February 16, 2018


What Does the Right Subscription Agent Look Like for Your Library?

By Michael Rovner

Most librarians know life is easier with a subscription agent, but not all of them are aware of how to make the most of that relationship. The majority of academic libraries use an agent in some capacity and there are many ways subscription agents contribute to the information supply chain. Agents increase efficiencies and some increase student engagement when used to purchase their e-journals and e-journal packages. Consortia also benefit from workflow efficiencies throughout the e-package management process.

Librarians understand the steps involved in journal acquisition are myriad: licensing, registration, authentication, data input, adding it to the knowledge base, making it discoverable and much more. It is a highly specialized job and requires investment in technology and skilled staff. Good subscription agents not only provide one-stop shopping for journals around the world, but also provide all of the necessary details and infrastructure to support it.

There are a number of factors to consider before you issue a bid request from subscription providers. Get specific. Don’t just ask, do you have an online serials management tool, but specific questions about aspects of that service. How does it work? What data is provided? What reports does the vendor provide? How are renewals handled? What steps are in the renewal process? How can you help improve access to my purchased content? Choosing the right subscription agent should involve evaluating from a variety of assessments including workflow efficiencies, quality of service, end-user experience, and financial stability.

The University of Washington noted the workflow efficiencies they realized in the invoicing and payment process as a key factor in their decision to work with EBSCO. “The reason we keep our packages with EBSCO is EDI invoicing, an electronic invoice, that’s automatically loaded into our library management system, which is much faster than getting an invoice from the publisher,” says Sion Romaine, Librarian, University of Washington, adding, “It’s also key that we don’t have to set up individual vendor accounts with our central university procurement system. They take care of any sales tax, if the publisher address changes, or tax ID changes. We only have to think about EBSCO.”

Beyond consolidated and electronic payment efficiencies, the best agents are able to help streamline the journals management process by offering online sales management systems that can integrate and manage print and online journals acquisitions, line item detail for publisher packages and fund codes on invoices.

Service is another key driver in deciding among agents. Typically customers change subscription agents when they’re frustrated by other agents with poor response times, errors in invoicing, and various mistakes along the way. To avoid such situations, the best agents are able to equip each account with a dedicated customer service representative as well as a high-level representative, a librarian focused on helping with bigger picture issues like training and workflow efficiencies, EDI projects and serving as an extension of a libraries staff.

While finding the right agent can simplify and streamline the librarian’s process, it can also impact the end-user’s experience accessing content. For example, the information about collections that EBSCO offers through their knowledge base and rights-and-identity engine, SmartLinks, helps both librarians and patrons. For librarians, the resources tie into backend systems, simplify their workflow and save them time. For students and patrons, using databases and/or a discovery services that can leverage that knowledge base behind the scenes to serve up full-text results in a better user experience and a better overall library experience. Helping to ensure usage of purchased content helps to maximize library funds.

When a student is doing research on a topic like global warming, they’ll enter their search terms into a database. The search could have a mix of full text and citations (no full text). For those with no full text, the user will see the link resolver links, which the student will need to check for full text and will generally ignore in favor of accessing the full text options on the screen. Smartlinks gives users single click links to the full text from the article citation. There is no additional work for the library and it’s statistically proven to increase usage of the content by students because they’re able to get a fuller picture of the text in their search results.

With all the advantages of working with an agent, it’s important for libraries to select an agent that they can trust and is financially stable. Still reeling from the demise of Swets Information Services in 2015, libraries have become increasingly aware of the importance of a vendor’s financial stability when choosing to do business. In a recent survey of over 200+ librarians, the financial stability of a vendor was cited as the number one reason libraries were considering changing or consolidating journals vendors.

In an industry where large and smaller subscription agents enter bankruptcy, researching a vendor’s financial stability, with high ratings from companies such as Dun and Bradstreet is a critical factor to ensuring that a vendor knows how to manage their business and can be trusted with yours. “We want to be with a vendor with an established track record and that they can demonstrate they are financially stable,” adds Romaine.

While the right agent is able to provide the librarian with information, workflow efficiencies and services that make their lives easier, ultimately, libraries want to be with an agent they can trust and that can positively impact their users’ experience.

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