Saturday, October 30, 2010

"Gladiators" to perform sleight-of-hand at Charleston Conference

If you’ve read the most recent Library Journal, Infotech report, you’ll know that there is going to be a faceoff between two "gladiators", i.e. publishers/aggregators Proquest/Serials Solutions with their Summon offering and Ebsco with the Ebsco Discovery Service (EDS) offering at the upcoming Charleston Conference. This contest resulted from a series of letters to the Charleston Advisor. These two publisher/aggregators claim the intent is to show librarians which of their solutions are best.

Since we also wrote a letter to the Charleston Advisor that was published/mentioned and since we are a global leader of discovery solutions you may wonder why we weren't invited? The answer is likely because we’re a “library discovery and scholarly aggregate index solution provider” not a “publisher/aggregator” and for other reasons you'll understand after reading this post.

So, while this whole tactic will be mildly entertaining, it is exceedingly silly.

Does anyone really doubt that this technique will result in anything other than these two publishers showing features that are perceived as unique to their offering that the other publisher can’t do? Isn’t this always true with every product/service offering when compared to another? So we’ll end up with two publishers scoring points and smiling smugly while watching the other writhe in the agony of defeat for a few moments – or at least until it’s their turn to score a few points and smile smugly in return. What will this really prove?

Does anyone really think this will change how you are going to select your Content and Discovery products? Do these publisher/aggregators really think that by doing this you’ll suddenly decide that instead of thorough deliberation, thoughtful analysis and asking dozens of questions of each supplier, you’ll just buy on the basis of a face-off? Apparently so.

I suspect the more likely case will be as our Corporate VP, Nancy Dushkin, said in her letter to the Charleston Advisor:
“As history has shown, multiple solutions arise to address real needs, and each solution has its own characteristics. In terms of discovery solutions, I'm confident that each library, after conducting a thorough evaluation of facts and features, will be able to determine which of the available products best fits the library's mission, needs, policies, and environment.”
But, maybe in a political season of exceeding silliness in North America, we all just need the parody and a light moment and then we can all go back to more serious work.

However, this exercise will prove one thing. It will show that these publishers/content aggregators are attempting to pull some of the fastest sleight-of-hand possible in order to hide the much larger, and far more important, issues about what really matters when selecting a discovery solution today. These two particular firms are, as Library Journal says, in the “greatest competition” because they are, first and foremost, publishers/aggregators fighting head-to-head for their first line of business, which is content and content aggregation services. The discovery solution is secondary to them and it is shown in numerous ways by their actions. You can discover this for yourself by asking these questions:

1. Have you offered your discovery layer for free as part of a packaged content/discovery solution deal?

No matter what the answer is publicly, as competitors we can tell you that we’ve seen instances where customers have been offered the discovery solution for free from a publisher/content aggregator owned firm, as part of a larger content subscription package.

Now, we all know there is no such thing as “free” lunch. If this happens to you, ask why are they willing to do this? Where are they making their money on that product? It may not be in the first year. It might be in later years as you see price hikes on your content and content aggregation services. A good defensive tactic would be for you to use would be to ask for a line item price quote with prices applied to all the content, as well as the ‘no-cost” discovery layer so that in subsequent years, when you ask for the same, you can see where those price hikes are being applied. Want more details? See the section below on “content neutrality”.

2. Which proprietary software vendor produced a discovery solution first and why?

Our Corporate VP, Nancy Dushkin, in her letter to the Charleston Advisor pointed out that our discovery solution, Primo, has been in libraries since 2007 and is installed in hundreds of libraries around the world. We started by building the discovery product first, and getting the functionality right to deal with a broad variety of content types and sources. That was a deliberate choice. Data, on the other hand, is becoming more and more of a commodity and is becoming available from numerous sources. This is also why we’re seeing these “gladiators” fight so publicly and viciously. They want to continue to force people into their discovery interfaces where they can make sure their content and content aggregation is highlighted and used first and foremost because, as we noted above, this is their primary business and where they make their money.

3. What is “content-neutrality”, who offers it and why is it important?

Content neutrality means that the library, not the publisher/content aggregator or vendor, can minimally control the following:
  • What content is included in their discovery tool.
  • The relevance ranking on that content. Can you force the content that is unique to your library to the top of the result sets? Can you control the relevancy ranking of all the content being offered through your discovery layer?
  • Control of the facets offered by the system. Facets are a very quick way for users to quickly sort through a lot of content, but in order for you to meet the specific needs of your users, these must be under your control. If they’re not under your control, careful analysis of those offered and why they’re being offered is needed on the library’s part before proceeding.
Don’t just accept simple answers to these questions. Have these “gladiators” show you exactly how you would perform each and every one of these steps.

Also remember that when you sign with a publisher/aggregator for their discovery tool and you use their aggregate index that it has their competitors data loaded into it. That means they can now see the usage of not only their own content, but also that of their competitors. They can see what titles are used; they can see how often they’re used. It's certainly possible, if you don't control the relevancy ranking as described above, that they might force their content to rank higher than their competitors and therefore encourage greater use. I may be naïve, but no one is ever going to convince me that this information isn’t going to be mighty handy to have when it comes time for these publisher/aggregators to define the content packages for next year, what titles are in them and how they’re going to position and price them against their competitors.

More importantly, those who I see on the losing end of this specific scenario are libraries. After all, if they gave you that discovery interface or charged you very little for it, somewhere, someplace and somebody has to pay for it and you’ll have handed them the possibility to do that to your library .

Remember when you buy a discovery product (Primo) and an aggregate index (Primo Central Index) from a vendor like Ex Libris, you get an assurance that the supplier is content-neutral and that we have no vested interest in the content except to make sure that you, representing the library using the content, are getting the best possible solution at the best possible cost in order to meet the specific needs of your users without outside influence or interference.

4. Do you comply with the the International Coalition of Library Consortium (ICOLC) Statement, Principle 3?

This statement was added in June 2010 and says:
“We encourage publishers to allow their content to be made available through numerous vendors appropriate for their subject matter. We also encourage online providers and aggregators to allow their metadata to be included in emerging discovery layer services on a non-exclusive basis.”
It doesn’t say make “some” of your metadata available and it very specifically says don’t make it available on an exclusive basis (i.e. through the discovery tool offered by another division of the same company). This statement very clearly says that libraries are functioning in a challenging economic situation and they want their vendors to offer their metadata to all discovery products on an open basis. Be sure to ask the “gladiators” what their plans are for complying with that statement. While you're at it, ask them why they think it acceptable for either of these gladiators to ask their competitors to load their metadata in one of these vendors indexes, but it is NOT acceptable for them to be asked to provide their metadata for indexing in other aggregate indexes?

Now you might ask: "Didn't you just say above, that if they have their competitor's metadata in their index, I'm at a disadvantage? Am I not facilitating this by asking for compliance with this statement?" Yes, I did and yes, you are, but remember what I also said above -- buy your discovery solution and associated aggregate index from a content-neutral party, like Ex Libris. By so doing you'll keep a clear division that will avoid any conflict-of-interest and provide you with the statistics and tools to negotiate content and aggregation deals on a fair and open basis.

So if you’re going to the Charleston Conference and you intend to be at the face-off, enjoy the show. If you get the chance, ask some of the questions above. While the show may be entertaining, the questions above deserve real answers when you’re selecting a discovery solution and aggregate index for your library. At Ex Libris, Primo and the Primo Central Index provide you with answers we believe these two “gladiators” do not want you to hear. Now you understand why there will only be two "gladiators" on the stage.