COUNTER Metrics: An Unsatisfactory Measurement of a University’s Usage of Open Access Books

Libraries Feb 17, 2020

Many libraries in the UK and around the world use COUNTER statistics to measure the usage of their digital resources (including databases, online journals, ebooks and Open Access books) by members of their university. Because we know that libraries value COUNTER statistics, we offer our Library Members COUNTER-consistent metrics to measure their usage of our books, as one of several benefits of membership (which also include free ebooks available to all patrons to be kept permanently, discounts on printed copies for all patrons, MARC records, resources to discuss Open Access with students and staff, and more).[1]

But we are concerned about COUNTER statistics as a measure of the usage of Open Access digital resources by members of a specific university—and particularly when they are compared with similar statistics for ‘closed access’ and paywalled content.

COUNTER statistics are a reasonable measure of the use of commercial content, because the paywall acts as a ‘funnel’ guiding users to the publisher’s site to access the content (where, because the library has already paid for institutional access, it is toll-free to the individual user). Even when patrons are off campus they have an incentive to log in and access the digital resources via their remote-access credentials—or indeed, to delay accessing the content until they are within a university’s IP domain. The COUNTER metrics can therefore track the actual usage of commercial content with a relatively high degree of accuracy.

But there are problems with using COUNTER metrics to measure the usage of OA books by library patrons. Precisely because the books are Open Access, users are able to access the OA editions (PDF and, often, HTML and XML too) from any number of places, including Google Books, JSTOR, OAPEN, an author’s university repository—in fact, from anywhere they are shared online. That is the beauty of Open Access! But the lack of a paywall also means that the users are not ‘funnelled’ to access the content via one route that is easy to measure.

We are not currently able to provide university-specific usage data from any sites other than our own. So the COUNTER-consistent statistics we provide are only for actions recorded on the OBP website from an IP address registered to the university—necessarily a much lower number than the actual usage of our books by Library Members.

From conversations with some of our Library Members, we know that the library catalogues themselves often send people to other platforms, for example OAPEN, rather than to our website. We are not currently able to provide COUNTER-consistent metrics for usage of our books on these platforms—and more importantly, readers will not be able to access all of the benefits of the Library Membership there, some of which can only be accessed from our website. Other platforms typically offer only the PDF edition of our books—which is free to everyone—while our own site offers an array of different formats, including the ebook editions (free to Library Member users), the Open Access HTML and XML editions, and the paperback and hardback editions (discounted for Library Member users).

To get the most out of Library Membership, as well as to obtain a more accurate measurement of the usage of our books, libraries should therefore direct patrons to our website wherever possible. We aim to assist in this by providing MARC records as one of the benefits of Library Membership, in which the only URL included is the DOI—which directs to the book’s page on our website.

If readers were directed to our website, the COUNTER-consistent metrics would be more reflective of actual use—but they will still not be a complete measurement. The COUNTER data libraries get for OA content and the COUNTER data they get for closed-access content are not directly comparable, and there is a risk that the OA resources are seen as less popular with users simply because those users are not being efficiently funnelled by a paywall. We hope that librarians will bear this in mind when considering the usage patterns for the resources they support.

If you’re interested to find out more about metrics and OA books:

  • This post (written for the general reader) is a deep dive into what book usage data really tells us.
  • And this webpage explains the work we have done on book usage data with the HIRMEOS project, creating open source software and databases to collectively collect and host usage data from alternative platforms for multiple publishers. This work has significantly contributed to the development of the OPERAS Metrics Portal.
  • Finally, keep an eye on the activities of COPIM and particularly the ‘Building an Open Dissemination System’ project. OBP is taking a leading role in this project, which will develop technical protocols and infrastructure to better integrate OA books into institutional library, digital learning and repository systems. Everything COPIM creates will be openly available and community-governed for libraries, publishers and anybody else to adopt as they see fit. Follow the COPIM Twitter feed for updates!

[1] COUNTER-consistent metrics are collected using COUNTER’s specifications. The reason our data is not officially COUNTER compliant (meaning that COUNTER has officially recognised that our metrics are collected using their specifications) is because COUNTER charges a substantial fee to become COUNTER compliant, which, for a non-profit organisation like ours, is a significant barrier.

Lucy Barnes

Lucy Barnes is Senior Editor and Outreach Coordinator at Open Book Publishers.