Conference Dispatch: SAGE Discoverability Panel at ALA Midwinter 2012

The theme of a new white paper on discoverability, “Improving Discoverability of Scholarly Content in the Twenty-First Century,” sponsored by SAGE, is the need for more robust discussion and collaboration between publishers, librarians and their vendor partners. The paper’s authors and contributors put this advice into action when they gathered at ALA Midwinter last week in Dallas for a cross-sector panel discussion on what it takes to discover quality scholarly works in today’s libraries.

With an audience of more than 200, the conversation started by defining what higher-ed search and discovery looks like today. Mary Somerville kicked things off by drawing from the white paper’s definition of discoverability, as representing “the degree to which scholars can locate the content needed to advance their research and other creative activity.” The panel, representing major players in the “value chain” of scholarly communication, agreed that successful discoverability is not a factor of the quantity of search results, but instead a measure of their quality. Today’s researchers, at all levels, demand simplicity, precision and visibility – to locate not only what they seek, but also what they ultimately need, to further their work.

A hot topic was new web-scale discovery services for institutional libraries – and the ways in which these tools are changing the academic research landscape. Barbara Schader, Associate University Librarian for Collections and Scholarly Communication at University of California Riverside, noted that these new emerging products are not full service, but are a fantastic starting point for students. John Law, VP Discovery Solutions for Serials Solutions / ProQuest, mentioned ongoing innovations to increase the filtering options for services, such as Summon’s new discipline-scoped searching options.

All search engines – whether designed for libraries or those on the open-web – require indexing routines. Joe Esposito stated that “this is not the age of Google, it’s the age of metadata.”  Somerville noted that 20% full-time equivalent library staff is dedicated to metadata generation, management, and maintenance of institutional discovery systems. The necessary vendor selection, usability testing, and installation processes are additional costs that will not diminish soon.

John Sack, Founding Director of HighWire Press, noted that similar investments are made today in publishing houses big and small. Often, he said, metadata production and delivery represents the “cost of herding cats,” as every service has different, and quickly changeable, requirements – which led to another argument for data standards. Law noted that NISO has launched the Open Discovery Initiative, which plans to do just that.

The panelists agreed that standards, like OpenURL, are the glue that holds library discovery in place. And, while COUNTER had led the way in usage reporting, we do yet have clear metrics of the quality of that usage. Most librarians and publishers rely on full-text download and cost / use statistics to drive business decisions, but the panel questioned whether this type of usage data adequately represents valuable research activities.

Clearly, there is a wealth of quantitative data produced within the library market, but it is not regularly shared and some panelist argued that it is lacking a qualitative layer of data. Esposito proposed that publishers should develop more robust analysis systems – as sophisticated as Bloomberg does for the stock market. Law insisted that this cannot happen unless silos between publishers and across the industry are relaxed in order to develop benchmarks for usage metrics.

Sack also noted that the 3 primary players – publishers, librarians and vendors – are not the only parties that must work together to optimize discoverability. Authors have an important and often disregarded role in ensuring scholarship is visible and findable, beyond simply adding keywords. Also, the end users themselves must be involved in the solution. Discovery for discovery’s sake is not enough — we must ASK users if what they find is of value.

In conclusion, Somerville reflected that the topics discussed by this panel and in the white paper can and should inspire rethinking of traditional relationships in the library marketplace. You can find more of this kind of cross-sector discussion continues on SSP’s “Scholarly Kitchen” blog, and on Twitter, #sagediscovery and #alamw12. We welcome replies to this post or submissions of new posts to Lettie Conrad, Online Product Manager (

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