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Magazines > Information Today > April 2004
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Information Today

Vol. 21 No. 4 — April 2004

INTERVIEW
EBSCO Celebrates Its 60th Anniversary
By Paula Hane

If you haven't noticed, EBSCO is no longer just a journal-subscription company. The venerable firm is celebrating its 60th anniversary in 2004 and has experienced considerable growth and development over the past 10 years. There's been a lot going on behind the scenes at EBSCO, but many people don't realize what the company has really been up to. So I talked with EBSCO Information Services' two top executives to understand the company's directions, strategies, and plans for 2004 and beyond.

Tim Collins is vice president and division general manager of EBSCO Publishing. He has been with the company for more than 16 years. EBSCO Publishing, EBSCO Subscription Services, and EBSCO Book Services form the EBSCO Information Services group.

F. Dixon Brooke Jr. is vice president and division general manager of EBSCO Subscription Services. He has been with the company for 31 years and is married to the daughter of founder Elton B. Stephens.

EBSCO Information Services provides information access and management solutions through print and electronic journal-subscription services, research database development and production, online access to databases and e-journals, and e-commerce book procurement. It serves libraries in the academic, medical, government, public, and school markets as well as corporations and other organizations. EBSCO Information Services is a division of EBSCO Industries, Inc., a diverse, global corporation comprising more than 20 businesses in 19 countries.

Tim Collins

Q: Give me an overview of the database offerings on the EBSCOhost platform and what the division accomplished in 2003.

A: EBSCO currently offers more than 120 databases via EBSCOhost and has become the largest full-text aggregator. We also license a large number of leading secondary databases, and that area has grown dramatically in the last few years, both in sales and the number of databases offered. We've also expanded beyond journal databases at the request of our customers. We now offer non-journal content, such as the Magill series of literary products (MagillOnAuthors and MagillOnLiterature), the Auto Repair Reference Center, and a new product called Book Index with Reviews. We saw customer needs that we could meet and worked hard to add the appropriate databases to EBSCOhost. Our goal is to have robust offerings in all the library markets we serve: school, public, academic, medical, corporate, and government.

Q: How much are you doing in the corporate library space?

A: It is a fairly new area for us. Because of our focus on our Business Source Premier product, which is for the academic market, we were able to license a lot of content pertinent to the corporate market. So we created a corporate version of that database. It's very appropriate for corporations, and many of our secondary databases are applicable for the market as well, such as Inspec. So we've slowly increased our sales power in this sector.

2003 was a year of significant growth overall. We expanded the number of full-text titles dramatically, we added more than 20 new databases, and our customer base grew as more libraries chose to access multiple databases from EBSCOhost. We also made numerous acquisitions—about a dozen. The acquisition of the CINAHL Database was the largest.

Q: Looking at the list of recently added databases, it looks like you are focused on adding in niche areas: textiles, theater, etc. Are you targeting niche subject areas, are these serendipitous additions, or are you getting requests for these areas?

A: Some of each. We relied heavily on our academic advisory board to identify subject areas that they felt were underserved or areas that were appropriate for EBSCO to offer content. They came up with a list of subjects and databases. One of the new files we are most pleased with is our GLBT Life product. It was not the result of an acquisition but a subject area that the advisory board felt we should focus on. We established an advisory board of leaders in the field and partnered with a number of leading organizations, such as the ONE Institute with its large archive of gay literature. We created a subject thesaurus and then indexed all the material we could get access to. The database now has more than 100,000 records.

In other areas, we identified a subject and found we could make an acquisition, for example, in the area of communications and mass media. We acquired two databases and created a database with those serving as a foundation. In other cases, we learned of databases that were for sale and felt they would fit.

Q: Do you have a similar advisory board in the public library area?

A: Yes, we have boards in several areas. Most of the acquisitions we made in the past year were in the academic area, so that's why I mentioned that board. We invite members, usually from some of the top schools in the country. We meet with them at least three times a year, and we have a fair amount of communication with them throughout the year. We see this as a key part of what we're doing. I learned a long time ago that it's better to ask customers what they want than to waste time guessing.

Q: What about plans for the next year? Any specific subject focus for expansion?

