Home » post » GAO finds NTIS’ fee-based model no longer viable or appropriate. FGI has suggestions. #FDLP

GAO finds NTIS’ fee-based model no longer viable or appropriate. FGI has suggestions. #FDLP

The Government Accountability Office (GAO) has just published a report analyzing the National Technical Information Service (NTIS):

Information Management: National Technical Information Service’s Dissemination of Technical Reports Needs Congressional Attention. GAO-13-99, November 19, 2012. (PDF copy of the report).

This report is an update of a 2001 GAO report on the dissemination of technical reports. It offers quite a bit of information as to the scope of work done by the NTIS and the costs associated with that work. Don’t forget to read Appendix II: Comments from the Department of Commerce for additional context from NTIS/Department of Commerce. GAO’s conclusion states:

…Charging for information that is freely available elsewhere is a disservice to the public and may also be wasteful insofar as some of NTIS’s customers are other federal agencies. Taken together, these considerations suggest that the fee-based model under which NTIS currently operates for disseminating technical information may no longer be viable or appropriate.

In light of the agency’s declining revenue associated with its basic statutory function and the charging for information that is often freely available elsewhere, Congress should consider examining the appropriateness and viability of the fee-based model under which NTIS currently operates for disseminating technical information to determine whether the use of this model should be continued. (P. 29)

Given that GAO’s conclusions — along with NTIS comments about the conclusions — are that 1) NTIS offers a valuable service of access to the federal scientific literature but 2) their current fee-based cost-recovery model is not sustainable, I have some suggestions for NTIS moving forward. These suggestions speak to the need for greater access AND preservation of NTIS technical reports and a better long-term funding model:

1) Technical reports would be the perfect space for an Open Access model in which the costs would be borne by the organizations creating the reports. Offering technical reports online for free would also fit well with the open data goals and initiatives as laid out by the Office of Science and Technology Policy (OSTP). The statute under which NTIS operates states that it must be “financially self-sustaining, to the fullest extent feasible, by charging fees for its products and services.” But the statute doesn’t state who must pay those fees. Maintaining the NTIS database of technical reports should be borne by the organizations which created the information in the first place.

2) NTIS should institute a digital preservation plan that includes long-term storage in the LOCKSS-USDOCS program. I’ve had good discussions about this in the past with NTIS staff. With the future of NTIS in doubt, now is the time to assure that their valuable work to this point is not wasted or lost to the digital sands of time.

3) Distribute metadata for bulk download in the same fashion as the Office of Scientific and Technical Information (OSTI) does for its reports. This allows libraries to add MARC records to their library catalogs for increased access.

4) Expand the reach of the Federal Science Repository Service by partnering with academic libraries. Many academic institutions are building digital repositories (ie., Stanford Digital Repository (SDR)) and would be interested in hosting and giving access to this information.


What GAO Found

As a component of the Department of Commerce, the National Technical Information Service (NTIS) is organized into five primary offices that offer the public and federal agencies a variety of products and services. As of late October 2012, NTIS was supported by 181 staff, all except 6 of which held full-time positions. NTIS reports its progress toward agency goals to the Deputy Secretary of Commerce, and the Director of NTIS reports to the Director of Commerce’s National Institute of Standards and Technology. In addition, NTIS receives oversight of its functions and strategic direction from an advisory board with members appointed by the Secretary of Commerce. NTIS’s product and service offerings include, among other things, subscription access to reports contained in its repository in both print and electronic formats, distribution of print-based informational materials to federal agencies’ constituents, and digitization and scanning services.

NTIS revenues are generated exclusively from direct sales or subscriptions for its products and services. NTIS reported that net revenues from all its functions (products and services) totaled about $1.5 million in fiscal year 2011. However, over most of the last 11 years, its costs have exceeded revenues by an average of about $1.3 million for its products. While NTIS has not recovered all of its costs for products through subscriptions and other fees, it has been able to remain financially self-sustaining because of revenues generated from its services such as distribution and order fulfillment, web hosting, and e-training. The NTIS strategic plan states that the electronic dissemination of government technical information by other federal agencies has contributed to reduced demand for NTIS’s products. As a result, the agency is taking steps to reduce its net costs, such as improving business processes and increasing the breadth and depth of its collection.

