechanisms, or that need to bring thequality of their statistics up to the COUNTER standard.  Nevertheless, there are currentlyenough quality usage statistics available, that this is now a factor in making financialdecisions such as the cancellation, and retention of journals.The remainder of this article will explore the potential impact of usage statistics as aneconomic factor in scholarly communications.  Selection and cancellation decisionsbased upon usage statistics may have one set of implications when viewed from theperspective of the individual library or library consortium.  These same decisions mayhave a totally different set of implications when viewed from the perspective of scholarlycommunications as a whole.  The availability of quality usage statistics raises thepossibility of developing pricing models based on usage.  Factoring in usage has someadvantages in developing pricing models in the short term, as a transitional measure.  Inthe longer term, usage-based pricing is not optimal as an economic basis for scholarlycommunications, most notably because usage-based pricing provides an economicdisincentive to use.  For example, usage-based pricing creates a situation where a cash-strapped university could save money by canceling research-based assignments and/orinformation literacy programs at early undergraduate levels.Usage Statistics and the Individual Library or Library ConsortiumUsage statistics makes it possible to calculate the cost per use on a database or title bytitle basis.  This kind of cost analysis has been very useful for Drexel University in theirshift from print to electronic-only journals, for example.  Carol Montgomery, Dean ofLibraries Emeritus and Research Professor, College of Information Science andTechnology at Drexel, has done a comparison of the cost-per-use for e-journals (forDrexel, these averaged from one dollar to six dollars per use) with the cost-per-use ofprint (e-journals averaged two dollars per use; unbound print issues were six dollars peruse, and bound print volumes were thirty dollars per use.  (Montgomery 2004). This cost-per-use analysis facilitated the move from print to electronic-only for Drexel University.Hahn and Faulkner (2002) have shown how usage-based metrics can be used by theindividual library not only to make informed decisions about cancellations, and to helpfaculty understand cancellation decisions, but also to develop benchmarks to helpdetermine a rationale for future purchases.  Gatten and Sanville (2004) analyzed usagestatistics at the individual library and consortial level, and found that aggregated usagestatistics are a reasonable method for a consortium to retreat from the ?big deal?, iffinancial, or other factors, made that necessary.This approach to selection and cancellation makes a great deal of sense at the individuallibrary or consortium level.  If libraries cannot afford to purchase everything, it makes agreat amount of sense to prioritize the titles that library patrons are actually using.Usage Statistics and Scholarly Communications as a WholeWhat happens to scholarly communications as a whole, if library decisions based onusage become standard, and journals continue to rely on subscription income? Considerthe implications of such decisions in relation to open access, conservatism in science (thatis, the tendency to favor a predominant viewpoint and filter out new evidence that doesnot fit), important but less popular or less-adequately funded academic areas, smallresearch communities, and titles in different languages.Over ninety percent of publishers allow authors to self-archive a copy of their own work(SHERPA 2005). Authors? tendencies to self-archive vary by discipline.  Physics, forexample, has a strong tradition of self-archiving, starting with preprints, in the arXiv e-print archive (http://arxiv.org/).  In some subdisciplines, such as high-energy physics, therate of author self-archiving approaches 100%.  Researchers will likely have read manyof the articles as preprints before their formal publication.  It then makes sense that thiswould have an impact on usage statistics for purchased resources.  In physics, this has notmade any difference to subscriptions.  However, is it possible that in other disciplines, afailure to take into account the usage rates of articles that are openly accessible couldresult in many libraries canceling journals, even though the articles are very much used?Thomas Kuhn, in ?The Structure of Scientific Revolutions,? (Kuhn 1962/1970) describedone form of scientific advance as a process of revolution from one paradigm, or set ofbeliefs, to the next. Concepts that fit within a prevailing paradigm are readily accepted,while concepts that do not fit, are considered to be anomalies, and thus, discounted.Picture then, the usage statistics of a journal focusing on topics that fit within a prevailingparadigm, as compared with the usage statistics of a new journal startup reflecting theconcepts of what, all else being equal, could become the next paradigm at some point inthe future.  It seems plausible that the usage statistics would be higher for journals that fitwithin the accepted paradigm, and lower for journals outside of that paradigm.  If usagestatistics are used as the basis for selection and retention decisions, could one type ofresult be a reinforcement of an inherent bias toward conservative concepts in science?At any given time, some areas of scholarly endeavor are likely to be more popular and/orbetter-funded than others, regardless of their underlying merit.  