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Counting usage: why do we need a new Code of Practice?

The COUNTER (Counting Online Usage of Networked Electronic Resources) Code of Practice is the industry-standard format for usage reporting of electronic resources. COUNTER has published a new Code of Practice, Release 5. We spoke with Lorraine Estelle, COUNTER’s Director and Company Secretary, to gain an insight into COUNTER, the new Code of Practice, and what it means for libraries.

How did you get involved in COUNTER? 

My first involvement in COUNTER came in 2003 when I was the director of Jisc Collections. We were a young library consortium at the time, and this was in the early days of COUNTER. We really supported COUNTER because we could see that having data to support decision-making was very important. We gained the funding to develop JUSP (the Journal Usage Statistics Portal). One thing that came out of JUSP was an improvement in COUNTER usage statistics. Librarians would download their usage statistics and note errors, but were too busy to pursue these. Instead, JUSP on a national level was able to go to publishers and inform them of problems with usage statistics. This feedback helped improve the quality of usage reporting. I joined the Board of Directors at COUNTER in 2014, and a year later moved to my current role of Director.

Why do we need usage statistics?

Libraries are investing a great deal in electronic resources, and they have to make an informed decision on what they buy. Usage is not the sole reason for purchasing, but it is a very important piece of information in making informed and evidence-based decisions. And usage statistics are not just about the resources to which a library already subscribes. Access denial reports (also known as turnaways) show when a user is unable to access a unique content item because their institution does not have a license to the content, or their institution’s cap on the number of simultaneous users has been exceeded. These are other pieces of evidence that can inform the librarian.

And why do we need COUNTER?

If you’re using usage statistics to make informed decisions, you need to know that the statistics that you’re getting from publishers are consistent, credible, and comparable – that publishers are counting the same thing and using the same terms. At COUNTER, we set the Code of Practice – how to process your data, how to report – and we also require publishers to have an annual COUNTER audit, to make sure that they are implementing the Code of Practice correctly, and to ensure that there is comparability between publishers.

If you’re using usage statistics to make informed decisions, you need to know that the statistics that you’re getting from publishers are consistent, credible, and comparable…

What is involved in creating a new Code of Practice?

A lot, a lot of work! For Release 5, we have had a Technical Sub-group create the Code of Practice. Clearly, the Code of Practice has to work for everyone in the COUNTER community – publishers, vendors, library consortia, and librarians. We have a really brilliant team of volunteers from across this community. They come together, collaborate, and work together to create the Code of Practice.

Another key element is a conversation with the wider community. We had two consultation periods. From feedback to the first draft Code of Practice, we found we weren’t explaining it as well as we could have done. This first round of feedback helped us to look at the way we were talking about the new Code of Practice and improve clarity. In the second round, we had a lot less feedback, because we addressed the main concerns in the first round.

Why did COUNTER decide that we needed a new Code of Practice?

It is important that usage statistics are comparable across different publishers and vendors. That was becoming increasingly difficult, because technology has moved on a lot since Release 4. A lot of current publishing platform functionality wasn’t there when Release 4 was designed. We have developed Release 5 so it is more adaptable in the future as functionality evolves.

Also, we needed to ensure that we revised the Code of Practice to be clearer and remove ambiguities. When I became Director at COUNTER in 2015, I carried out a large survey that asked the COUNTER community what they thought of Release 4. The feedback showed strongly that because of ambiguities, publishers were interpreting things rather differently. This feedback was coming from across the COUNTER community – publishers, vendors, library consortia, and librarians.

If we could understand something better about COUNTER Release 5, what would it be?

One of our common questions is about the metrics: “Why have you changed the metrics? What does it mean?” The answer is that we are counting user behaviour, user actions. This is important because when a librarian uses COUNTER statistics for evaluation, what they really want to know is how useful a resource is for their users. We have these new concepts of Investigations and Requests. For example, from a list of search results a user may open three article abstracts; these would be counted as Investigations. After reading the abstracts, the user might download PDFs for two of the articles, both from the same journal; these would be counted as Requests.

I think one little misconception is that at first, people said, “Wow, there’s all this data here… we’ll never be able to handle all this.” I think the really clever thing about COUNTER Release 5 is a Master Report. These can be sliced and diced to suit the needs of the librarian. The Master Reports enable librarians, or indeed publishers, to roll up or drill down through reports with ease.

Master Reports each have several pre-set filtered Standard Views. Often, librarians will want to look at Title Requests and run a cost per download calculation, so that is why we have the Standard Views to address common use cases. They are essentially a set of pre-defined attributes and filters for the corresponding Master Report. The Master Reports provide additional data, such as information about Data Types, Access Types, and Year of Publication.

I think of a Standard View as a templated filter of a Master Report.

Yes, that’s a good way of putting it.

What’s going to be the biggest challenge, and biggest opportunity, for future usage reporting?

I think the biggest improvement will be that with Release 5, it’s going to be much easier to manage and much more comparable because I think we’ve dealt with the issue of different technology on publishers’ platforms. It is designed to be adapted and extended as digital publishing changes over the years.

I think the biggest challenge is learning the new vocabulary in Release 5 – terms such as “Investigation” and “Request” – and getting used to it. We are doing what we can to help, so we have published The Friendly Guide to Release 5 for Librarians. The author, Tasha Mellins-Cohen, is a genius at taking complicated technical things and translating them into things that people like me can understand. We also have a series of webinars planned, to talk librarians through the new Code of Practice. Next year, I’m hoping that we can put together some training modules. Where I’d like to start is training for librarians who have no experience at all of COUNTER, because things aren’t obvious if you’ve never done it before. After that, I’d like to create resources for libraries to train staff, and then building up to a complex level.

In one word, what makes Release 5 better for libraries?



Featured image credit: Home office by Free-Photos. CC0 via Pixabay.

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