NTIS’s repository has been growing with mostly older reports, but the demand for more recent reports is greater. Specifically, NTIS added approximately 841,500 reports to its repository during fiscal years 1990 through 2011, and approximately 62 percent of these had publication dates of 2000 or earlier. However, the agency was more likely to distribute (by direct sale or through a subscription) reports published more recently. For example, GAO estimated that 100 percent of the reports published from 2009 through 2011 had been distributed at least once, while only about 21 percent of reports published more than 20 years ago had been.

Of the reports added to NTIS’s repository during fiscal years 1990 through 2011, GAO estimates that approximately 74 percent were readily available from other public sources. These reports were often available either from the issuing organization’s website, the federal Internet portal (http://www.USA.gov), or from another source located through a web search. Reports published from 1990 to 2011 were more likely to be readily available elsewhere than those published in 1989 or earlier. Further, GAO estimated that 95 percent of the reports available from sources other than NTIS were available free of charge. NTIS’s declining revenue associated with its basic statutory function and the charging for information that is often freely available elsewhere suggests that the fee-based model under which NTIS currently operates for disseminating technical information may no longer be viable and appropriate.

Why GAO Did This Study

NTIS was established by statute in 1950 to collect scientific and technical research reports, maintain a bibliographic record and repository of these reports, and disseminate them to the public. NTIS charges fees for its products and services and is required by law to be financially self-sustaining to the fullest extent possible.

GAO was mandated by Congress to update its 2001 report on aspects of NTIS’s operations and the reports in its collection. Specifically, GAO’s objectives were to determine (1) how NTIS is currently organized and operates, including its functions, current staffing level, reported cost of operations, and revenue sources; (2) the age of and demand trends for reports added to NTIS’s repository; and (3) the extent to which these reports are readily available from other public sources. To do this, GAO reviewed agency documentation, analyzed a sample of reports added to NTIS’s collection from fiscal years 1990 through 2011 (reports from the period since GAO’s last study and other older reports), and interviewed relevant agency officials.

What GAO Recommends

GAO is suggesting that Congress reassess the appropriateness and viability of the fee-based model under which NTIS currently operates for disseminating technical information to determine whether the use of this model should be continued. In comments on a draft of this report, the Department of Commerce stated that NTIS believes GAO’s conclusions do not fully reflect the value that the agency provides. However, GAO maintains that its conclusions and suggestion to Congress are warranted.

For more information, contact Valerie C. Melvin at (202) 512-6304 or [email protected]

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2 Comments

  1. B. Klein says:

    Government documents may be available to read, copy, download, reuse, etc., for free – that is if you can find them. Today most people first turn to Internet search engines and believe that not just information, but knowledge is a few keywords away. Search engines are not neutral utilities. They are businesses that generate revenue through advertisement and promotion of their paying clients. Users do not always evaluate or differentiate among the sources and suppliers, but take what shows up first in the hit list. The “for free” sources and authentic originals don’t always rise to the top or even appear at all.

    Here’s an example. At the request of Congressman Steven H. Schiff (R-NM), the General Accounting Office (GAO) initiated an audit in February of 1994, to locate all records relating to the 1947 “Roswell Incident” and to determine if they were properly handled. GAO’s “Results of a Search for Records Concerning the 1947 Crash Near Roswell, New Mexico” NSIAD-95-187, Jul 28, 1995 (http://gao.gov/products/NSIAD-95-187 ) formed the basis of the 900-plus page “Roswell Report: Fact vs. Fiction in the New Mexico Desert” published and distributed by the Government Printing Office (GPO) in 1995. The U.S. Department of Air Force is the federal agency officially responsible for its creation, content, publication and primary distribution. The report was authored by government employees (U.S. active-duty military) on the job and is, therefore, a “work of the U.S. Government.” As such, it is not protected by copyright and there are no restrictions on copying, displaying, reusing or selling it.

    Initially GPO sold the “Roswell Report” (ISBN 0-16-048023-X) and provided free access copies to the Federal Depository Library Program. A pdf version is now available from GPO for free download. (GPO PURL http://permanent.access.gpo.gov/lps71655/roswell.pdf)

    As required by Air Force and Department of Defense policies for managing military scientific and technical information, the official DoD repository copy is available online for free download from the Defense Technical Information Center (www.dtic.mil) Technical Report Collection.
    Accession Number : ADA326148
    Title : The Roswell Report: Fact versus Fiction in the New Mexico Desert,
    Corporate Author : DEPARTMENT OF THE AIR FORCE WASHINGTON DC
    Personal Author(s) : Weaver, Richard L. ; McAndrew, James
    Handle / proxy Url : http://handle.dtic.mil/100.2/ADA326148
    Distribution Statement : APPROVED FOR PUBLIC RELEASE

    The USAF Historical Studies Office http://www.afhso.af.mil/questions/topic.asp?id=1932 FAQ about “Where to find information on UFO’s” lists and links to its own pdf copy. [http://www.afhso.af.mil/shared/media/document/AFD-101201-038.pdf ].

