Project COUNTER and the Quest for Reliable Online Usage Data

 The following is reprinted from the May 2012 CRIV Sheet:

How many articles in law librarianship’s professional literature have begun with the phrase, “In this era of shrinking budgets…”  Let’s call a moratorium on the premise that everything we do now is a function of the economic downturn. In both lean times and fat, law librarians ought to make acquisitions and retention decisions based on evidence rather than on conjecture, intuition, or tradition. Librarians should be able to demonstrate that every expenditure contributes to the core mission of their host institution.  Let’s not spend any time being nostalgic about the more genteel past of our profession.  It’s not enough to “market ourselves better.” We must be indispensible. To be indispensible we must know exactly what we add to the overall enterprise (court, law firm, law school) and jettison  whatever contributes less than it costs.

 There are many ways to quantify a library’s return on investment. We can start by determining whether and how much the information resources we purchase are actually being used by patrons. When library materials were primarily paper-based, usage was difficult to assess.  Most printed materials in law libraries do not circulate much.  But as more and more library resources began to be accessed online, credible usage data became easier to harvest. Vendors of electronic information have always taken advantage of the usage data made possible by technology.  They use this information to develop pricing models and to identify areas of user demand. Over time, many vendors developed their own internal standards for the particulars of usage (e.g. what is a hit, a search, or a download) and for how to count them. Until very recently they did not share this information with their customers. 

 Vendors and librarians did not come together to discuss universal standards for measuring usage of electronic resources until 2002 when COUNTER (Counting Online Usage of Networked Electronic Resources) was founded with the mission of ensuring that vendors supply usage metrics that accurately measure what they purport to measure and statistics that are comparable from vendor to vendor.  Since January 2003, COUNTER has released three versions of its Code of Practice for Journals and Databases, and one version of the Code of Practice for Books and Reference Works. Release 3 for Journals and Databases and Release 1 for Books and Reference Works are currently in force. An integrated Release 4 is in draft form.

 Beginning with the third release of the Code of Practice for Journals and Databases, COUNTER compliance has required that content providers allow usage data to be harvestable using SUSHI (Standardized Usage Harvesting Initiative), a standardized protocol (NISO standard Z39.93) for automating the gathering of COUNTER data.  Prior to SUSHI, librarians were required to regularly visit the web site of each vendor to download usage data.  SUSHI ensures that COUNTER data can be gathered automatically so that it can actually be used. 

 Release 4, a new Code of Practice integrating standard for journals, databases, books, reference works, and multimedia content was published in draft form in October 2011. The COUNTER Executive Committee will soon be considering comments on this draft in preparation for the definitive publication of this release. To understand what is new in Release 4, I contacted Oliver Pesch, the chief strategist for EBSCO’s e-resource access and management services who currently serves on the Executive Committee for Project COUNTER and is co-chair of the SUSHI Standing Committee of NISO (the National Information Standards Organization).  He said that one of the most important new developments is that Release 4 is an integrated Code of Practice covering journals, databases, books, and other electronic resources,  “a simplification welcomed by many content providers, particularly those that offer books, journals and databases on the same platform.”  Release 4 for the first time creates standards for usage of multi-media collections and for usage by mobile devices.   In addition, Pesch said that for Release 4, the yearly audit that each vendor must undergo to remain COUNTER compliant will look more closely at the vendor integration of COUNTER with SUSHI, “ensuring consistency in implementations of both COUNTER and SUSHI.  In a parallel effort, the NISO SUSHI maintenance committee is publishing a COUNTER SUSHI Implementation Profile that will serve as a guide to both developers and auditors to help inform that consistency.” According to Pesch, “Content providers must comply with Release 4 by the end of 2013 to retain COUNTER Compliant status.”  The COUNTER web site ( provides details on Release 4.

