Economics and Usage of Digital Libraries: Byting the BulletSkip other details (including permanent urls, DOI, citation information)
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PEAK was a rather unique project. During a relatively early stage of the transition to digital scholarly collections, we delivered a large-scale production service containing several years of content from over 1100 journal titles, for a total of about 10 million pages. On top of the commitment to a production-quality service we also implemented a field experiment to test usage response to several different pricing and bundling models, one of which (generalized subscriptions) was quite novel. We summarize our most important general conclusions here:
Of the purchasing options we offered, the generalized subscriptions—our innovation—was the most popular and generated the most interest. Libraries saw the generalized subscription as a way of increasing the flexibility of their journal budgets and of tying purchasing more closely to actual use. The generalized subscription provides fast and easy access to articles in demand from the complete corpus, not just from a subscribed subset of titles.
We observed great interest in the monthly statistical reports on local article use that we generated for participating libraries. Participants were eager to use these to help assess current subscription choices and to further understand user behavior.
The user cost of access—comprised not just of monetary payments, but also of time and effort—has a significant effect on the number of articles that readers access. (See Gazzale and MacKie-Mason (this volume) for further detail.)
There was a substantial learning period during which users became aware of the service and accustomed to using it. It appears that usage was increasing even after a year of service. By the end of the experiment, usage was at a rather high level: approximately five articles accessed per month per 100 potential users, with potential users defined broadly (including all undergraduate students, who rarely use scholarly articles directly).
It has long been known that overall readership of scholarly literature is low. We have seen that even the most popular articles are read only a few times, across 12 institutions. We did not, however, measure how often those articles were being read in print versions during the same periods.
Recency is very important: repeat usage dropped off considerably after the first month. (This was also reflected in user comments, not reported above.)
PEAK had a limited life by design, and today most of the major publishers of scholarly journals have implemented their own PEAK-like service. The environment is far from stable, however, and service options, pricing and bundle offerings continue to evolve. Our results bear on the economics and usage of digital collections today and in the future, and provide some support for particular design choices.