    And another full text copy is provided online by the Air Force History Office. http://www.airforcehistory.hq.af.mil/Publications/fulltext/roswell.pdf

    So we now know the federal government provenance, chain of custody, and several free online government sources for the document.

    Where do search engines take us?
    Google Search first links to an article about Roswell which references the 1995 study. The second hit is to Amazon. Amazon has citation information with links to resellers. The hardcopy cost ranges from $14.95 to $140.00. An interesting aside is that Amazon credits the “U.S. Government” (not the agency producer) as author of this report.

    The lead citation in Bing links to Google Books; the second goes to Amazon and takes us down the same path as Google Search results.

    The Wikipedia entry for “Roswell UFO Incident” cites the document, but does not link to it online.

    So what’s my point? The last three FGI blog entries featured reports whose authors suggest the way to the information highway is to get on at Google or some other search engine or social network service. The authors of these reports (GAO and RSC) perpetuate the public (including Congress) belief that search results are unbiased and neutral… and that the answer to perpetual free open access to information is through business conglomerates that rely on others to serve up the content. The European Commission and FairSearch.org are on to the game, but the public doesn’t seem to be getting the message … or doesn’t really care.

  2. jrjacobs says:

    Hi bonnie. thanks as always for the cogent comment. You’re absolutely right about authenticity and the biases of search engines. Short of getting the entire world to stop using Google though, there are a few things that librarians can do to assure *both* provenance *and* access:

    1. catalog, catalog, catalog. That includes both historic documents and digital documents. The more we catalog, the easier it’ll be to find authentic govt documents. If Federal agencies won’t comply with Title 44 and send digital copies to GPO to be cataloged and distributed, then FDLP libraries need to aggressively monitor agency Websites and submit fugitive document reports to GPO. Let’s flood GPO with fugitive document reports.

      My staffer and I are currently tracking the following agencies who seem to be the most egregious fugitive creators according to the lostdocs blog.

      We’ve submitted 200+ fugitive reports to GPO since beginning in 2011 (and I’m harvesting several others in my fugitive documents archive-it collection). The point is, if we care about authenticity — and I do! — then we all need to work at it.

    2. Share metadata with each other and make it openly available/indexable to search engines. Chris brown talked about this in his presentation at the fall 2012 Depository Library Conference presentation, “Fiche Online: A Vision for Digitizing All Documents Fiche” (PDF). Chris called for the public sharing of metadata in every digitization project (he called it a “record distribution model”). In this model, digitizing libraries would make their records available via harvest/FTP or some other method and other libraries would then be able to ingest those records into their own discovery environments.

      If more libraries are pointing to the authentic version (and we’ve got to discuss authenticity in terms of digital surrogates), then information seekers will use the authentic version. Links have consequences.

    3. Write/blog about your documents, collections and services. For example, our reference desk has a blog with a section for Q&As. Whenever I have a particularly juicy reference question, I post it to our Q&A section. One post in particular — on average tariff levels of all things! — garners a TON of google traffic and actually shows up in the top 3 in google search results. In that 1 post, I highlight the library’s collections and resources as well as the agencies/IGOs from which to get authentic information. I’ve even been contacted by a researcher at Carnegie Mellon who’d been looking all over for the “International Customs Journal” and found it via my blog post. If you write about it, they will come (to the library!).

      Another thing librarians can do to seed the Web with authentic documents is to add citations and links to Wikipedia articles. This should be a no-brainer. Wikipedia is one of the most heavily viewed site on the internet. So it makes great sense to put authentic documents and library collections where the most eyes can see them. Location, Location, Location! For more on seeding Wikipedia, see “Using Wikipedia to Extend Digital Collections.” Amy Lally and Carolyn Dunford. D-Lib Magazine, 13(5/6) May/June, 2007.

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