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Traditional subscription agents have increasingly evolved into information intermediaries. Two of these companies explain why and give their perspectives on challenges facing research libraries and scholarly publishing

David Main, CEO, Swets

How has your role evolved?

Our industry never stands still and our role has evolved, primarily, as a result of the evolving role of digital content in libraries. The needs of the library are changing rapidly, especially in the current economic environment and many libraries find themselves in an increasingly challenging situation. They are required to manage their library services effectively and efficiently while improving the value they deliver. They must balance the budget concerns of their institution against the complex and demanding requirements of their researchers. In almost every case, third-party services are required to meet these challenges.

In the last three years, Swets has responded to these changes with our e-book platform, with over one million titles, to help libraries acquire e-books and manage their e-book budgets. We have also improved our SwetsWise Selection Support product by adding impact-factor data alongside usage stats and price-per-use reports, and we spent time ensuring that libraries are able to provide access to the digital content they have bought. In addition, we have launched a research productivity and collaboration service in partnership with Mendeley. This helps libraries provide better services to their researchers and provides real-time visibility on research activities and output for the library.

What are the main functions of subscription agents?

We provide an effective and efficient channel to market for publishers and help libraries efficiently purchase content from a very long list of publishers. To do this effectively, libraries increasingly require a set of services based around this – including access to usage statistics, e-access services, EDI exchange of information with their systems and more.

And publishers want to know if they are being effectively represented to their target customers and that we can help provide them savings in the administration of their contract with customers.

What do publishers and librarians ask for most?

Not surprisingly, publishers are most interested in where there are additional sales opportunities. They also want to understand how they are performing relative to their peers.

In the last year, there has been a significant level of interest in our research productivity solution, Mendeley Institutional Edition. There is a focus on increasing the value of their service, linked to getting greater visibility on the use of the content they provide.

Usage and impact are very important to demonstrate. Libraries are looking at how to manage on restricted budgets and they increasingly need to show fact-based accountability for their spend.

Open access does not affect our role as an intermediary. Currently, open access is only a small portion of the market; although, it is growing. We are looking at where we play a role in the open-access market going forward.

What will be the future role of subscription agents?

Our role is already much bigger than that of a traditional subscription agent. We provide integrated content management services for libraries and publishers – only a part of which is traditional subscription management.

Our library services cover three areas: selection management; access management; and research productivity. We work with our customers to integrate our services; making them an integral part of their daily workflows.

Our selection management services help with a library’s content acquisition workflow, from validation and analysis through to selection and budget control. Our access management services provide support and services and solutions for streamlining the delivery and access of a diverse range of published content – from consolidated shelf-ready print journals to e-access authentication and beyond. Finally, our research productivity services help ensure the optimal discovery and utilisation of content. With these services, libraries can provide researchers with reference management, productivity and collaboration tools.

For publishers, we provide services covering: performance information; sales support and sales; and service administration support. Our performance information services can stimulate additional sales and increase the profitability of a publisher’s business. Our sales support services can provide a key channel to market and assist publishers in effectively covering the resource gaps they struggle to fill, and open up additional revenue opportunities. In addition, we supply a range of financial administration and service support publishers to help support and streamline their administration.

We also have two other subsidiaries that play intermediary roles: Accucoms, which is focused on publisher sales support; and LibServ, which provides outsourced services to corporate information centres that are facing the increasing demand of reducing the cost of content procurement while improving the service to knowledge workers.

Sid McNeal (SM), vice president and general manager, publisher affairs and Kittie Henderson (KH), director, academic and law divisions, EBSCO

How has your role evolved?

SM: While EBSCO’s primary function – to transact the purchase of content – has not changed, we continually aspire to add value for librarians and publishers in managing those transactions. Our role has evolved from traditional subscription agent to information intermediary.

KH: Each year we conduct our annual Library Budgeting and Trends Survey in order to gain a better perspective of trends relative to current economic conditions and future objectives of librarians and publishers. Our 2012 survey, for instance, revealed that libraries’ purchasing patterns continue to move rapidly from individual titles toward packaged content.

We are responding by offering the mechanisms not only for purchasing but also for managing and accessing this packaged content. We continue to develop services that can help librarians manage various forms of electronic content, particularly with a limited library staff.

What are the main functions of subscription agents?

KH: Historically, subscription agents have assisted libraries in acquiring content. Although content today is packaged for purchase in so many more ways than years ago, EBSCO continues in that expanding function while providing information that can help librarians make more-effective purchasing decisions. We also facilitate access to, and evaluation of, that content once it is purchased.

What do publishers and librarians most commonly ask for?

SM: As a pure intermediary, we are in the business of meeting needs and we are constantly ensuring that our role and our involvement are relevant. For example, over the last decade, librarians have been introduced to the task of managing various forms of electronic access to information, and they continue to ask us to support and assist them in that space.

KH: Librarians ranked usage as the most important element in collection development decision-making in each of the three EBSCO budgeting and trends surveys. We have responded to the needs of librarians by supplying the services and tools – not only for acquiring content but also for accessing and evaluating that content to help librarians increase the visibility and value of their collection. We provide these services with tools like EBSCO SmartLinks+, EBSCONET Usage Consolidation, and the EBSCO Usage Loading Service.

What impact does open access have on your role?

SM: This is a virgin space. Papers and general conversation in the industry provide growing evidence that intermediation may be needed among authors, publishers, and funding organisations. EBSCO is looking at open access very carefully. We see this as another area where we can be of value in intermediating transactions for the benefit of all involved. As a result of our long-term relationships with publishers, we have established conduits for handling complex pieces of information, particularly payments. A robust open-access community will require an intermediary that can enter this space and efficiently handle financial transactions.

What will be the future role of subscription agents?

SM: The need for transaction management increases with the changing types and number of ways content can be purchased or exchanged, especially with emergence of patron-initiated/demand-driven acquisition and open access. As librarians manage more new processes, information intermediaries will play a more significant role helping measure, track, and analyse those transactions.