Information Today
Volume 19, Issue 7 — July/August 2002
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Quint's Online
The Digital Library of the Future
CrossRef Search and QuestionPoint offer challenges to traditional services
by Barbara Quint

In the course of researching this column, I conducted a very scientific poll on the gender differences in the use of the phrase "I told you so." The male half of the polling group held to the opinion that women said it much more often than men. He even stated that when men used the phrase, they applied it in a different manner—more in a male-bonding way than in a negative or critical sense. The female half of the polling group agreed. Well, she agreed that women used the phrase more, but contended that the reason was because they were more frequently right. When faced with this argument, the male half of the group thought that it could help explain the phenomenon.

Actually, at this point, the male interviewee seemed to stray from the original research topic. He saw the issue as part of a larger gender trend that he referred to as "gunnysacking." A gunnysack argument, according to him, was an approach used primarily by wives (which could include married mothers). In the course of the description, his language sometimes rose above grumbling and muttering to attain a certain grim eloquence.

Gunnysacking, he explained, is the process by which an arguer—usually of the female persuasion—pulls out instance after instance from across a vast expanse of time to win an ongoing dispute. I pointed out that this might simply illustrate a gender propensity for building strong, viable databases and applying aggressive knowledge management techniques. His counterarguments focused on low currency standards and unreliable relevancy ranking algorithms. In any case, I felt that the gunnysacking discussion strayed too far from the original inquiry of the poll.

And I told him so.

So what's the connection between polling and this column? Well, for years now I've been trying to warn all and sundry of the new day coming, of the new information world order that was emerging and endangering those who ignored its arrival. If I say so myself, some of my predictions have already come true. Well here come two more. (They should never have put dates on my quotes in The Quintessential Searcher. It gives me an unfair advantage.)

PILA Piling On

In the merry month of May, the Publishers International Linking Association (PILA) announced plans to expand CrossRef (, its master database of links. Instead of linking only from citations to the full-text articles that are available on hundreds of publisher Web sites, PILA has initiated a CrossRef Search Project that could ultimately introduce full-text searching of articles by all participating publishers onto each publisher's Web site. The 122 publishers already in the CrossRef database will each be able to choose whether they want to take part in the new full-text service. PILA will also seek separate funding for the project.

What could be more pleasant than improving the effectiveness of retrieval by adding myriad more access points than simply the information contained in a citation? Well, I agree. It would be pleasant for users everywhere. But how pleasant for secondary abstracting-and-indexing (A&I) services? CrossRef does not charge for searching its database. You can perform searches and read bibliographic citations for free. In many cases, you can even read the abstracts for free. On the other hand, today's CrossRef database does not offer any kind of subject indexing or value-added coding and categorization. But a CrossRef that draws on the full text of journal articles will ramp up its utility exponentially. Although such a full-text database may not always parallel the advantages offered by the most sophisticated secondary services, it could get darn close. In any case, it would clearly possess other advantages that the A&I services don't have—i.e., the ability to recall an article using full-text-only cues such as an odd term appearing on the fourth page of a piece or the name of a conference hotel. And of course it will link to the full-text article.

More importantly, if the policy of charging nothing for searching and retrieving citations (including some abstracts) persists in the new full-text service ... Well, let's get real here. I hope you guys who only have A&I coverage to keep you warm live in the Sun Belt. Pushing those shopping carts filled with your worldly goods can tire you out fast when the streets fill with slush.

But don't listen to me. Cling to the faith that has gotten you this far. Keep believing that the world cannot do without you, that your archival holdings are sturdy vessels that will keep you afloat. (I can remember just a few years back when some of you argued that the Net and its Web were fads that would someday fade away. Let's hope no one is still singing that tune.) Actually, the archival holdings will probably come in handy. However, unless a sudden surge for collecting antique research overwhelms the sci-tech arena, archives will certainly not allow secondary services to continue to live in the manner to which they have become accustomed. But as those services close operations, selling their remaining archive assets to primary publishers (or even PILA) could at least supply enough funds to buy some shopping carts.

The bottom line is that primary publishers have apparently decided there's not enough room in the lifeboats for secondary services. The secondary publishers saw this coming 2 years ago when PILA first began. Almost before the organization could get off the ground—driven, if you remember, by terror over the National Library of Medicine's PubMed Central (aka E-biomed) initiative—fistfights broke out between members over allowing A&I services access to the CrossRef link database. The scholarly societies that create some of the best such databases, as well as some of the most-distributed primary journals in their fields, made it clear that refusal to include A&I services in CrossRef's bounty would be a deal breaker for their participation in PILA. But deals were made and PILA went forward. In a conversation with a senior member of one of those society publishers, he predicted that the issue could sink CrossRef Search. Nonetheless, secondary services seem to be marching backward. True, many of the commercial scholarly publishers have secondary services of their own, but they remain peripheral in the revenue flow.

Besides, CrossRef Search is a good idea. It could bring in a lot of users. At least it could help retain the users who are still left. Remember, the real enemy is outside. Primary scholarly journals face a daunting task of competing with Google, .gov/.edu/.org sites, preprint servers, and the wholesale diversion of scientific communication onto the Web and the Net. It's Google that'll get you if you don't watch out. With open, effective access to published scholarship widely available through CrossRef Search, publishers could remind today's and tomorrow's Web-borne scholars of the existence of primary publishing sources—a reminder that's becoming more and more essential to publishing's survival.

