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Most recently during a Charleston Conference session titled, “The Whole Discovery Enchilada: How Close Are We to the Goal,” panelists from industry stakeholder communities - discovery service vendor, library, publisher, and standards developer – gathered to discuss where we are in making all subscribed online content reliably discoverable from the library website.
Among the various topics highlighted and discussed were:
- Are publishers providing the right metadata to the discovery services? If not, what should they be doing?
- Are the discovery services adding metadata reliably, quickly and comprehensibly?
- Are librarians sufficiently aware of the consequences of discovery configurations and how it can affect usage of their purchased subscription content?
- How do discovery services owned by companies selling aggregated databases ensure against bias in their discovery systems? Is it enough? And usage stats from discovery services: who gets those? Who should get those?
This panel highlighted, through discussion of these questions and more, the key ingredients of a topic of great importance to librarians – content neutrality.
The concept of content neutrality garnered significant attention with the advent and development of discovery services – from federated search to today’s services. Throughout 2013 and 2014 it was a popular topic at several conferences and discussed widely across a variety of blogs.
Though not widely covered as it previously was, libraries continue behind the scenes evaluating, selecting and implementing their discovery service with a content-neutral approach in mind. Libraries don’t want to deploy to their users something that is complex, contains mysterious content, and isn’t representative of their ideal.
Libraries need assurances that their discovery service fully supports content neutrality so that users are equally exposed to the entire wealth of information from all sources. Content neutrality is fundamental to the library’s mission as users need to be able to discover and access information, unencumbered and unimpeded by external motivations. The reputation of the library itself, and the value of it, depends on how well the discovery service fulfills users’ expectations.
The concept of content neutrality can be complex, as the panel discussion at the Charleston Conference highlights. There are many interrelated elements of discovery service design that can contribute to systemic bias and ultimately prevent the library from achieving its objective. Discovery services could become the opposite of what libraries want: becoming a gateway to restricted content access, redirecting usage to specific sets of content and exerting influence to prefer one provider over others.
Ultimately, libraries need to take an active role in verifying content neutrality in discovery systems. To preserve the library’s core mission libraries should continue to ask discovery service providers difficult questions while examining processes and system elements. Such scrutiny could include analyzing metadata management practices, the system design and architecture, configuration options, and user interface design elements that can contribute to system bias. A robust approach will provide libraries with a full understanding of if and how their selected system supports content neutrality.
A concern that some libraries may have is that discovery service providers, that are also content providers, have an intent and vested interest to funnel usage to their content. With the success of online services often based on usage metrics and the fact that the content sales model is driven by the “revenue follows usage” mantra, librarians should well be concerned about content neutrality in discovery services from such dual providers.
With this in mind, ProQuest and Ex Libris reaffirms our commitment to content neutrality in our discovery systems. We encourage libraries to continue to ask us the difficult questions, as we believe that all discovery service providers need to defend why and how they have designed their processes and systems to support content neutrality. We are confident that you’ll find that our discovery services, Summon and Primo, are content neutral and designed to meet the needs of the industry’s stakeholder communities and library users.
We invite you to read our Guide to Evaluating Content Neutrality in Discovery Systems to better understand content neutrality, the principles for evaluating discovery systems, and questions librarians can ask of vendors about their own discovery services. We further encourage you to read our three-part series on content neutrality which highlights the connection of net neutrality and content neutrality, bias and research integrity, and how to ensure content neutral discovery services.
Let us know what you think. Is content neutrality an important topic for you, your library, and its users? What’s your perspective? Tweet @ExLibrisGroup to voice your thoughts.