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2014 Edition, January 1, 2014

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Open Discovery Initiative: Promoting Transparency in Discovery

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Description / Abstract:

In broad terms, ODI focuses primarily on the issues related to the composition of the central index associated with these discovery services and not with the design of user interfaces. The initiative does not seek to intrude into areas of proprietary innovation that distinguish each of the discovery service products.

The arena of index-based discovery spans many different issues, some of which lend themselves to a more open and standard treatment, while others remain in the realm of product development. The Open Discovery Initiative recognizes that even among the issues that might potentially benefit from its attention, some rank at a higher priority and that others may need to be addressed through possible follow-up activities.


The Open Discovery Initiative (ODI) aims to facilitate progress through exploration of relevant issues and the development of recommended practices for the current generation of library discovery services based on centrally indexed search. The domain of index-based discovery services involves a complex ecosystem of interrelating issues and interests among content providers, libraries, and discovery service creators.

This model of discovery relies on an index populated with metadata, full text, or other representations of the content items—such as journal articles, book chapters, e-books, research reports, reference sources, images, maps, datasets, AV materials, and other selected material—which a library provides to its users. The content comes from a range of information providers and products, such as commercial and nonprofit publishers, universities and other research institutions, and many other types of organizations. The content of interest to ODI includes any materials that libraries would consider within their collection, regardless of the business model for acquisition or the type of license, such as commercially restricted or open access.

Several major discovery products have been released to the market since early 2009 that are based on the model of centrally indexed search—largely influenced by the Google search model and users' expectations for a single, unified discovery experience. An increasing number of libraries, especially those that serve academic or research institutions, have invested in index-based discovery services. These products serve as one of the interfaces through which the library's patrons gain access to the rapidly growing breadth of information that may be available to them. These discovery services play an increasingly strategic role in the way that libraries provide users with access to their collection, represent a growing segment of the library technology industry, and may become a factor in how libraries select content products. These factors draw attention to the discovery services arena for any improvements that might be gained through this Recommended Practice.

To work effectively, discovery services need to be as comprehensive as possible in their content coverage. Libraries expect their uniquely licensed and purchased electronic content to be indexed within their discovery service of choice. Further, they require comprehensive and clear representation of each category of content in the discovery service. Content items not represented in a discovery service present a challenge to libraries in how they might otherwise ensure that these materials are discovered and accessed. Libraries have an interest in knowing whether any content providers are excluded or underrepresented in any given discovery service.

The Open Discovery Initiative aims to facilitate increased transparency in the content coverage of indexbased discovery services and to recommend consistent methods of content exchange or other mechanisms. Full transparency will enable libraries to objectively evaluate discovery services and to deal with daily operational issues surrounding these products.

Discovery services depend on the cooperation of content providers with discovery service creators to provide access to metadata or full text of information resources in order to create effective indexes. The inclusion of data in the indexes of the current slate of discovery services is based on private agreements and ad hoc exchange methodologies between information providers and discovery service creators. Indexbased discovery can potentially benefit content providers through enhanced exposure of their materials. It also presents some concerns, such as enabling library patrons to bypass the specialized interfaces created by content providers, potentially reducing or eliminating branding and losing control in how content is presented to the end user. And, as libraries' uptake of these services increases, the usage (and perceived value) of publisher products can be greatly influenced by how successfully discovery services drive readers to a content providers' assets.

ODI investigated the need for standard protocols to make the transfer of data from content providers to discovery service creators. Consistent practices in the exchange and formats of data aim to lower the level of complexity as content flows through this ecosystem, mitigating technical issues that might hinder broader participation by content providers or potential discovery service creators. Libraries need a clear understanding of the degree of exposure for the content that they have acquired as represented in a discovery service. This understanding is essential as libraries evaluate and select a discovery service and on an ongoing basis once it is implemented.

Libraries require specific information on exactly which articles, databases, and other sources are represented; whether they are indexed in full text, by citations only, or both; and whether the metadata derives from aggregated databases or abstracting and indexing resources.

In the operation of an index-based discovery service, many different factors contribute to how it presents and orders results and how it connects users to content resources. For any given item of content, multiple metadata elements contributed from different content providers may be indexed by the discovery service. For a journal article, for example, its full text might be contributed by the primary publisher, citation data from the provider of an aggregated database, and abstracts or controlled vocabulary terms may be provided by yet another provider. Content providers are motivated to contribute to discovery services in order to gain more access from the patrons associated with the libraries that implement the discovery services. It is therefore important to each type of content provider that its contributions are appropriately recognized. If a record contributed by an abstracting and indexing (A&I) service, for example, leads to the selection of a full-text resource from another provider, how does the A&I service gain benefit from the discovery transaction? A subgroup of ODI on Fair Linking was established to explore and make recommendations on these issues.

The Open Discovery Initiative recognized and aimed to address perceptions regarding bias and concerns about the possibility of bias in discovery services. Special concerns surround the possibility of bias when discovery services are owned by the same corporate parent as content products or services. Concerns also arise through exclusive arrangements or other business relationships made by a discovery service with a content provider that might introduce bias. Some of these recommended practices were developed with the intent of helping discovery services providers mitigate concerns that exist in the community about conflicts of interest and other relationships that introduce bias. By explaining the nature of their business connections with related content providers and third parties alike, and affirming the neutrality of their discovery offerings, these services will be positioned to reassure both libraries and content providers about the nature of their practices.