Let’s Get Technical — A Case (Western Reserve University) Study of COVID-19 e-Resource Usage and Free Access

by | Apr 16, 2021 | 0 comments

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By Shelby Stuart  (Electronic Resources Librarian, Case Western Reserve University) 

and Stephanie Church  (Acquisitions & Metadata Services Librarian, Case Western Reserve University) 

Column Editors:  Kyle Banerjee  (Sr. Implementation Consultant, FOLIO Services)   www.ebsco.com  www.folio.org

and Susan J. Martin  (Chair, Collection Development and Management, Associate Professor, Middle Tennessee State University) 

Like many universities across the United States, Case Western Reserve University’s (CWRU) Kelvin Smith Library (KSL) in Cleveland, Ohio quickly pivoted to a fully remote teaching and learning environment in the spring of 2020.  The sudden move to remote education brought with it unprecedented challenges and new questions about the impact of the COVID-19 crisis on access to electronic resources and their usage.  The timeline of events may look familiar to academic librarians.  In mid-March, Cuyahoga County announced its first confirmed COVID-19 cases.  Shortly thereafter, all campus libraries at CWRU closed to patrons.  Meanwhile, library staff began working remotely and instructors scrambled to offer virtual instruction to their students.  Complicating the situation further, the university administration announced the move to remote education during Spring Break, meaning that some students became stranded off-campus without their academic materials, many students rushed to leave on-campus housing and return to their homes, and a small number of international and out-of-state students remained on campus.  As publishers became aware of the intense challenges facing academic libraries and their patrons, they began offering free access to previously-paywalled academic content en masse.  Those offers flooded into CWRU librarians’ inboxes throughout the months of March and April.  Suddenly our workflows on the Acquisitions & Metadata Services team were taken over by notifying content selector librarians about specific offers and working to quickly activate those for which there was interest, on top of fulfilling rush e-resource and streaming video requests deemed critical to complete the semester.

Early on, our colleagues expressed concern that promoting temporary free access could set up unrealistic expectations for users once the free access periods ended and the resources were no longer available — especially in light of such uncertainty about the future of the library’s content budget in the wake of the pandemic.  Librarians balanced those concerns with their desire to provide extended e-resource access to an entirely virtual campus when deciding which free access resources to promote to users.  For those access offers that content selectors deemed useful to the campus community, we used a combination of methods to make them discoverable.  KSL’s liaison librarians maintained a LibGuide containing a list of free access resources, along with a brief description and the free access expiration date.  The electronic resources librarian added databases and dedicated e-journal and e-book collections to the A-Z Databases List and tagged each of those databases with a “Temporary COVID-19 Access” tag.  Where possible, she added those collections to the discovery layer while also maintaining a spreadsheet documenting each collection added and the date when it would expire and need to be removed from the discovery layer.

In the midst of this flurry of activity, we began to wonder how the remote education environment would impact the overall usage of e-resources.  We strategized the best way to accurately represent the data and trends and we concluded that a year over year analysis could be enlightening.  Starting in April, we began tracking and analyzing monthly usage of CWRU’s traditionally high-cost and high-use e-resources, such as JSTOR, EBSCO e-books, IEEE Xplore, and Taylor & Francis journals.  The majority of our publishers’ free access offers expired in June.  In July, we began contacting publishers to request usage data for the free access offers and to estimate the cost of resources our patrons had accessed.  Perhaps the biggest obstacle we faced in e-resource assessment was the fact that many of our vendors had switched from the COUNTER Release 4 reporting standard to COUNTER Release 5.  As a result of the COUNTER transition, usage metrics were counted differently between 2019 and 2020, making a year over year comparison ambiguous.

Nonetheless, we used what we had at our disposal and discovered there was a 42% decline in unique item requests for e-journals and a 56% decline for e-books from March to May 2020 when compared to March to May 2019.  Knowing that the COUNTER usage data was an insufficient way to represent usage across years, we decided to brainstorm additional ways to analyze usage.  One data point that had not changed between the COUNTER Releases was the number of unique items accessed.  When we pivoted to comparing like data, we discovered a 1% increase in overall unique items accessed for both e-journals and e-books, with a 25% increase in unique e-book titles accessed despite the 56% decrease in COUNTER-reported usage.  

Another data point that remained constant between the two years was turnaway count.  Given that our researchers had access to more unique titles in 2020 thanks to COVID-19 expanded access to content, we hypothesized that this might be reflected by decreased turnaway counts.  When comparing year over year data, we found that there was a 7% decrease in overall access denials.  Again, e-books displayed the most significant drop with a 27% decrease in turnaways from March to May 2020 when compared to the same time period in 2019.  The month of April 2020 had the strongest showing of usage when compared to April 2019.  Usage data revealed that while there was a 43% decrease in COUNTER usage for e-books and e-journals, we accessed 4% more unique titles and had a 26% decrease in unique turnaways.   

Our data analysis also uncovered publisher-specific successes during the COVID-19 expanded access time period.  For example, expanded access to JSTOR content resulted in a 29% increase in unique titles accessed and a 70% decrease in overall turnaways reported from March to May 2020 when compared to the previous year.  This was a direct result of JSTOR opening access to e-books, e-journals, and primary sources to subscribing institutions.  Another publisher’s success on our campus was access to Cambridge University Press’ Companions, Histories, Textbooks, and early access to a consortial EBA that resulted in a 600% increase in e-book usage during the spring 2020 semester. 

Streaming video saw a sharp increase in both faculty requests and usage during remote learning.  A year over year analysis of Kanopy indicated that video plays were up 151% between March to May 2020 as compared to 2019 and our users viewed over 138,000 minutes, which was a 207% increase over the previous year.  Thanks to Kanopy’s free access and discounted license fee, our library saved nearly $10,000 during the three month period. 

When it came to gathering usage data, one challenge we faced was that some publishers (Project MUSE and Wiley are two examples) made their resources openly available with no authentication required during spring 2020.  The lack of authentication meant that the publisher was unable to identify which users were coming from which institution.  While this was great for promoting open access, it had the unintended side effect of rendering us unable to pull usage data specific to our user population.  That could have resulted in undercounted usage of some publishers’ resources during the free access period.  In addition, our ability to gather and share full usage data with library stakeholders was slowed by the fact that most vendors report usage on a monthly basis, meaning we were unable to pull, for instance, April usage data for a particular resource until after April ended.

By completing a comparative analysis of the number of unique titles accessed during the spring 2020 semester, we were able to demonstrate a clear increase in usage during remote learning.  Coupled with a significant decrease in turnaway data, we determined that CWRU researchers were able to access more scholarly content due in large part to the temporary expanded publisher access.  Moving forward, it will be easier to examine year over year usage numbers now that we are more than a year from the COUNTER5 transition and can compare like usage metrics.  We will continue to watch how trends evolve during dual course delivery and have found value in measuring the number of unique titles accessed and denied by our researchers.  

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