A couple of years ago, discovery tools landed on the scene promising technological and pedagogical advances beyond federated search’s wildest dreams. Libraries naturally thought the evolution of these products would take place at least partially in library territory. “Locate, collocate, and advise,” we thought, “We’re all over that game.“1
What we didn’t realize is that we’re not players in the discovery game — we’re pawns. The players strategizing and moving the chess pieces are the EBSCOs and ProQuests of the world, and sometimes sacrificing a pawn or three is the only way to win that game. It’s not personal.
Here’s how the game, the real game, is played.
A couple of weeks ago a ripple of outrage spread around the library community when Ex Libris sent out a letter explaining that EBSCO had removed its content from Primo’s central database.2 Did EBSCO realize that they’d be hurting their click-through rates with this move, we asked. How could they be so selfish, we wondered. Don’t they realize they need us, we raged.
These were the questions of people who thought they were players in the game. In reality, though, EBSCO needs us like a chess master needs pawns. Which is to say, they need us quite a bit, but not that much and not as full partners. What they really need is to act on opportunities to profit and to ward off their opponent’s attempts to profit more.
Matt Andros, Vice President of Field Sales at EBSCO, was kind enough to help me understand things from EBSCO’s point of view, first through an email3 and then through a phone conversation (1/19/2011). The email was helpful; the phone conversation was enlightening. Apparently, participating in 3rd party discovery tools is not an opportunity for them to gain market share, and since the other big players aren’t participating either it could even open EBSCO up to loss. He told me in our phone conversation that 90% of academic libraries already have the major aggregator databases (like Academic Search Premier), so their goal is not primarily to increase the number of subscriptions there. And the metadata associated with their more specialized databases, the databases holding those exclusively licensed journals, isn’t itself exclusively licensed, so it could land in the discovery tool from any other company without harming EBSCO’s market. After all, what we’re after is the full text, and we can get to that easily via a link resolver. It’s just not in their interest to share metadata unless they’ll be getting something in return.
On the other hand, they do have to play the discovery game. “Discovery is hot,” Matt said to me yesterday. All the big players are playing it, so it’s not very strategic to fall behind in this market while ProQuest cashes the discovery checks. It is much more strategic to beat the competition at its own game by doing the same thing, only with (hopefully) better content.
As strange as it may sound, the future is not in unified databases powering discovery tools, Matt told me yesterday. He can’t foresee a time when the major database vendors will find it profitable to combine their metadata for our benefit. Instead, the future is in hybrid systems that combine discovery and federation. As I see it, libraries will have to decide if they care whether their EBSCO products or their ProQuest products are seamlessly integrated, choose the discovery layer that matches the company of their choice, and then federate in the content from the other database providers. Federated search is dead; long live federated search. And I’m sure the thinking at EBSCO is that we’ll be paying someone for a discovery tool, and that someone should be them.
So where’s our leverage in all of this? Competition in the free market is the force looking out for library interests, Matt said, and laughed with me as I pointed out that this was hollow comfort given the shrinking number of competitors out there.
After we hung up, I wondered if this whole game was short-sighted or the best long-range plan I’d ever heard. What happens when they drain us dry and their beautifully cultivated market withers on the vine? If we were their only revenue source, this might be a point of leverage, but we aren’t. They also own companies that deal in office supplies and companies that manufacture outdoor goods like fishing lures and hunting decoys.4 EBSCO is “one of the largest private companies in the US” according to Datamonitor’s company profile, so even if they are a little worried about library budget cuts, they can also move with confidence through the strategies that matter to them — the strategies that focus on their true competition.5
And that, my friends, is how the real game is played. Focus clearly on your opponent’s king and position yourself so that you don’t have to worry too much about your pawns, however useful and important those pawns may be to your strategy.
(Many thanks to Steve Lawson for helping me think through these and many related issues as I prepared this post. And many thanks to Matt Andros for his generosity in helping me rethink my assumptions.)