A: In the next year, you'll see us expanding our activities in the nursing and allied health area. With our Cinahl acquisition, we see an opportunity to expand that business. Over the last few years, we've had an overall focus on quality. Our abstracts have gotten longer for academic journals. We've enhanced our overall subject treatment by creating subject-specific thesauri. We've added bibliographic elements, such as author affiliations, more subject headings, article types, geographical headings. We feel this is the right move even though it increases our costs. We think the library market will appreciate it.

Q: What about all the H.W. Wilson databases you've been adding?

A: We see them as one of our key partners. I think we have licensed 17 or so and keep methodically adding them to EBSCOhost. Our customers asked us for these, and so we've provided them.

Q: What's the status of providing access to nearly all the full text of journals found through your databases?

A: We're now north of 10,000 publications for which we have full-text licenses. Despite that growth, we're not slowing down. In fact, we have more people licensing content than ever before. Many publishers that we've been talking with for a long time have agreed to do it because they've seen the success of other publishers. For example, we're still adding considerable content to our Business Source Premier database, which is now the largest full-text database covering business. There are still a number of publications that aren't online yet, and we'd like to help them get there.

Where we haven't licensed the full text, we make linking available. We link to the online journal regardless of where that journal might be located: a publisher's site, linked through an aggregator, etc. One new thing we've added that we're not aware of other aggregators doing is we've made the references within articles browsable, searchable, and linkable. We've added more than 10 million of these references to our databases. Our feature, called Searchable References, links to additional full-text articles.

Q: This kind of functionality is matching to work-flow patterns, to the way users do research.

A: Yes, we've sat down and watched our users and asked what they would like to do with our products that they cannot do now. This feature has been available for about a year, and it's been well-received.

Q: On the topic of browsing, last fall you introduced index browsing in some databases. How much use does this feature get from customers? In other words, are library end users taking advantage of these search aids that professional researchers love? And are you planning to expand this to other databases?

A: We monitor all search features, and index browsing is not one of the most used, but it doesn't make it any less important. We serve a broad user community. We find that some of our more sophisticated features really don't get used by end users as much as we'd like. But we think this is slowly changing as users realize that the advanced search features are necessary to get high-quality results. We are systematically adding this to all of our secondary databases and plan to roll this out across all databases for which it is appropriate. Basically, the more information that is online, the more important it is to have high-quality metadata and tools that help users discern what is useful.

Q: What about your goals for 2004?

A: Our goals are pretty simple. We are growing by adding new databases and improving existing databases. We try to listen and fill customer needs. Our long-term goal is to realize our potential. We want to be recognized as the best online research service for libraries.

Q: What's the status of library budgets? How much of a hit have you taken as libraries have struggled, and do you see the situation starting to improve?

A: We've definitely seen libraries struggling. Unfortunately, the news reports about the economy improving have really not translated into larger budgets for libraries. But because we've increased the number and size of databases available via EBSCOhost so much over the last several years, we haven't been negatively impacted by the budgetary situation in libraries. We've grown.

Q: What about pricing? Have you had to adjust or become more flexible in your offerings to accommodate libraries' needs? This comes to mind because of the current backlash against Elsevier's big-deal pricing.

A: We have a tradition of being flexible on pricing. As an intermediary, we try to put together packages that work both for our customers and for our publishing partners.

Q: What about adding multimedia to databases? I understand you recently told customers you plan to add audio and video to the History Reference Center? What kind of response have you gotten?

A: We recently announced our intent to add historical multimedia content, and we've done some content licensing in this area. But we're really asking our customers about their interests and any concerns they might have, such as bandwidth, etc. It's a bit early to gauge the response.

Q: What technology enhancements would you most like to see implemented, and what are your customers asking for?

A: We're excited about the Web services paradigm that's emerging and see it as a natural extension of object-oriented systems development where various software functions are handled by different components that may be stored on different machines. For the user, this can mean better performance and faster turnaround time on enhancements. It's really a behind-the-scenes improvement to processes. For example, we have an article-matcher component that matches the citations in secondary databases to citations from full-text databases that facilitates our linking. We designed it as separate services on separate machines, so the linking is seamless and fast.

