Information Today
Volume 19, Issue 4 — April 2002
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• Quint's Online •
Tasini Damage-Reporting Decisions
Today's vendor policy choices will affect customer relations tomorrow
by Barbara Quint

A prominent news librarian from one of the nation's top-10 newspapers recently called her primary full-text vendor and asked for a report on which data had gone off-line due to the Tasini decision. Her request was denied. She reported the problem to the Newslib-L listserv to find colleague after colleague struggling with the same dilemma.As one of them explained to me, the struggle to find answers from newspaper sources had reverted to the sad old, bad old days before online full text or even adequate indexes existed for newspapers. The days when the only hope to retrieve "known items" from newspapers lay in begging colleagues who worked inside newspaper libraries for help. The Newslib-L listserv itself, instead of focusing on advanced issues of managing new Web site efforts or seeking out new sources of information for clients, was now filled with pleas for specific documents and expressions of anguish at the loss of reliable full-text service.

Already the news librarians have responded to the challenge by organizing their own lists of lost or damaged collections. (Look for a future article in Searcher magazine that will document such changes.)

However, the greatest casualty imposed on the information industry by Tasini may turn out to be the loss of the traditional full-text vendors' reputation. The period of time allotted to vendors for confusion, dismay, and general grieving about the decision has passed. Buyers of full-text services are now struggling with the aftermath of Tasini. They need help. Most of all, they need honesty. And as Ben Franklin, the first all-American mind, once observed, "Honesty is the best policy."

Instead, some vendors appear to have adopted a policy of "Tasini? What's a Tasini?" The kindest thing one can say about such a position is that it makes the vendor look like a mental case. The unkindest thing one can say is that it lookslike the vendor considers the customers evenmore mentally deficient. In fact, the vendor would seem to treat its customer base like a collection of suckers who can be sold—and told—anything it chooses.

Other vendors admit the fact of withdrawn data, but pooh-pooh its importance. They thrust statistics at you, documenting the narrow percentages of withdrawals out of their vast stream of full-text content. The more fortunate—or farsighted—vendors that espouse this approach for soothing client fears have large merged files. And often, rather than providing statistics title by title, they calculate the percentage of withdrawals against the total size of a merged file that contains dozens, hundreds, or even thousands of titles. Ironically, this approach seems to contradict the vendors' primary argument for the high price of their data, namely, its authoritativeness and the quality of sources. Any vendor that starts blurring sources, that begins equating a book review lost from The New York Times with one found in the Smallville Gazette, sabotages the quality factor in its own marketing campaigns. Worse than that, such an approach demeans the judgment of the librarians and information professionals who buy their products. If a client thinks there's a problem, there's a problem. The client knows best.

Some vendors excuse their silence and inertia in dealing with the problem of the lost data by pointing to the delicacy of their relations with publishers. They claim that any positive actions—such as trying to get direct permissions from freelance authors—would make publishers think the aggregators were joining the enemy. I don't know how to break the news to you, guys, but the war's over. The publishers lost. You don't have to throw a victory party, but it's okay to talk with all the former combatants. Heck, if Europe can form a united continental currency after all the wars of the 20th century, I guess aggregators and search services can open discussions with unarmed authors. (Fear not! I'm almost positive the "lance" in "freelance" is only metaphorical.)

Specific Steps
Let's take a look at what steps vendors could and should take in dealing with the Tasini challenge on behalf of their information professional customers—the same professionals that often influence or decide which content sources their end-user communities will get. I've ranked the approaches in order of their appeal to customers, from most appealing to minimal necessity:

  • Recover the missing material. Contact freelance authors for permissions. At least put a notice on your Web sites that encourages freelancers to grant permission for retention or restoration of their work. Even if you can't offer money for the pieces, many freelancers would like to have their material maintained online with or without payment. I know I would.

  • Provide alternative routes to the missing material. In my September 2001 column (p. 8), I pleaded with the online industry to maintain its inverted file indexes to bibliographic citations for Tasini losses. Sigh. Any assistance or information you can provide—such as the freelancer's name or the nearest library that holds the title in print, microfilm, or any other "fixed for all time" format—could give users an idea of where to go for what and would help a great deal.

  • Publish statistics on losses. In as much detail as possible, by title or (better) by title and type of content, release information on the amount of damage the source has sustained. Don't try to tell us that you don't have the statistics for past withdrawals. From Excel to Oracle, all database management software can provide a record count. If you withdrew the file per publisher instructions and have now reloaded the file that has been sent back "de-Tasini-ed" from the publisher, then compare the counts for dates covered before and after.

Who's Doing and Not Doing What
I conducted a very quick survey of the major newspapers' online full-text services. Newspapers are the test beds for Tasini damage at this point, but one can expect trade and general press publishers to follow in time.

LexisNexis has title-by-title coverage of all of its sources in its Directory of Online Services content guide and has opened it to all information professionals, LexisNexis customers or not, at no charge. By going to this site, searchers "can determine if any particular publisher has provided LexisNexis with instructions to remove freelanced articles or other materials affected by the Tasini decision. In all cases where LexisNexis has complied with publishers' instructions and removed materials as a result of the Tasini decision, we include the following notation: Certain freelance articles previously available have been removed by LexisNexis pursuant to the publisher's directions."

