Monday, September 5, 2016

Evaluating Content Neutrality in Discovery Systems – Part 1



Eddie Neuwirth, Director of Product Management - Discovery Services, Ex Libris

Just a few weeks ago the International Federation of Library Associations and Institutions (IFLA) released a new statement about what net neutrality means for librarians and library workers.
The heart of its statement is twofold:

1.       The mission of libraries is to give access to knowledge equitably.
2.       It is concerning to have that fundamental right controlled or made harder to achieve.

Ultimately, IFLA states, without an open Internet, information monopolies threaten to destroy the diversity of information and points of view that presently exist. IFLA’s primary premise in support of net neutrality is that it is a principle of universal and non-discriminatory access to information:

“It is compromised when service providers seek to give preference, unfairly, to one source or type of traffic over another, effectively restricting choice and determining which parts of the internet people will find easiest to use. Inevitably, the most powerful will be better placed to optimize the performance of their content.”

IFLA’s statement on net neutrality, along with its recommendations for libraries, is very reminiscent of and parallels the many viewpoints on the topic of content neutrality in discovery services that came up a few years ago and is still discussed today.

Content neutrality was widely discussed at major library conferences and in several published blog posts throughout 2013 and 2014, resulting in the creation of the NISO Open Discovery Initiative and the publication of its recommendations.
The recent IFLA statement identifies the significant issues for libraries regarding content neutrality, and classifies them into two categories:

a) The freedom of access to information through avoiding information monopolies;
b) The freedom of expression to ensure information diversity.

Some central tenets of the IFLA statement are:
  • The right to seek, impart and receive information and ideas and to obtain equitable access to all content is a universal right.
  • Without neutrality, the ability of libraries, as information providers, is compromised.
  • Breaches of neutrality compromise library users’ ability to access information in a balanced fashion more broadly.
  • Access to information is a prerequisite for a diversity of opinions and the growth of knowledge in general.
  • Technology can distort patterns of content and service consumption.
In a 2013 blog post, appropriately titled “Content Neutrality,” Wally Grotophorst of George Mason University positioned content neutrality in comparison to the concept of net neutrality in the following way:

“Content neutrality” is a similar idea. Our “access provider” in this instance is the discovery platform vendor. The analogs to traffic shaping or billing distortions occur instead around the metadata that’s being searched to “discover” relevant content. As with ISPs and net neutrality, there are some companies that just provide a discovery platform and others that are also in the content business. As before, vertical integration and perceptions of competitive advantage are problem incubators.

Like net neutrality, as highlighted by the IFLA statement, content neutrality in discovery services is not a concept that has disappeared from the library landscape. However, the topic of content neutrality does not have the same visibility it once did, even though libraries are spending even larger sums of money and effort curating vast collections to meet the diverse needs of researchers and end-users. Perhaps as many (or most) libraries have already adopted a discovery service to maximize discoverability of their collections – as a means to attract researchers to the library, expose their vast collection of resources, and promote the value of the library across campus –their focus has turned elsewhere and they are too ready to accept that these tools are doing their job as promised.

Ex Libris encourages libraries to continue to remain focused on content neutrality in discovery solutions. For libraries, the stakes of content neutrality in their discovery service is high. If a library’s chosen discovery system is not content neutral – that is, if it does not offer the ability to democratically discover the entirety of the library’s collection without bias toward some providers over others – then libraries should naturally question these extra investments.

We invite you to read our Guide to Evaluating Content Neutrality in Discovery Systems to better understand content neutrality, principles for evaluating discovery systems, and questions librarians can ask of vendors about their own discovery services.

Stay tuned: our next blog post in this 3-part series on content neutrality will focus on the six core principles for ensuring unbiased discovery.


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