The following is an email conversation between myself and the representative of a society publisher who is hosting their journals on their own website.
Can I access the useage information for my institution? We subscribe to both the print and online [Journal Name].
Dear Ms. Creech,
At the most recent meeting of the [Society] Board of Directors, the topic of usage statistics was discussed at length. As I am sure you are aware, usage statistics are a very coarse measure of the use of a web resource. As just one example, there is no particular relationship between the number of downloads of an article and the number of times it is read or the number of times it is cited. An article download could represent anything from glancing at the abstract, to careful reading. Once downloaded, articles can be saved locally, re-read and redistributed to others. Given the lack of any evidence that downloads of professional articles have any relationship to their effective audience size or their value to readers, the Board decided that [Society] will not provide potentially misleading usage statistics. We do periodically publish the overall usage of the [Society] website, about 10 million hits per year.
[Society] Web Editor
Dear Mr. [Name Removed],
Your Board of Directors are certainly a group of mavericks in this case. Whether they think the data is valuable or not, libraries around the world use it to aid in collection development decisions. Without usage data, we have no idea if an online resource is being used by our faculty and students, which makes it an easy target for cancellation in budget crunch times. I suggest they re-think this decision, for their own sakes.
We all know that use statistics do not fully represent the way an online journal is used by researchers, but that does not mean they are without value. No librarian would ever make decisions base on usage data alone, but it does contribute valuable information to the collection development process.
Hits on a website mean even less than article downloads. Our library website gets millions of hits just from being the home page for all of the browsers in the building. I would never use website hits to make any sort of a decision about an online resource.
Provide the statistics using the COUNTER standard and let the professionals (i.e. librarians) decide if they are misleading.
UPDATE: The conversation continues….
Dear Ms. Creech,
Curiously, the providers of usage statistics are primarily commercial publishing houses. Few science societies that publish research journals are providing download statistics. In part, this is a matter of resources that the publisher can dedicate to providing statistics-on-demand: commercial publishing houses have the advantage of an economy of scale. They are also happy to provide COUNTER-compliant statistics in part because they are relatively immune to journal cancellation, as a result of mandatory journal bundling.
In any event, after careful consideration and lengthy discussion with a librarian-consultant, the Board concluded that usage statistics are easy to acquire and tempting to use, but are in effect “bad data”. I certainly respect your desire to make the most of a tight library budget, but also respectfully disagree that download statistics are an appropriate tool to make critical judgements about journals. Other methods to learn about the use of a particular journal are available- for example, asking faculty and students to rate the importance of journals to their work, or using impact factors. I am sure you take these into account as well.
I will copy this reply to the [Society] Board so that they are aware of your response. No doubt the Board will revisit the topic of usage statistics in future meetings.
Dear Mr. [Name Removed],
I never ment to imply that we exclusively use statistics for collection development decisions. We also talk with faculty and students about their needs. However, the numbers are often a good place to begin the discussions. As in, “I see that no one has downloaded any articles from this journal in the past year. Are you still finding it relevant to your research?” Even prior to online subscriptions, librarians have looked at re-shelve counts and the layer of dust on the tops of materials as indicators that a conversation is warranted.
I suggest your Board take a look at the American Chemical Society. They provide COUNTER statistics and are doing quite well despite the “bad data.”