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Providing Accessible Usage Statistics Deserving Your Trust

Peter Shepherd, COUNTER | Jan 01, 2010

The question “What content can we trust?” has always been central to users of scholarly information and there is no simple answer to it.

Traditional indicators of trust have included the reputation of the author and the institute in which her or his research was done; the status of a journal in which an article appears; and the reputation of a particular publisher. More recently, citation data have become a popular, if overused, indicator, and now usage statistics have entered the frame.

In an era in which data is becoming ever more central to the decision-making process, it is inevitable that citation and usage data will become factors in the assessment of the impact, status, influence, value, utility and perhaps even the trustworthiness of content.

Improving and ensuring access to usage statistics

COUNTER (Counting Online Usage of Networked Electronic Resources) and SUSHI (Standardized Usage Statistics Harvesting Initiative) are complementary initiatives designed to improve, respectively, the reliability and usability of online usage statistics. The role of COUNTER is to ensure that usage statistics are credible, compatible and consistent, while the role of SUSHI, which is sponsored by NISO (the National Information Standards Organization), is to ensure that they are easy to obtain.

Release 3 of the COUNTER Code of Practice for Journals and Databases succeeded Release 2 as the valid release in September 2009. The main objectives of Release 3 are to improve further the reliability of the COUNTER usage reports; to provide tools that will facilitate the consolidation, management and analysis of the COUNTER usage statistics; to improve the COUNTER usage reports for library consortia; and to improve the reporting of the usage of journal archives. For this reason, the SUSHI protocol has been incorporated as an integral feature of Release 3 and is central to it.

Prior to SUSHI, no mechanism existed for automatically retrieving, combining and storing COUNTER usage data from different sources. SUSHI provides a means to do just this via a standard model for machine-to-machine automation of statistics harvesting.

By October 2009, there were over 80 vendors compliant with Release 3 of the COUNTER Code of Practice. As a number of vendors including Elsevier are very close to compliance, it is anticipated that the number of compliant vendors will grow to over 100 by early 2010. This will bring to over 15,000 the number of fulltext journals for which COUNTER Release 3 online usage statistics are reliably and readily available.

COUNTER and SUSHI benefit libraries and publishers by facilitating access to and management of reliable usage statistics. The usage statistics thus made available are already being used by librarians to assess the utility and value of their collections of journals and databases, and by publishers to demonstrate the value of their collections of content. Metrics such as “Cost per download” and “Cost per FTE” (fulltext) are now widely used.

Successful outcomes of these two projects will add authors, research institutes and research funding agencies to the groups that find usage statistics a helpful tool.

Taking usage statistics to the next level

Reliable, easily accessible usage statistics also have the potential to be of greater benefit to authors and research institutions more broadly, and there are two current research projects in which COUNTER is involved that may help achieve this.

  1. First, the Journal Usage Factor project, sponsored by the UK Serials Group, RIN and others, is investigating the development of a usage-based equivalent of the citation-based journal impact factor. A global usage-based metric would not only provide an alternative perspective to journal impact factors, for journals covered by this measure, but also the only quantitative comparable metric for the many journals not covered by impact factors.
  2. Second, the PIRUS Project, funded by JISC (the Joint Information Systems Committee in the UK), is investigating the feasibility of creating a COUNTER-compliant standard for the recording and reporting of usage at the individual article level. This would allow researchers, as well as the organizations that fund and support them, to obtain a global overview of the usage of their articles.

Successful outcomes of these two projects will add authors, research institutes and research funding agencies to the groups that find usage statistics a helpful tool.

To revisit the original question,“What content can we trust?," usage data alone cannot tell the reader what content he or she can trust, but it has the potential, as a component in a matrix of other information, to provide a good indicator of content that is useful, reliable and probably worth having.