However, LexisNexis admits that in cases in which it has licensed materials from database aggregators such as Gale or ProQuest, it has not followed up on the impact of Tasini withdrawals imposed on the aggregators by publishers. Instead, LexisNexis states, "Information professionals should inquire of the originating information service about a list of the publications from which they have removed freelance articles." Grumble, grumble, grrr.

Factiva has a long-standing system for reporting "major" removals in its Content Watch section. Patricia Bridges, vice president of Factiva, did not have a firm definition of what constituted "major," stating that "five to 10 articles out of 600 in a title would not qualify as a material change, while 50 percent certainly would." Unlike LexisNexis, Factiva will even report comings and goings from aggregator suppliers. In some cases, it reports more information than an individual searcher could get from the aggregator directly. (See the ProQuest example below.) The Content Watch listings, which can be browsed but not searched, include a reason for the removal. If Tasini is given, that is what it will show, but in the case of a global removal, such as an entire title, the publisher or aggregator may not indicate theTasini decision as the reason.

Dialog had no available response. The Dialog service generally announces withdrawals of files when you first sign on.At least, that's what it does in DialogClassic, the legacy system used by "geezer" searchers such as myself. What happens in the more youthful climes of other Web-born services, I don't know. In any case, this approach would only track entire files going off-line. If a publisher, such as Gannett, chose to remove a group of files and then resubmit it later for reloading after a Tasini laundering, Dialog's system could report the coming and going, though not the reason for it.

Gale Group, a leading aggregator with both direct sales through its InfoTrac line and indirect sales through most major online services, was at press time in the middle of an in-house discussion concerning this matter. By the time you read this, the company should have a reporting mechanism in place—one that satisfies all parties: publishers, authors, and customers. As George Plosker, vice president of Gale, put it, "We believe all relationships must be honored, and that includes the one that links our products with librarians and their patrons."

ProQuest, the other leading aggregator and the only one with a Tasini-blessed collection of full-image newspapers (albeit in microfilm), produces monthly reports that cover any major losses of content. The reports only go to ProQuest licensees, however, and its definition of a "major loss" would seem to refer to whole titles. Vince Price of ProQuest explained that the company sells directly to the academic and public library markets. These markets usually only buy regional newspapers and not a whole collection of papers from around the country. For these customers, ProQuest will do a title-by-title damage assessment if requested and will try to work out alternative solutions. (Yech, microfilm.) ProQuest does not post the figures, however, or respond at the customer desk to anyone who calls. (Psst. LexNex, please take note.) However, for any major changes—and Price admits that in the case of some of the newspapers, changes have been "painfully significant"—it does send change notificationsto its third-party licensees. So corporate ProQuest users may find that the Content Watch section in Factiva is the only source for ProQuest changes.

Price also indicated that ProQuest doesn't actually remove all the material, just the display of it. It still supplies bibliographic citations. This policy of full-text suppression,but not deletion, extends beyond Tasini. It can also stem from other intellectual property issues, such as syndicated columns or embargoes on when authorization starts or stops, but Tasini is one reason.As to where ProQuest expects you to go once you have a citation to suppressed full text in hand, Price suggested a library. (Yech, microfilm.)

Why Not Get It Back?
Almost all the vendors listed do provide a place for freelance authors to request removal of material, pending publisher agreement. I asked vendor representatives why they didn't ask for authorization as well, such as The New York Times, the most outspoken of the publishers sued in the Tasini case, does in its Restoration Request site ( Some hemmed and hawed, but all pointed to the publishers from which they license their files. Legal difficulties seem as important as administrative ones, but both erect substantial barriers.

ProQuest's Price was the most forthright about developments. Basically, the aggregators and third-party licensees are waiting for the final case decision in which the court will determine damages and a settlement strategy. Discussions between parties are underway even now, but no one knows how long they may take—months or even years. Frankly, the vendors apparently don't want to go through any major efforts until they know the final mediation results. One wonders whether they also hope and pray that customer complaints may drain away in the interim.

Perhaps so. But the newspaper librarian with whom I spoke, the one who started the idea for this column, posed an interesting question to the vendor that brushed off her request for information as an interference in the legal relations of vendor and publisher. She asked about her legal rights to get what she was paying for. Interesting question.

One final piece of advice to vendors. Politicians in Washington, D.C., and around the country have a standing rule of thumb, "It's not the scandal that kills you, it's the coverup." Librarians, information professionals, and their clients can't wait months or years to start coping with the negative effects of Tasini. They need to act now. Help them. Share as much information as you have as publicly as you can. If you don't, the memory of your indifference to their plight will live a lot longer than the plight.

In fact, come to think of it, perhaps we could get some digital library project to undertake the digitization of all Tasini removals. Some phone calls to SPARC, LC, CDL, NWU, and a few other acronyms, and the process could be well underway.

Libraries as clients or libraries as competitors? Your choice, vendors. Reporting decisions made today may influence your competitive future.

Barbara Quint is editor in chief of Searcher, contributing editor for NewsBreaks, and a longtime online searcher. Her e-mail address is

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