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Publishers who boast about the number of publication downloads may be inadvertently admitting that the technical implementation of their service is limited — downloads, especially of PDFs, are often a rough proxy for offline viewing.
The metrics game for academic communications is a complicated and often a dirty one. What to measure? Citations? Impact factor? Page views? Downloads? Or perhaps the best measure is simple relatedness, where the keywords of an abstract are input into Google, and the search results yield a number for Web pages that may be relevant.
The notion that the quality of published work is quantifiable should give us pause; we have not learned that when Elizabeth Barrett Browning said, “Let me count the ways,” she was being satirical. Numbers are poor proxies for anything but other numbers, and the gap between a cultural phenomenon and the number that ostensibly represents it can lead to misunderstanding and even manipulation.
While the world of digital media is moving to ubiquity and integration, the shadow world of offline viewing persists. There are good, but short-term, reasons for this:
- Bandwidth is still not omnipresent, as anyone who tries to get a high-speed wireless phone connection in my hometown can attest.
- Some people prefer to download and print out articles, tomorrow’s atavism, since handy digital reading devices (iPod, Kindle, etc.) are only now getting a toehold in the market. What happens offline remains offline.
Offline viewing removes content from the evolving, integrated digital world. It works against the interests of authors, who want their work to be read, referred to, and commented on where it will have the most impact, and that is online. Authors increasingly will want their content to be embedded in a networked world that, from the point of view of technical implementation, more closely resembles Facebook than library stacks.
When you say that your PDF downloads are up, you are acknowledging that your Web service facilitates a high degree of offline viewing. This in turn means that your service is not fully, even relentlessly, integrated into the ongoing communications medium that is the Internet today. Readers have to make an effort to comment online about what they have read offline. Far better to have the tools for annotation (public and private) and citation right there, on the Web page, where the immediacy of digital media can increase the engagement with an author’s work.
We read over and over again about all the low-cost ways to publish scholarly material. We don’t (thank god) read much about the low-cost ways to deliver a baby or the great bargain we got on open-heart surgery. Some things cost a lot because we value what the expenditures bring us.
Scholarly communications will increasingly involve more and more sophisticated technical implementations because technology is one means for an author to reach wider audiences. No doubt these new tools will generate new metrics, which will themselves be subject to distortion. Authors, however, will increasingly evaluate publishers by asking, “How many people are in your IT department? What is your overall IT budget? What is your roadmap for technological development? May I speak to your CTO as well as your editor-in-chief?”
When a publisher replies by citing PDF download statistics, the author should smile politely and say, “No, thank you.”