A current example is thepresent emphasis on science, technology, and medicine, with relatively lesser emphasisand funding for the humanities.  This does not necessarily reflect any inherent lessersignificance of the humanities, but rather reflects current societal values favoring morefinancial support of technologically-based fields.Within any given discipline, some areas are likely to be more popular, or better fundedthan others.  Consider, for example, the implications of making decisions about cancelingmedical journals at the time when a particular health crisis is occurring.  For example, didoutbreaks of Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome (SARS) have an impact on the usage ofbiomedical journals dealing with the basic science of virology?  If the world economytook a downturn during a similar crisis, and many libraries as a result were cancelingjournals, would these journals be protected, perhaps at the expense of other basicbiomedical journals of equal importance in the longer term?   What if an economicdownturn occurred at a time when the world?s attention was on non-viral medical factors? could key journals in virology be cancelled, perhaps hampering the progress of researchjust before the next viral crisis? These are cautionary questions that library managersmust keep in mind when using usage statistics, without considering other factors, in theircollection development decisions.For a variety of reasons, the global research community in any given discipline may besmall, or may be large, depending on various factors.  Heart disease, for example, is amajor killer throughout the world.  The research community investigating its causes,prevention and treatment, is huge. Core heart journals are likely to be well used,wherever they are available.   Many illnesses are less common, or occur primarily inisolated geographic areas.  The research communities in these areas are likely to be muchsmaller, and journals devoted to such less common problems are likely to be morevulnerable to cancellations based on usage statistics.  If journals in such an area arerelying on subscription income, and many libraries cancel their subscriptions due tosimilar low usage patterns, the journals may fold.  Opportunities to publish in these areascould decrease, which could lead to fewer researchers pursuing research in these areas.The end result could be a decrease in diversity of research, which has a concrete impacton real people, in many fields, such as medicine.Usage-based selection decisions have a particular significance in relation to titles inlanguages other than English.  A conversation with the author?s professors at theUniversity of Alberta in the 1970?s may be instructive.  It was the time of the Cold War,and a serials cancellations process was underway.  The debate at the time was about thecancellation of journal titles produced behind the Iron Curtain.  From the usage point ofview, this made a great deal of sense.  These journals were written in languages (e.g.Russian and Ukrainian), that few people at the University of Alberta could read.  Most ofthose who could read these languages were foreign language specialists, and likely notinterested in, or sufficiently familiar with the scholarly disciplines that these journalscovered, to find any particular journal title useful.  Using articles in these journalsrequired an expensive translation process that was rarely undertaken.  This scenario wasno doubt repeated at research libraries throughout North America.  When the libraryfocuses on the needs of the University of Alberta and its library clients, cancelingjournals that receive little or no usage makes eminent sense.  What happens, though,when a great many libraries, all facing the same financial pressures, and coping with thesame serials crisis, make basically the same cancellation decisions?   What happens tojournals, publishers, and authors when many libraries choose to target their particularjournals for cancellation?  What happens to the desire for cross-cultural communication,keenly felt during the Cold War, when one of the most hopeful avenues, scholar toscholar communication, decreases or disappears?This is not merely an historical problem.  Given the difficulties libraries are facingpurchasing even the most necessary scholarly information for our clients, how arelibrarians, as a profession, doing today with collecting journals in other languages, fromother countries and cultures?  In the future, with China expected to become an economicsuperpower, will important research journals be published in Chinese only?  If so, willlibraries with few Chinese readers simply not purchase these journals, anticipating littleuse?There is more than one approach to this question of language and journals.  Librariescould decline to collect titles in languages that the majority of its patrons do notunderstand.  Given sufficient financial resources, libraries could provide translationservices.  Another option would be for our educational institutions at various levels tochoose to prioritize and strengthen the teaching of different languages, perhaps as arequirement, along with other academic disciplines.  