XML has become a standard, and we now handle most of our content in XML. For the end user, this means faster development and load time for content and a better treatment of the data. We've been investing in XML-based systems for several years, and now we're seeing the benefits of those investments. We look at our technology investments more for product improvements rather than any cost savings. Anything we've saved, we've poured back into our products.

Q: What about other technologies, such as visualization for interfaces?

A: We've looked into visualization and experimented some and find it intriguing, but at this point have no implementation plans.

Q: What about Google's recent deals with some traditional information companies like OCLC, IEEE, and others? Google sees itself as the great gateway to all content. How does EBSCO view this?

A: Google is a major player that we watch, but from what I can tell it's mostly an advertising-based company—one that is looking for additional content to wrap advertising around. Libraries have always vigorously told us they don't want us to add advertising into our database products, so it should be interesting to see if they embrace Google. It makes us even more committed to adding quality content and enhancing it with our sophisticated search functionality and value-added data elements.

Q: Bottom line. What do you feel are EBSCO's advantages over competitors' products? What do you tell customers when you try to win business?

A: Of course it varies by customer type and product, but I'd say our key advantages are superior quality and quantity of full text; comprehensive collection of secondary databases; seamless linking between secondary and full-text databases and between all the databases and external sources of full text; an easy-to-use, fast, and reliable service that offers sophisticated search tools if the user wants to use them, but doesn't require them to; and finally, something I think is very important: a customer service orientation that provides training and support to our customers—something that isn't so common among companies these days.

F. Dixon Brooke Jr.

Q: Give me an overview of what the Subscription division accomplished in 2003—besides weathering the stress and details of managing the RoweCom acquisition.

A: We grew our subscription business outright (between 5 and 10 percent), even without the inclusion of the additional RoweCom volume, so we were pleased about that. We made major investments in our infrastructure. We invested in our global telecommunications network to expand our bandwidth capacity, including the Internet2 partnership we have. We enhanced our fully redundant global network to anticipate additional volume but also to shore up our Web support to improve our service. We doubled our customer service for Web support, if that gives you an idea of the growth. We're trying to stay ahead of the curve.

We also invested to improve our EBSCOhost Electronic Journals Service (EJS). We added approximately 1,000 titles to the service this past year and added more than a million full-text articles. We expanded the number of articles available for pay-per-view by approximately 40 percent—now totaling more than 700,000. We enhanced our emphasis on interfacing with e-commerce platforms, such as Ariba and SAP. We've experienced a multifold increase in our transaction volume as a result of those partnerships, including an expansion in the volume of book orders.

Two other areas for 2003 I'd like to comment on were our expansion of our efforts worldwide with consortia and the launch of our A-to-Z service. Our customers had been asking for this level of journal support. We studied the market for other such services and determined we could develop an approach that could help our customers manage their electronic resources more effectively. EBSCO A-to-Z is one of several tools we offer, including EJS, LinkSource, Smart Linking, etc. We have plans to expand our efforts to facilitate access to full text, but we're definitely pleased with the market response so far.

Q: Hearing what both you and Tim have discussed, I would say the themes that emerge are integration and linking. What would you say?

A: I would agree absolutely. On the matter of integration, we've worked on that for so long that it's not new. We work with numerous third-party service providers that market ILS systems to our customers, and we've spent years doing software development to interface our systems with those third-party systems to make it easy for our customers to conduct their business. Integrating solutions has been a big part of what we do.

Linking is growing in importance. We now work with more than 10,000 e-journals. We provide seamless authentication and linking via EJS. We have approximately 5 million articles viewable through EJS, and we're working with EBSCO Publishing on a joint project to offer Reference Linking through both EBSCOhost and EJS.

Q: What is EBSCO's current status with Sage Publications? In 2002, Sage pulled its titles from aggregators. Then in 2003, it did a deal with ProQuest for titles in ABI/INFORM. At that time, Sage said it was talking to EBSCO.

A: Generally, we enjoy a cordial and long-standing relationship with Sage, handling subscription orders, both print and electronic; providing access to electronic content through our EJS service; and representing them through our consortia efforts. They made a decision to discontinue their relationships with secondary database publishers, but we hope they will rejoin the ranks of hundreds of publishers that work with us and are happy with what we do. We hope they will change their mind.

Q: What's the current status of the RoweCom integration?