 What must a vendor do to become COUNTER compliant?  They can go to and download a document called, “Counter Compliance: Step by Step Guide for Vendors.” The Codes of Practice for Release 1 for Books and Reference Works and Release 3 for Journals and Databases, as well as the draft of Release 4 are available as well on the COUNTER web site.   In a nutshell, to become COUNTER compliant, vendors must adopt the relevant Codes of Conduct depending on which sort of content they publish.  Each Code of Conduct contains a glossary of standard definitions for a large number of key bibliographic and usage terms such as “article,” “search,” and “turnaway.” The Codes also mandate which type of usage report must be generated for each information format.   For example, depending on a number of qualifying criteria set forth in the Code of Conduct, publishers of online journals are required to provide one or more of the following reports:  number of successful full-text article requests by month and journal, turnaways by month and journal, and the number of successful full-text article requests by year and journal.  Database vendors must provide one or more of these reports:  total searches and sessions by month and database, turnaways by month and database, and total searches and sessions by month and service.

 Next the vendor must develop a process for converting their raw logfiles into COUNTER usage reports.  COUNTER support staff will advise vendors on how to accomplish this if necessary.  COUNTER staff then reviews the usage reports for compliance with the standards articulated in the Codes of Conduct and makes recommendations for remediation if necessary.  Once the review is complete and the vendor has paid a $500 fee, the vendor will be included in the Register of COUNTER Compliant Vendors. To maintain compliant status, the vendor must undergo an independent audit within 6 months of being added to the Register and then must be audited annually by a CPA, Chartered Accountant or equivalent.

 As of January 2012, approximately 131 electronic publishers and vendors of information are COUNTER compliant. This list includes a number of vendors whose material is heavily used in law libraries.  These include Berkeley Electronic Press, Cambridge University Press, EBSCO Publishing, JSTOR, OCLC, Oxford University Press, ProQuest, Sage Publications and Springer-Verlag. However, the preeminent publishers of legal information are conspicuously absent from the list.

 What, if anything, can law librarians do to ensure that the vendors they do business with are or become COUNTER compliant? Oliver Pesch told me that some major legal publishers are currently in discussions with COUNTER: “COUNTER is providing both encouragement and guidance [to these vendors] on becoming COUNTER compliant.” Pesch added “Publishers tend to listen to the market need and will provide services if they customers ask — or in some cases — demand.  Law library administrators can help by making it clear to publishers that law librarians expect to get COUNTER reports.”  Serials librarians and others with acquisitions responsibilities should be negotiating COUNTER compliance with all of the information vendors with which they do business.  In our conversations with vendors, we can help them see that COUNTER compliance benefits them as well.   Vendors know as well as librarians that acquisitions budgets are being slashed.  Without reliable usage date, libraries will have no recourse but to make acquisitions and retention decisions based on unreliable data or no data at all. Oliver Pesch put it this way, “As library budgets continue to be strained (law libraries being no exception), serials professionals are looking for ways to ensure they are making the most effective use of their collection budget. The ‘cost-per-use’ measure is becoming a mainstay of that evaluation. And, since that measure relies on usage data, the ability to gather accurate usage statistics is paramount.  Publishers that provide COUNTER usage statistics have a better chance of having their products fairly assessed.  When usage statistics are not available or difficult to come by, busy librarians may resort to guessing and the outcome may not be what the publisher desires…”  When vendors and librarians alike know exactly how usage of electronic library materials is being assessed, and every resource is being assessed according the same criteria, everyone benefits. 

 The economic models for law school, private law practice, and state government are changing.  It will never again be acceptable, nor should it, for libraries to build their collections heedless of the return upon the investment made in those resources.  Librarians know in their bones that libraries have real value but they are increasingly being called upon to quantify that value.  Information vendors must cooperate with this effort lest they help to destroy the market they serve. Librarians and vendors will have to work together to demonstrate the value of their shared product to the entire legal enterprise.  COUNTER is a positive step in that direction.


  1. Until the top 100 law firms and top corporate counsel require WEXIS to become COUNTER compliant, there will be no pressure for WEXIS to do so. In fact, I find it more difficult to get accurate info from these companies today from what I got 20 years ago. I guess that is called competition and keeping your client base.

  2. I’d really love to hear from some of the online legal information vendors that are not COUNTER compliant. What are your reasons for resisting compliance? What would it take to get you become compliant? Libraries can not continue to pay for resources that their patrons don’t use. We might even be willing to pay more for resources that our patrons use frequently if we could pay less for resources our patrons use less frequently or not at all. Vendors have to understand that the current business model is not sustainable for any of us. Real transparency is likely to be good for all concerned. Let’s hear from a vendor on this!

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