This latter option not only offers thepotential for enriching our understanding of the world, but it also provides us with abetter foundation for competing in a future world where important research results maynot necessarily be uniformly reported in one language only.To summarize this section, if journals are relying on subscription income for financialsurvival, and if libraries, faced with an ongoing serials crisis, are making selection andcancellation decisions on the basis of usage statistics, there are some potentially veryserious implications for scholarly research.  These kinds of decisions could lead to thecancellation of journals whose articles are well used, but in their open access form.  Thisapproach could also lead to a more conservative, popularity-based, scholasticism that isless diverse in topic, language, and culture.   While research is needed to confirm thesepossibilities, there are enough obvious reasons to give pause for thought before too manylibraries begin to rely solely upon usage statistics in their selection and cancellationdecisions.If these assumptions are correct, the collective effect of these kinds of decisions, whichmake so much sense at the individual library level, have a potentially very unfortunateeffect on scholarly communications as a whole. What then, is the remedy?  Does it makesense for libraries to include consideration of the overall impact on scholarlycommunications in their collection development policies?The good news is that open access not only can, but almost certainly would, counter mostof these trends.  The new paradigm might make it difficult to publish in traditionaljournals, or to start up a new traditional-style journal, with an existing publisher.   Withopen source publishing software available, this research community can easily begin theirown open access journal, and leave the question of reading and accepting their ideas withthe reader.  The issues are more difficult for research communities whose journals maybe subject to cancellation, however converting to an open access model, or starting upnew journals is an option for these communities as well.   Journals that are in languagesthat are less likely to attract a significant subscription base can opt for open access as thebest means to enhance the impact of their authors.The danger of usage-based pricingThe ready availability of quality, reliable usage-based data raises the possibility ofpricing based on usage.  At face value, usage-based pricing does seem fair.  Those whouse a resource heavily pay the most, smaller users pay less.  Indeed, there is much to sayfor considering usage when developing pricing models.  Usage data can come in handy,for example, to determine the relative value of a resource for different types or sizes oflibraries, and price accordingly.  One example, using an FTE-based pricing model, wouldinvolve comparing the relative usage of resources at two-year colleges as compared tothat at four-year universities.  A resource that is used somewhat less at two-year collegesin general could be weighted to 75% FTE for colleges, while a resource that is used agreat deal less at two-year colleges could be weighted at 50% FTE for these colleges.There is much to be said for offering usage-based pricing, or the ?pay by the drink?model, on an optional basis, when some libraries are unable to afford neededsubscriptions.  For obvious reasons. this is much better than no access at all.However, if a pricing model based on usage were to become prevalent, there are somereal dangers, as there are disincentives to use with usage-based pricing.As Andrew Odlyzkow, Director, Digital Technology Centre, University of Minnesota,referring to internet usage pricing models, characterized it: ?Usage-sensitive pricing iseffective. The problem is that many of its effects are undesirable. In particular, suchpricing lowers demand, often by substantial factors? (Odlyzkow 2001). For example,when AOL switched from usage-based to flat pricing for its users in 1996, usage tripled.This effect has been replicated in other countries and cultures.  Research has shown that,with internet usage, even small charges discourage use, even if the charges are smallenough that even heavy usage would be less than flat pricing.While this research is based on Internet, rather than on print information resources and onindividuals, rather than libraries, it makes sense that the same principles would apply tolibraries and institutions as well.  Picture, for example, a cash-strapped university lookingfor ways to cut the budget.  With usage-based pricing, eliminating research papers at thefirst- or second-year level, eliminating the hands-on or exercise-based portion of aninformation literacy program, or scrapping an information literacy program altogether,would all be ways to achieve cost savings.If the cost of use is known, there is a danger that a cash-strapped library will pass the costalong to the user, resulting in the direct disincentives to the user that Odlyzkow describes.This has been the tendency for many libraries with interlibrary loans, an area wherelibraries themselves have implemented usage-based fees deliberately, in order to limitdemand (Budd 1989).  Clinton (1999) discusses about how libraries in the UnitedKingdom have implemented user fees for interlibrary loans, to discourage what they seeas indiscriminate use of the service.With a print-based collection, users are free to browse to their heart?s content.   As aresearcher, the author has often browsed extensively, often in journals not obviouslyrelated to the research topic, looking for new approaches or research methods, or possiblyknowledge from one discipline that might have implications in another.  