We Need to Focus on the “Why” of Standards

Letter from the Executive Director, June 2020

As the economic impact of the COVID-19 pandemic grows in scale and depth, it’s becoming clear that hopes for a quick, “V”-shaped recovery are probably unrealistic. Many institutions are considering the potential impact of this pandemic continuing into the fall and how things like instruction, trade conferences, and in-person services will need to adapt if the underlying circumstances (i.e., testing, vaccines, or herd-immunity levels) do not change.

In an economic downturn, organizations of all types seek to reduce their costs. In the recession of 2008–2009, many membership organizations had to scale back their activities, as individuals and organizations pulled back on their community involvement. NISO was not immune to feeling the impacts of that recession 12 years ago, and I expect we will not be spared from the macroeconomic trends that will affect our community during this downturn as well. 

And yet, it is important to remember the rationale for the work NISO engages in. It isn’t because our work is fun or appealing. Ultimately, it’s because standards reduce costs. They increase efficiency. They build trust among trading partners, which saves time. Discussing and agreeing on terminology, on usage data to quantify, or on data models to exchange content or metadata—each endeavor saves time in contract negotiation or in achieving systems interoperability. As each of our community members casts about to find ways to do more with less, we should collectively ask ourselves what we can do with our partners or customers, to be more effective. Are there things we’re spending time doing slightly differently for each partner, 10, 20, or 100 times? Identifying that problem, agreeing to limit customization, and focusing on the most critical activities are the first steps in creating a standard or best practice. The result could save thousands, or tens of thousands, of dollars individually and collectively—perhaps millions across the community.

During NISO’s Board meeting last month, the Board reviewed a forthcoming report of the outcomes from the NISO 2020 Plus Conference. When considering the numerous good ideas that were generated at the conference, one Board member suggested the report could be improved by testing the ideas against the question “Why?” For instance, here was a common refrain about how much we would benefit from better metadata related to this or that. But where do we get when we push on the question of why do we need better metadata? Is it because user discovery is inhibited, or is it because organizations are spending untold hours cleaning up the problems caused by poor quality data? The former might be postponed in our present environment because discovery is “good enough” as is, but the latter might be a critical priority right now as organizations seek to trim costs. 

As I wrote last month, investments still need to be made in infrastructure, and while it is tempting to put off making those investments, postponing maintenance or improvements on critical infrastructure will only cost more later. Similarly, lack of investment in standards too has its costs. Short-term thinking about how we can best trim our budgets today could cost us tremendously later. Which of our current systems are teetering and likely to fail in our current COVID-19 remote working situation? For example, as was outlined in a recent Scholarly Kitchen piece by Ralph Youngen, there are unanticipated issues created by use of proxy servers to support IP-based authentication systems for off-campus access. Or, how might publishers react to usage spikes in their services when articles related to COVID-19 become subjects of general interest or hot news stories in this environment? Even now, there are many needs for community approaches to problem solving through the standards process.

In part, I want to draw your attention to the forthcoming report on NISO Plus Outcomes. We encourage those who were present at the meeting and put forward the ideas covered by the report to keep pushing these ideas onward. Even if you were not present, we invite you to review the ideas and let us know which of them you find compelling. Those projects with champions and support will advance, while those without likely will not. Efforts that have a compelling answer to the “Why?” question will make sense, even during a time when resources are constrained. 

Our efforts did not slow during the last recession, and they will not be significantly waylaid in the present downturn. Working groups have continued their work. This past May saw the release of new projects and public drafts for comments on recommendations.  Additional projects will reach milestones shortly. Our educational programs continue as robustly as ever. And we are putting plans into place for the fall and for 2021. There are needs in the community, and we aim to serve them.


Todd Carpenter
Executive Director