EBSCO Opens Masses of Content to Third-Party Discovery Services

Tuesday, 6 May 2014
Information Today Inc.

As academic libraries commit more of their budgets to digital resources and as students and faculty continue to arrive from a Google universe, single-box, Google-like discovery services have become more important. Content not retrievable through those user-friendly discovery routes may even become difficult to justify from a curricular standpoint. Librarians have become more vocal in urging library vendors to connect their content to whatever discovery system they have chosen. EBSCO Information Services, a leading supplier of aggregated content to libraries, has at last opened up its metadata and, if contractually possible, most of its full-text content to outside discovery services. Libraries that license EBSCO databases and digital archives can expect to continue to use discovery services such as ProQuest’s Summon and Ex Libris Group’s Primo Central Index and have them reach major databases licensed from EBSCO. Partnership negotiations still have to be worked out and a lot of content flow and algorithmic tweaking performed, but EBSCO’s strategic defense of its own EBSCO Discovery Service (EDS) will no longer block the way. This fits well with the Open Discovery Initiative expounded by NISO (National Information Standards Organization). However, EBSCO’s stipulations concerning access to this content do include requirements for outside services to provide features connected to their ILS. Some comments have emerged from the library and vendor communities grumbling about these feature change requirements, but one has to admit that the grand goal of library services is to “find AND fetch.” While discovery services are built to find, it usually takes connections to the back office functions of ILS systems to do the “fetching.”

The EBSCO open policy for data sharing will cover some 129 databases, 70 digital archives, and 550,000 ebooks. (The titles of specific databases covered appear at ebscohost.com/metadata-sharing-policy/full-text-databases and ebscohost.com/metadata-sharing-policy/archives.) Sam Brooks, EBSCO’s executive VP of sales and marketing, says: “We believe that by outlining our plan in an open way, we are encouraging greater partnerships and transparent goals for collaboration among ILS vendors, discovery providers and content providers. It’s been a long time coming for such an open policy, but we are excited to take this step, and we’re confident that our customers, and ultimately their end users, will benefit greatly.” Collaborations with outside vendors will let libraries using EBSCO Discovery Service gain the patron catalog functionality in other vendors’ ILS services.

The ILS requirements beyond linking technology that EBSCO requires from new collaborative partners includes the following:

  1. Provide full OPAC functionality within EDS for each of its academic ILS products, including placing holds for library materials via EDS
  2. Not charge customers to load MARC records from EBSCO ebooks into their catalogs or discovery layer
  3. Offer its customers the option of EBSCO ebook patron-driven acquisition (PDA) and demand-driven acquisition (DDA) via its discovery service and its most recently released ILS product (The individual ebook sales supported by EBSCO are only to libraries, not library patrons or individuals.)
  4. Support serials ordering, invoicing, and claiming through the use of embedded order data in bibliographic records, electronic data interchange (EDI), and API applications for EBSCO subscription services customers

The partnership agreements also require basic statistical reporting and forbid inclusion in free versions of a service.

As to the process needed to realize the promising opportunities and the time it might take, EBSCO commented:

We are not looking for negotiations. We are looking for partnerships. We see this as a win-win situation. The ultimate goal here is to ensure that a customer gets OPAC functionality and EBSCO content—no matter which discovery service they choose. Consider an ILS vendor that is a discovery service vendor. This policy allows them to support their current discovery customers by including the EBSCO databases (which for thousands of libraries are their most-used resources). And at the same time, they can ensure that their ILS customers who have chosen EDS can have better usability of their OPAC functionality within EDS.


Tire-kickers already have begun questioning what is not included under the new open policy. After all, EBSCO has a grand total of some 375 research databases, and this announcement covers around 190 of them. In particular, discussion has focused on the exclusions from the subject indexes category, which includes major abstracting and indexing services. Publishers of this type of data traditionally have resisted merging into discovery services that can swamp their value-added, highly structured, information-intense content in a sea of full text. Responding to a question about the excluded subject index databases, EBSCO answered:

We think the focus should be on the fact that our policy offers a huge benefit to customers—offering not only an unprecedented level of content (e.g., metadata for more than twice as many peer-reviewed journals as any other aggregator), but offering it in an open, consistent, transparent way. It is designed to benefit all customers—regardless of the discovery service they use.

We are offering a huge amount of data with our policy, and we are not opposed to later including our subject indexes if some key conditions are met. As of today, there are some major obstacles that prevent the overwhelming majority of subject index providers from participating in the other discovery vendors’ products. We appreciate that these subject index providers usually make an exception for EDS, and we are sensitive that they do not want to be singled out when their policies are truly the standard for their type of content. As a community of subject index providers and discovery vendors, we have some work to do to identify the issues, define potential approaches, and implement solutions that will resolve the current concerns.

