ebook aggregators

OAPEN-UK E-book Aggregator Focus Group: 13 February 2012

The OAPEN-UK focus group for e-book aggregators covered four main issues: why should aggregators get involved with open access content; what opportunities are available; what barriers should be considered; and how will quality assurance work?

Why get involved?
The participants said that aggregators hold a neutral position; the main reason that aggregators would include open access content within their collections would be that their customers – publishers and librarians – wanted to see it there. Including open access content could increase the completeness of collections, which is an important selling point for library customers, and publishers may also want to see any open access content that they produced included within the systems. For the participants, engaging with open access content would be a strategic decision, taken to build partnerships and goodwill, rather than purely a financial decision. That said, the move would need to be cost-neutral at the very least: they would not be able to justify extensive engagement at a loss.

There was a general perception that open access monographs would remain a very small part of the overall scholarly communications environment, and that on the whole publishers would engage with them as an experiment, or for the public relations value, rather than as a sustained move to a new business model. Some participants noted that the availability of open access journals has not led to a noticeable decline in subscriptions to paid content.

New opportunities
Participants saw several commercial opportunities for aggregators who took on open access content – some that aggregate journal content are already working with open access publishers. It might be possible to show open access content alongside related ‘paid-for’ content, for example using ‘similar’ or ‘other relevant titles’ functionality, thus using the free open access work as an advertisement for paid-for content. Participants agreed that it was unlikely that this process would happen the other way around, i.e. suggesting free content as a replacement for paid-for content. Participants also discussed a model which gave free access to early versions of a work, or part of a completed work, as a prompt for users to buy the full, completed work. But it was felt that this could lead to complications to do with version control and maintaining links. For those aggregators with existing print operations or distribution channels, print-on-demand for open access e-books could be lucrative. The group discussed a suggestion, raised at one of the earlier focus groups, that aggregators might choose not to ingest open access monographs into their own platforms, but rather point to external locations where each monograph is held. Some participants could see an element of value in this; it could be a useful fringe benefit for acquisitions teams in terms of discovery although it would not really be useful for end users. Others felt that this would move too far beyond the core role of aggregators, which is to add value to content by linking it to other available content and making the discovery of content easy for end users: this can only be done if the content is held within the aggregator’s systems and they can provide value through high utility. Furthermore, there is a reputational risk in pointing to content that is held outside the aggregator’s own platforms, as the aggregator will not be in control of the user experience on external sites.

Barriers and considerations to address
There were a number of issues that would need to be addressed if aggregators were to take on open access monographs. If new entities emerged in a publishing role – university libraries, or learned societies, for example – aggregators would need to consider taking on their content, to ensure complete collections. But if these entities became a threat to established publishers, the aggregators would need to manage relationships with their existing suppliers to ensure that these were not compromised.

Metadata was another very important issue. Participants were clear that publishers would need to supply metadata for open access content to be licensed on aggregator platforms rather than the role of metadata creation sitting with the aggregator. They suggested that, in a model where open access fees were paid upfront to publishers, the contract for such fees should specify that metadata should be created: probably by referencing specific MARC record fields that are essential to support discovery. Despite this, aggregators would still need to enhance the metadata to work with their individual platforms and to support discovery by users, in order to ensure that their service is good – consistency of metadata and discovery is part of their brand reputation. The costs involved in such enhancement can be considerable, if human intervention is needed to create high-quality metadata. Aggregators would not be able to engage with open access content unless they are able to make enough money from it to cover these costs – especially if the number of OA titles increased and thus the responsibility and burden placed on them.

Another set of issues relate to the licence terms for open access content. Aggregators have a licence with publishers which is separate from the one between publishers and authors. But there may be reputational risks involved with making money from content which is badged elsewhere as ‘open access’ – even though aggregators will need to recoup the money they may have invested in enhancing the utility of the content. Participants thought authors and librarians might have particularly strong views on this subject.

Participants also raised the issue of the Digital Rights Management (DRM) of their platforms not being able to be adjusted at a title level to manage different levels of rights and uses. Consistency is important and there is an end user agreement between libraries / end users and aggregators. If OA monographs were to be available on a platform, the participants suggested that they would fall under the end user licence and be subject to the platform DRM – having different types of creative commons licences would be inconsistent and perhaps cause user to presume OA titles were of lower quality if they were not subject to the same control.

Quality assurance
The content held on aggregator platforms must be high-quality, as this is an important selling-point to users. Participants felt that free content is sometimes perceived as lower quality or value than content that you have to pay to access. They suggested that open access content would be fully integrated into the wider collection without any distinguishing marks, to try to counter this perception.

Most aggregators of e-books rely on publishers to carry out quality assurance for the content that they ingest. Some aggregators do have staff who are responsible for checking the quality of content from, for example, smaller publishers, but the capacity to do this is limited. If open access content were to be made available via non-traditional routes without a quality assurance mechanism that aggregators can trust, it is not clear that aggregators would have the skills or capacity to ensure that it is of a quality that they are happy to put on their platform. This could potentially be resolved by a trusted quality assurance system for open access content, or by new partnerships for aggregators to undertake their own in-house quality assurance.

Participants’ concerns about the quality of a user’s experience extended to the need for persistent links to open access content. They were not overly concerned, however, about having a version of record stored somewhere in a copyright library, for example.