Something that got my brain working this morning was a timely tweet from the ever observant @daveyp about the fact that ScienceDirect are using DoubleClick adverts at article level on some of their resources. Here’s an example for you:
Now firstly, I’m not necessarily saying this is a bad thing. Elsevier make it quite clear that they use advertising and I think any publisher should be looking at alternative income streams to subscription in the current climate. I’d hope that this lucrative income stream would mean significant savings for institutions on the very high subscription rates they pay for ScienceDirect, but I will leave that to people better suited than me to discuss with Elsevier.
So I don’t really have a problem with the advertising per se, although it is highly unusual for an online service to use advertising on a platform you subscribe to – this is normally kept purely for ‘free” platforms, and we accept that the price of free is the advertising bombardment.
My real issue is the use of DoubleClick itself. DoubleClick is not just advertising software, it is also effectively spyware. If you look at the DoubleClick links being generated on ScienceDirect, you will see that the ISSN of the resources visited are included in the URLs for DoubleClick. DoubleClick URLs can also be observed at work on the Elsevier site even when there is no apparent ‘in your face’ advert as in my example. So what Elsevier are doing is not just selling advertising space to, well, Google, but also selling them business intelligence about our users without really making this clear and apparent.
As a recent JISC workshop clearly demonstrated, user behaviour is highly desirable information and it is business intelligence that should be benefiting institutions and not third parties. Now you could argue that this is user behaviour on the Elsevier website and therefore theirs to do with as they please – but I don’t think the relationship between users and academic publishers is that simple. ScienceDirect holds a privileged position within our community. It is a monopoly platform – we cannot source this material elsewhere. All over the world, librarians are advertising ScienceDirect freely to their users for Elsevier, saving them millions of pounds in advertising to end-users. We push users in to this environment, so we have responsibility for who is tracking their behaviour within that environment. I also think that because of this relationship, only the institutions should be privy to the business intelligence about their users – or atleast have a say in where it goes!
We spend a lot of time talking about protecting personal information about our users, which is obviously critically important. However, activity without PII (personally identifiable information) is still crucially valuable to online providers, and we do perhaps need to wake up and look more carefully at protecting this information and more importantly making sure that institutions are the ones gaining business intelligence about its users.