We believe our initial offer is very positive and that we are asking for less in return than we are offering. For example, we would like to see Ex Libris open Primo to allow their users, in the same way Innovative Interfaces has opened Encore and the way SirsiDynix has opened Enterprise, but we are not requiring it, as we want to remove obstacles to partnerships. We are also not requiring Ex Libris to allow e-book PDA/DDA via Aleph or Voyager. As a final example, we will not be requiring that ProQuest provide all of their own metadata. They are welcome to do so, but we are also open to a proposal that contains a large subset." 

As to the subject index databases excluded, EBSCO says: “As approaches for discovery service development around A&I resources are more thoroughly documented (with the help of EBSCO and possibly other subject index providers) and subsequently addressed, EBSCO will re-visit its policy for sharing these unique databases with other discovery service vendors.”

Other problems might emerge as negotiations with vendors and libraries to reach this EBSCO content begin. One academic librarian with whom I spoke considered that the change in EBSCO policies probably stemmed from library customer pressure. She also worried that the discovery systems were less neutral than they claimed. “They don’t push as much anymore to what’s good as to what we have. We libraries are more open to presenting content even if we don’t have it and use interlibrary loan to get it.” She was also concerned with any requirements for patrons to log in before they could use the discovery services. “We know from studies that people don’t like to login until they’re ready to go after a document.”

Discovery service vendors were quick to respond to the announcement. Ex Libris with its Primo Central discovery service has had an on-again, off-again relationship with EBSCO in the past. Oren Beit-Arie, Ex Libris’ chief strategy officer, stated that “if it’s good for libraries, it’s good for all. In principle, this is good news, though we have lots of concern. It is the first public recognition by EBSCO of what libraries expect. That is the good, positive side.” However, Beit-Arie was concerned about curtailed scope of coverage, the implication that other discovery services were not adequate to handle all the EBSCO data, a possible reluctance to share all data or content while requiring others to provide full services and functionalities, and a question of lasting commitment. He indicated that Ex Libris would be discussing the offer with libraries to get their read on it, with particular regard to “getting only a subset of their paid-for content” covered. Ex Libris does plan to “engage with EBSCO in hope to reach a more balanced agreement.”

In a somewhat different position from Ex Libris, OCLC has a “content neutral” service in WorldCat Discovery. They do not compete with EBSCO or other library vendors in providing aggregated content and have a longstanding collaboration with EBSCO. Chip Nilges, VP of business development for OCLC, stated that they already have 120 million records from EBSCO in 32 full-text databases. He said they plan to expand standing arrangements and to continue to encourage EBSCO to expand its offerings. He also commented this was “a huge step for EBSCO and a huge improvement over what we currently have, very exciting.”

Probably the largest competitor to EBSCO both in content provision and discovery service is ProQuest’s Summon. Michael Hirsch, VP of product management and workflow solutions at ProQuest, responded to questions. ProQuest already has arrangements in place with OCLC and Ex Libris; however, it’s early days yet for EBSCO. Hirsch comments, “EBSCO’s policy announcement appears to be a good first step toward following what others have already achieved but we will have to see how their policy is implemented before drawing any conclusions. We look forward to working with them and the library community to see how their new policy develops.” Hirsch pointed out possible overlap with Summon’s 1.9 billion documents and EBSCO’s content. However, if Summon interaction with EBSCO can follow its interaction with Primo Central, significant improvements could be on the way.

Final Thoughts

Scott Bernier, senior VP of marketing at EBSCO, wanted one thing to be clear above all—namely, that this is a ton of data and that EBSCO’s policy in releasing it to the library world should be a “win-win situation for all.” As to the timing, EBSCO responds:

Our policy is open now. We are encouraging partnerships, and from there, it is just a matter of establishing the lines of data transfer and technology collaboration with the specific partner. One of the three potential partners has had an extremely positive response, and we expect that one could move very quickly. Since we announced the policy, we continue to receive questions about “when will this happen?”. It’s obvious that many in the library community think these partnerships should happen quickly—and we agree—but we aren’t trying to rush anyone.

Carl Grant, associate dean for knowledge services and the CTO at the University of Oklahoma Libraries, with an admitted tight relationship to Ex Libris, took a cautious view:

The bottom line is that as librarians, we must continue to use our purchasing power, combined when necessary, to collectively and where appropriate, exert pressure on content suppliers to provide what we need to make for meaningful experiences with our discovery tools. … [T]his looks like progress, but it is not all that we need. So we must continue our efforts, until such time as we can search all content we license, under the discovery system of our choice.