A: It's certainly been an interesting and challenging year. We've successfully integrated RoweCom's business onto EBSCO's technology platform (except for the business in France, which remains on a separate system) and handled all 2004 renewal invoicing through our system. We've been pleased by the response and support we've received from the former RoweCom accounts. While the legal wrangling for a settlement continues for publishers and libraries with the bankruptcy court, I think most of us are happy to move past the controversy and on to another year.

Q: I think you gained some credibility and stature when you stepped up to purchase RoweCom. You could have just waited for the end and then scooped up the customers. EBSCO looked like the white knight.

A: We saw an opportunity to expand our European operation. Secondly, we were pained by the idea of a huge disruption in the industry. We felt there was value in trying to maintain as much stability as possible. And when the publishing community was willing to partner on it, we went ahead, and we have no regrets about it.

Q: What are your goals for 2004 for the Subscription division and overall for Information Services?

A: We are highly focused on providing outstanding quality of service. Secondly, we want to have the premier service for electronic journals. We continue to expand access services and electronic journal-management services, which we think adds value for both libraries and publishers. We are endeavoring aggressively to add to the array of databases and products we can add to the marketplace, both domestically and abroad.

Q: What technology developments would you most like to see implemented, and what are your customers asking for?

A: The whole area of electronic journals and improved systems to enable immediate access. In the old print world, when you placed an order you were advised that you could expect to receive the first issue in 6 to 8 weeks. In the electronic world, we think this kind of fulfillment is unacceptable. We think and hear that there's a significant need for improved systems on all fronts: ordering, payments, invoices, authentication, and access. Our goal is to speed this entire process. It will take widespread publisher commitment and involvement—and some procedural changes—to make it a reality. That would be my dream.

Q: What do you tell customers when you try to win business? What do you feel are EBSCO's advantages over competitors' products?

A: Number one, we talk about service, service, service. Our global reach with local office support is a big element in our ability to provide service to a broad range of customers. Stability is key for us, [as are] financial strength [and] reliability. We have a history of fulfilling our obligations not only with publishers but with customers. We try not to overreach or overpromise. We like to do what we say we will do.

Because of the success we've had, we're able to invest in new technology and keep the company moving forward. It allows us to offer a wider array of products and services. The synergies between EBSCO Publishing and EBSCO Subscription Services allow us to provide a fully integrated information systems and services approach. We feel this gives us a unique position in the marketplace.

Q: How much of the stability, growth, and financial strength is due to the vastly diversified businesses of EBSCO Industries—operating kind of like a nice, balanced, low-risk mutual fund? If one business sector has trouble, the other businesses buoy it up.

A: EBSCO is celebrating its 60th anniversary. It's still very much a family enterprise that retains the family's values. We value our culture and our history, which has been about doing a quality job and taking care of the customer. Our founder, Elton B. Stephens, is a product of the Depression and World War II, and some of our businesses evolved because of his efforts to serve the military. His philosophy is that it's better to have five things so if one isn't doing well, you have the other four to fall back on. I think our diversification has been a good thing. It gives a solid foundation that allows the company to grow, make investments, and be around for the long term.

Q: Just one final question: Are there any industry trends or issues that particularly concern the company at this time?

A: I'd like to address the issue of consortia and direct deals for publisher packages. It's natural for publishers to want to test the new electronic medium by dealing directly with customers. It's also natural for libraries under severe budget constraints to seek ways to save money. But we are hearing more and more about the hidden costs associated with these types of deals. Some of our customers are asking us to help because they're not organized to be able to cope with the added work generated by these so-called money-saving deals. We plan to address this, and we're looking at a new array of services that we feel could help with this.

It's precisely due to budget constraints that organizations can ill-afford to take on back-office work to make up for the publishers' and consortia's inabilities to integrate (there's that word again) with the library's local systems. We're troubled by the fact that publishers have gone from an understood model to individual deals that are individually negotiated and do not have adequate systems in place, thereby putting the burden on the libraries. This whole process erodes very badly needed resources that could be used to acquire the very information publishers seek to sell. Earlier, I described my dream for the entire journal transaction process, and this would be part of it.


Paula J. Hane is Information Today, Inc.'s news bureau chief and editor of NewsBreaks. Her e-mail address is phane@infotoday.com.
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