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Issues in Science and Technology Librarianship
Summer 2014


E-Book Publication Dates: Do I Just Not Get It?

Marilyn Geller
Collection Management Librarian
Lesley University Library
Cambridge, Massachusetts

Whether we call it DDA or PDA or STL, new models of presenting digital content to our users have given us what we optimistically refer to as learning opportunities. Is that Demand Driven Access or is it Acquisitions? Patron Driven Access: what's the difference between "Patron" and "Demand?" Is STL short-term loan or St. Louis? Additionally, the system appears to have some kinks in it that have yet to be worked out. So it really shouldn't surprise anyone that many of us are saying "Do I just not get it, or is there something wrong here?"

For me, this was the case when I found that many publishers are using the date of digitization for monographs in our DDA collection as though they were publication dates. The actual content of these monographs has not changed at all. Nothing has been added; nothing has been taken away, and nothing has been edited. In fact, nowhere in the digitized copy of the monograph does the digitization date appear. That date only appears in external metadata supplied by the publisher, but because the external metadata populates so many databases from all sorts of vendors and libraries, it becomes a self-perpetuating reality. These titles can go unnoticed for a while, or you can trip over them every other minute.

To get a quick sense of the size of the problem, I did a keyword search in our OPAC as I would expect our students might do. Our OPAC is a true union catalog that includes the cataloged collections of all consortial members. The only filter I used in my general keyword search was to limit to titles available to members of my university. The search returned nearly 2,900 hits, but we know that most users don't go too far into the results list. Looking only at the first page of ten search results, two titles were print only and the remaining eight represented e-books available through our DDA program. Three of the eight DDA titles were published in print in 2012 or later and also made available electronically within a year of the print copyright date. Five titles represented content that was published in print between 1988 and 2006 and made available electronically in 2013 or 2014. Half of the e-books listed on the first page of search results, the titles most likely to be selected by users, represent content that is not current but appears to be current.

How did this dated content get into our collection in the first place and how did it rank so highly that it appears on the first screen of the search results? Our DDA vendor takes the publication date the publisher has supplied and uses that date to determine whether the title meets our profile; in the case of my consortium, we want titles from 2011 to the present. Content that was researched and created in 1988 would not be part of our DDA collection, but content from 2014 would be appropriate. By accepting spurious metadata, we have allowed bad data to undermine our collection.

Not only does the spurious metadata create miscues in our profiled collection, it is also the basis for the MARC record generated by our e-book vendor. That record lists the 2014 date in 008 field, the 260 field (publication information), and even in the 776 field (additional physical format). Nowhere does the MARC record list the original date, not even in a 534 note (original version). There is nothing about the public record or the back office version of the record, for that matter, that hints at the monograph associated with this metadata being anything other than a current publication. In many of our OPACs, the relevancy ranking uses the publication date as one of its measures, giving more weight to recent dates so that these titles show up higher on a results list than they would if the actual publication date was used.

It's easy to see how a user might click through to the e-book without ever knowing that the content they are accessing is dated. In addition, the experience of using an e-book is dramatically different from using a print book. A print book is a physical package: you can jump into it anywhere, but because it's self-contained, you can see and hold the entire thing in your hand. You know there's a title page to look at, and you know there's a verso for that title page where you are likely to find the publication date. Much of this is not true for an e-book. Users can jump into a book anywhere, but they have no sense of the package a digital file embodies. There is a tool on the screen that will help create the perfect citation; they don't have to look for the date on the verso of the title page. In fact, they have no reason to look for an original publication date since nothing up to this point has given them reason to question the current date they are seeing based on the external metadata supplied by the publisher. To compound the problem, the citation tool will construct the citation from . . . the external metadata. This metadata supplied by the publisher generates no end of problems, including unknowing use of dated content, incorrect citations, and confusion over whether new editions exist. And this doesn't even touch on the ramifications of unintentionally using dated content, especially in the sciences and medicine, where it could actually be dangerous.

The practice of using current dates for reissued digitized content happens among many publishers, not just one or two. It is entirely possible that the root of the problem is that publishers are using a business definition of what constitutes publication. Perhaps the current date documents how much the organization has digitized in a given year, as if this suggests that it produced or created something new. Undoubtedly there is also significant benefit for publishers in creating more visibility for the back catalog that these older titles constitute.

Librarians and researchers, on the other hand, associate the publication date with creation of the actual content. Isn't this what we optimistically refer to as another learning opportunity?

DISCLAIMER: The opinions expressed in this column are those of the author and do not necessarily represent those of ISTL, the Science and Technology Section, or the American Library Association.

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