COUNTER: more than just subscription metrics

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Twenty years after its launch, the latest update to the COUNTER Code of Practice – scholarly communications’ standard for measuring online usage – is about to go live. Research Information speaks to some of its volunteers

Why do we need a standard for measuring usage?

Jo Lambert/Paul Needham, Jisc: Libraries (and other e-resource content consumers) are spending a significant proportion of their budgets on e-resources and need content and collections that meet user needs and represent a good return on investment. Robust and credible data is needed to assess value and impact and ensure that resources are being deployed appropriately. Without a standardised approach to measuring usage, statistics are at best meaningless and at worst completely misleading. The COUNTER standard provides the global de-facto standard in measuring usage of e-resources.

Oliver Pesch, EBSCO: Before collections became predominantly online, the library was responsible for hosting and circulating the collection and thus was able to gather their own usage data from their internal systems. Today, however, a typical academic library collection is hosted on and accessed from hundreds of different sites. The need for statistics to manage purchases/licences and support collection development has never been stronger. Without a code of practice like COUNTER, librarians would have the impossible task of gathering and normalising thousands of usage reports each year, and even then, lack of consistency in metrics and reporting would render the results suspect if not useless. Standards are the only way.

Jack Ochs, American Chemical Society: Today’s digital libraries invest considerable resources in licensing and providing access to different types of online content. To make acquisition decisions that provide the highest quality and most relevant resources for the research communities they serve, it is important that they understand how that content is being used. Prior to the formation of COUNTER, usage statistics suffered from a variety of concerning issues including a lack of common report formats, terminology, and definitions; unaddressed technical issues in data gathering; lack of coordination between the different attempts at standardisation, and national, as opposed to international, focus. COUNTER has effectively addressed those issues by ensuring that publishers and other vendors are able to provide usage data to library customers in a format they want; compare the relative usage of different delivery channels; aggregate data for customers using multiple delivery channels; and learn more about genuine usage patterns.

What value does COUNTER bring to the community, and do libraries and publishers view it differently?

Heather Staines, DeltaThink: I first learned about COUNTER when I was the eProduct Manager for SpringerLink. I found it so helpful that there was an agreed up standard way to measure usage with clearly defined rules. Internally, publishers look to usage to support renewals, measure researcher engagement across product lines or subject areas. Libraries manage a complex set of resources, and enabling them to compare apples to oranges makes that part of their job a bit simpler.

Ochs: COUNTER enables libraries to receive consistent, comparable and credible usage data for the online content they acquire. This allows librarians and other interested parties to compare the usage data they receive and understand and demonstrate the value of the electronic resources to which they subscribe. Libraries and publishers both value COUNTER’s Code of Practice as a reliable measure of value supported by a dedicated multi-stakeholder team working in good faith to understand and meet the evolving needs of digital asset management.

Lambert/Needham: It’s a globally recognised and widely used standard, informed, developed and maintained by the community itself. The standard is widely regarded as mutually beneficial by all stakeholders, including libraries and publishers.

Stuart Maxwell, Scholarly IQ: COUNTER brings together a community of interested parties to come to common agreement on what the industry needs for usage measurement and how this should be delivered. COUNTER tasks working groups of these volunteers to keep the standards up to date with changing requirements and make sure that any updates have consensus across stakeholders. It is driven not solely by libraries or publishers but by agreement from both as well as being open for any other participatory group, including service providers and funders. 

COUNTER was originally designed for subscription content but Release 5.1 is ‘optimised for OA’ - what’s changed?

Pesch: The early focus on usage statistics was to support purchase and collection management decisions – to support continued renewal of journals, packages or databases. As OA becomes more popular, particularly for hybrid journals where some articles are free-to-read and others require a subscription, knowing how much usage can be attributed to OA content becomes more and more important.  Transitional agreements, designed to support institutions as they transition from reader-pay to author-pay models, also fuels the added interest in gathering statistics on OA usage.

Maxwell: Without going into the transition to OA, there is a real need to understand how the transition to OA is working, what makes it work and what is the impact of OA. All these require measurement and reporting, and what more transparent, established method is there other than COUNTER? One of the fundamental changes for Release 5.1 is putting the focus on to the Item rather than the Title. Once the report is centred on the Item this makes reporting available by Author, Funder, Source etc. The same trusted metrics now support OA centred questions which would otherwise be lost within an aggregated Title level report. There is still more to be done to identify and agree what usage means to OA but we should be making sure that industry led standards are available to support this. It would be a great mistake for OA usage to not be Consistent, Credible and Comparable in the same way.

Lambert/Needham: The scholarly publishing landscape has changed; publishing is increasingly transitioning to open access, there’s more diversity in the publications landscape – including institutional repositories and university presses – and appropriate metrics to evaluate impact in this new landscape are critical.

Staines: The pandemic put quite a spotlight on open content, from both the Covid-related content being made open and opening content for students and researchers displaced from campus. What many organisations discovered, however, was that with no registration process there wasn’t a good way to connect usage to institutions, removing a valuable datapoint for libraries and publishers. On the author side, we saw a shift of interest, among social scientists and humanities folks in particular, in ensuring that the populations they study be able to access the resulting research outputs. COUNTER usage is an obvious way to assess that kind of impact.

When did you get involved with COUNTER and why? Would you encourage others to join?

Staines: I joined the COUNTER Board back in 2016, after following the initiative for some time prior. The Code touches so many parts of our industry and continues to evolve as interest in and use of content changes over time. I’m now on the executive committee, and I always find the ongoing conversations insightful. I’m certainly an example of how you can contribute even if you aren’t on the very technical end of the spectrum!

Ochs: We have been members of COUNTER since its earliest days because we recognised its potential to provide a useful and much needed service to the communities we serve. We find our COUNTER membership highly valuable and believe others do as well.

Lambert/Needham: We’ve been involved with COUNTER for over 10 years. We develop and run the JUSP and IRUS services at Jisc, and the COUNTER standard which underpins these products, is absolutely essential. As aggregators of usage statistics, JUSP and IRUS are actively using the standard, working at scale with multiple providers of stats. In doing so we can offer feedback to COUNTER on areas of challenge or inconsistency and provide support to the community on implementation and use. Yes, we do encourage others to join COUNTER: a standard needs to be used, so the greater the level of adoption, the greater the value of the standard to all.

Pesch: I have been involved with COUNTER since the beginning. As a content aggregator, EBSCO had been providing usage reports to libraries for a number of years and the need for standardisation across the industry and library groups was readily apparent. COUNTER, which grew out of a publishers and libraries group (PALS), provided the forum for all concerned parties to meet, collaborate and develop a meaningful code of practice on capturing, processing and reporting usage statistics.

What are the timelines for Release 5.1 and what do publishers and libraries need to do to prepare?

Tasha Mellins-Cohen, Project Director, COUNTER: Release 5.1 of the Code of Practice will go live in April 2023, and we’re asking for publishers to become compliant by January 2025. The changes aren’t as big as the jump between Release 4 and Release 5, which happened back in 2019, so there shouldn’t be as much technical work to do in that compliance window. As well as the Code itself, we’ve been developing a completely new suite of educational materials – friendly guides, videos, and infographics – to help everyone understand the Code and how it has changed, and those will be available from our media library in multiple languages. We’ll be continuing to offer practical webinars and conference sessions on using COUNTER reports, and of course your readers can always sign up to our newsletter from and get in touch with me if they have any questions!