Open Access News

News from the open access movement

Saturday, June 16, 2007

More on the feasibility of a Usage Factor

The UKSG has released its final report on the feasibility of developing a Usage Factor for journals and journal articles.  From the text (dated May 2007 but announced and released June 15, 2007):

...Based on [surveys and interviews] it appears that it would not only be feasible to develop a meaningful journal Usage Factor, but that there is broad support for its implementation. Detailed conclusions and recommendations are provided in Section 4 of this report. Principal among these are: 

  • the COUNTER usage statistics are not yet seen as a solid enough foundation on which to build a new global measure such as Usage Factor, but confidence in them is growing and they are seen as the only viable basis for UF
  • the majority of publishers are supportive of the UF concept, appear to be willing, in principle to participate in the calculation and publication of UFs, and are prepared to see their journals ranked according to UF
  • there is a diversity of opinion on the way in which UF should be calculated....
  • the great majority of authors in all fields of academic research would welcome a new, usage-based measure of the value of journals 
  • UF, were it available, would be a highly ranked factor by librarians, not only in the evaluation of journals for potential purchase, but also in the evaluation of journals for retention or cancellation 
  • publishers are, on the whole, unwilling to provide their usage data to a third party for consolidation and for calculation of UF. The majority appear to be willing to calculate UFs for their own journals and to have this process audited. This is generally perceived as a natural extension of the work already being done for COUNTER. While it may have implications for systems, these are not seen as being problematic.... 
  • there are several structural problems with online usage data that would have to be addressed for UFs to be credible. Notable among these is the perception that online usage data is much more easily manipulated than is citation data. 
  • should UKSG wish to take this project further there is a strong likelihood that other agencies would be interested in contributing financial support

From elsewhere in the body of the report:

...6 of the 7 authors are interested in knowing how frequently their articles are accessed online.  One author currently monitors the Web of Science to access how frequently his articles are being cited; he would find the usage equivalent of this very valuable. Other authors mentioned that they are also very interested in where and by whom their articles are being used. The majority of the authors were not familiar with COUNTER....

[In response to the question whether usage data should cover articles from the previous 2 years, the previous 5 years, or some other period, one interview subject suggested:]  Go for 2 years. UF should be more immediate than IF. Given the trend towards free availability of research articles after a period, paid access is going to be increasingly regarded as being for a shorter period after publication. Librarians will want metrics to cover the period for which they are paying. Five years would be too long....

[In response to a question about benefits for participating publishers, one suggested:]  By participating in this process, publishers will influence it, helping to develop useful measures in which they can have confidence. Currently journal publishers are under a lot of pressure to demonstrate the value they provide. The challenge from open access has further stimulated this....

[T]he number of sites on which the full text of a particular article will be available is likely to grow in the future, as a result of an increase in open access publishing and institutional repositories. This will increase the difficulty in obtaining a 100% global figure for journal usage. This need not be an insurmountable obstacle to the calculation of comparable UFs, but it is a potential problem....

Librarians indicated that, if UF were available, it would become the second most important factor ( after ‘feedback from library users’) in decisions in the purchase of new journals, while it would be the third most important factor ( after ‘feedback from library users’ and ‘usage’) in retention/cancellation decisions....


  1. I'm all for anything that will help authors make better decisions on where to submit their work and help librarians make better decisions on what to buy, renewal, and cancel.  But we have to be careful going in. Impact Factors (IFs), for example, measure something but it isn't quality, and yet the IF has come to be used as a quality measurement, or a crude substitute for a quality measurement, by promotion and tenure committees, funding agencies, and librarians.  If we can avoid the same mistake with the UF, then let's go for it.  The more good data we have, the better.  But what are the odds that we'll avoid the same mistake?
  2. If the UF materializes, it will be important for OA journals to participate in COUNTER, important for COUNTER to reach out to more OA journals, and important for the usage of articles on deposit in OA repositories to count toward the UF of the articles and the journals in which they were published.
  3. Here's what worries me most:  There are good reasons to think that the UF will systematically undercount the usage of OA articles.  As I argued in an article from January 2004:
    As soon as we provide open access to an article, we should expect copies to proliferate around the world....Copies interfere with the measurement of traffic and usage.  A given archive or journal might measure usage very well.  But if there is an unknown number of copies elsewhere on the net, and an unknown percentage of readers are using those other copies, then the local measurements will be inaccurate to an unknown degree.  We might know that all verified counts are undercounts, but we won't know by how much.

    The report itself (in the second-to-last paragraph excerpted above) acknowledges this problem but says it is "not...insurmountable".  As the UF moves forward, let's watch closely how the UKSG and other stakeholders address this problem --and remember that we are stakeholders ourselves.