If libraries moveto electronic-only collections and pay on the basis of usage, this kind of cross-disciplinary research might well be perceived as costly.  Readers and researchers mightbe discouraged from browsing for the sake of curiosity, and be asked to limit theirreading to what might be clearly justifiable economically.  Learning and certain types ofresearch, such as interdisciplinary research, would suffer.To conclude, pricing based upon usage appears to not be optimal for scholarly research,due to the likelihood of it discouraging use.Summary and ConclusionThere are real needs for quality usage statistics, and it is encouraging to see somedevelopments in this area, thanks largely to ICOLC and Project COUNTER.   There aresome benefits to considering usage in the economics of scholarly communication,particularly for the individual library, and as an informational measure to determinelevels for other pricing models.However, there are some real potential pitfalls if usage becomes prevalent as the basis forselection and cancellation decisions.  There is reason to suspect that the cumulative effectof such decisions, made separately by many libraries, could create a tendency towards anoverall increase in scholarly conservatism, the loss of important but less popular or lesswell-funded areas of research, detrimental effects on smaller research communities, andless linguistic and cultural diversity.  Journals allowing open access options such as self-archiving also could be adversely affected.  Happily, open access not only can, but alsoalmost certainly will, counter many of the unfortunate effects of such decisions.  Thequestion of whether broader implications for scholarly communications as a wholeshould be incorporated into collection development policies is also being raised.The possibility that usage statistics will form the basis of a usage-based pricing systemhas also been examined, and found to be inadvisable, as usage-based pricing tends todiscourage usage.Economics is concerned with the allocation of scarce resources which have potentiallycompeting alternative uses.  This is one of the most basic principles of economics.Consumption has an impact in determining what is produced, and for whom.  Raisingprices of products can control consumption by consumers who either have less desire fora particular product, or who have less ability to pay. (Allen1967, p. 8-9).The scholarly journal article in the electronic form does not fit within the realm ofeconomics, as there is no reason to see a scholarly journal article as a scarce resource.An openly accessible article can be downloaded by millions, and its value will not at allbe depleted.  There are other kinds of goods which can gain value by creating a falsescarcity; for example, commercial movies in electronic form.  This does not fit with themodel for scholarly knowledge, however, as scholarly knowledge, unlike goods andservices produced primarily for profit, gains in value the more that it is used.Science works in a series of steps, or blocks, which build upon one another.  If oneresearcher finds a next step, the more researchers who read the results and build on them,the faster that the research community as a whole, can all advance to the next step.Consider, for example, the cancer researcher.  When research is concluded and the resultsare published, we could be one step closer to a cure, treatment, diagnosis, or basicunderstanding of how cancer works.  The more people who find out about this step andmove forward to the next step, the sooner we can all reach the ultimate goal (a cure,treatment, etc.).  There is no value to be gained for the researcher in withholding thisinformation.  There is nothing to be gained from a pricing model that will tend to result inreasons for discouraging potential users from reading an article.ReferencesAllen, C.L.  The Framework of Price Theory.  Belmont, California: WadsworthPublishing Company, 1967.Budd, John M.  ?It?s not the principle, it?s the money of the thing?. The Journal ofAcademic Librarianship  15, September (1989): 218-22.Clinton, Pat.  ?Charging users for interlibrary loans in UK university libraries ? a newsurvey?.  Interlending & Document Supply. 27:1 (1999): 17.Gatten, Jeffrey N. & Tom Sanville.  ?An Orderly Retreat from the Big Deal:  Is itPossible for Consortia??  D-Lib Magazine 10:10, (October 2004).http://www.dlib.org/dlib/october04/gatten/10gatten.htmlHahn, Karla L.  and Lila A. Faulkner. ?Evaluative Usage-based Metrics for the Selectionof E-journals?. College & Research Libraries 63:3 (May 2002):  215-217.ICOLC.  Guidelines for Statistical Measures of Usage of Web-Based InformationResources (Update:  December 2001).http://www.library.yale.edu/consortia/2001webstats.htm.Kuhn, Thomas. The Structure of Scientific Revolutions.  2nd edition.  Chicago: Universityof Chicago Press, 1962/1970.Montgomery, Carol.  Presentation.  XXIV Annual Charleston Conference: All theWorld's A Serial.  (2004).Odlyzkow, Andrew.  Internet pricing and the history of communications. Revised version(February 8, 2001).http://www.dtc.umn.edu/~odlyzko/doc/history.communications1b.pdfSHERPA Publisher copyright policies & self-archiving.http://www.sherpa.ac.uk/romeo.php.  (April 14, 2005).Zalta, Edward N.; Colin Allen, Uri Nodelman, Daniel McKenzie.  Stanford Encyclopediaof Philosophy.  Open Letter to Librarians.http://plato.stanford.edu/fundraising/librarians.html (April 17, 2005).


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