So what can secondary services do now? Well, while you still have the chance (do you hear your biological clock ticking?), re-engineer your efforts to handle today's and tomorrow's problems, not yesterday's. Let CrossRef take care of the basic archiving work. Integrate whatever value you add with the new database. After all, most of you have not written your own abstracts in decades; you rely on author abstracts from publishers. ISI came late to the addition of abstracts and uses only author abstracts. Yet it reports that of the 5,943 journals covered by Science Citation Index, 95 percent have abstracts, a figure that drops to 67 percent for Social Sciences Citation Index and only 7 percent for Arts and Humanities Citation Index.

But more than anything, focus your efforts on building services that identify, track, archive, access, and promote Web- or Net-based scholarship. That's the hole in the ozone that scholars and the information professionals who attend them face today. That's where we need the help. That's the marketplace (which is filled with new players that we find hard to trust—for now) we feel drawn to more and more. BioMed Central has already crossed into the trust zone. Others will follow. We need vision, imagination, a sense of mission, and endless flexibility in means to reach goals set in iron. Do good and do well! Virtual virtue! After all, online shopping carts mean e-commerce revenue flows. At this point, you secondary services have little choice. The future is only months away.

24/7 or Bust

But that's not all the merry month of May brought to our attention. On May 20, OCLC and the Library of Congress announced that on June 3 they would launch a beta test of QuestionPoint (, their new collaborative reference service. For a chump-change price of $2,000, any library could gain both the tools to create its own 24/7 digital reference service and access to a Global Reference Network of colleagues around the world. This development could be the moment in time that future historians in our field will mark as the point when the virtual library was really born.

It's a scary time for librarians and their vendors. If we do not offer such services we face a dismal future of irrelevance. We will become mere servants of the books that were our tools, instead of the agents and guardians of our clients' information world. On the other hand, librarians who live and work in the protection of walled libraries can feel the cold winds blow as "wall-less" library services emerge. Vendors who sell to librarians may also feel the chill as answers from products that are sold to one library begin to serve patrons from many. Vendors must worry that librarians who get used to obtaining their answers from a virtual reference desk may find purchasing some products unnecessary and even redundant.

On the other hand, wise vendors and wise librarians recognize that, for them too, the enemy is outside. Google will get you if you don't watch out. To remain relevant and stay alive in the new information world order, we have to offer online services and offer them to one and all around the clock, probably forfree. Librarians have less trouble with that free issue, an old ideal. We have more trouble with serving patrons beyond our constituency limits, but even there we could come to dream large.

Vendors know that if the libraries go under, they will too. Or will they? As the digital collections develop into full-featured tools that combine the output of vast numbers of established sources (see CrossRef Search), and virtual reference desks allow one to tap large talent pools of information professionals (see QuestionPoint), could vendors bypass the librarians? Could they go to deans, city fathers, and CEOs and offer to supply the digital equivalents of full-scale library service with the flip of a switch? Such bundled digital library services wouldnever need landscaping, building contracts, or employee perks.

Library vendors as librarian employers? Arrgh!

My senses accelerated by paranoia, I perused the QuestionPoint contract terms line by line and—aha!—found a suspicious development. The question-and-answer pairs collected and archived by the Global Reference Network (known as the Global Knowledgebase) are copyrighted to OCLC. Well, well. They're at it again. Apparently, OCLC still wants to apply Christopher Columbus copyright practices ("just stick the flag in the ground and say the magic words to make the conquest official")—the same practices that caused all the controversy when it proclaimed ownership over WorldCat, a database developed in partnership with library members. Now OCLC wants to extend its conquests into all the virtual reference desks that are connected to QuestionPoint, even those of non-OCLC members.

When I queried OCLC, it had an explanation. Each QuestionPoint library develops its own local Q & A knowledgebase, which belongs to the library entirely. On a question-by-question basis, library members decide what to send to the Global Knowledgebase. When a Q & A pair arrives, it takes its place in the queue and gets evaluated, edited, and possibly augmented or even merged before going into the Global Knowledgebase. OCLChas copyrighted this filtered and enriched file. The Library of Congress, as OCLC's partnerin QuestionPoint, acquires a perpetual licenseto the file.

According to Chip Nilges, OCLC's director of new product planning in reference and resource sharing, the company wants the copyright so it can integrate "answer sources" with other WorldCat products and pursue co-marketing opportunities. For example, that dream of a library answer service living large on a Google home page(or at least the Google Answers home page) would require clear ownership and a straightforward contract arrangement. Small Net newbie firms—even large ones—would probably never want to deal with involved multi-member library consortia negotiations. OCLC would have a better chance of making such effective deals, but to do so, it would need clear title to the database.

But what if OCLC tries to use the copyright to restrict access in order to pursue its own sales goals? Its staff bristles at the suggestion. Truth be told, OCLC has already begun testing revisions of its long-standing library-only policy for access to WorldCat. Did you know that the Web sites for Alibris, the American Book Exchange, and the American Antiquarian Book Sellers Association link to WorldCat? If the out-of-print online booksellers do not have a specific title, a user can click over to WorldCat, enter a ZIP code, and get the name of the nearest library that owns the book. Usage from these sites has grown tremendously; the service now runs about 150,000 queries a month. Nor is this the only WorldCat-to-the-world initiative that's underway.

But even if OCLC drifted into a robber baron state of mind, the QuestionPoint arrangements would leave it vulnerable to counterattack. After all, the local QuestionPoint knowledgebases remain in the complete control of local librarians. If a rebellion against OCLC's use of its copyright for the Global Knowledgebase broke out, new "global" collections could be developedfrom the raw data, new spinoff products could be designed, and new marketing alliances could be formed.

Librarians have begun a long march, but we've passed the first steps, indeed the first 10 steps. So, vendors of the library marketplace, care to go for a walk?

[Editor's Note: For more on QuestionPoint, see the NewsBreak on page 50.]

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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