It Pays to Pay for Research
by Reid Goldsborough
April 1, 2004
There comes a time when one asks even of Yahoo!, even of
Google, “Is this all?”
|The Web can
reveal useful, factual information you’d be
hard pressed to find elsewhere, but it’s also
rife with rumors, gossip, hoaxes, exaggerations,
falsehoods, ruses, and scams.
Yahoo! and Google do an admirable job of categorizing
the Internet and making its contents more accessible.
But ultimately they’re search tools, not research
tools. There’s a great deal of information not on
the Internet, particularly thoroughly researched, carefully
Information professionals have long known this, and it’s
for this reason that they use high-end research tools
such as Dialog, at http://www.dialog.com,
and LexisNexis, at http://www.lexis-nexis.com.
In recent years both of these information aggregators
have made their offerings more affordable for more casual
business users, and both services are worth a look.
But there’s a middle ground between the high end
of the commercial research databases and the free Web.
It’s a middle ground, though, that has presented
some pretty tough terrain for companies treading upon
it in the past.
Northern Light made a go at providing paid reference services
through the Internet at midrange pricing, combining a
generic Web search engine with proprietary content from
thousands of newspapers, magazines, and books, charging
$1-4 per full-text article. It received stellar reviews,
but its parent company, Divine Inc., went bankrupt, and
the service has emerged today as a specialized tool for
companies which want to search inside their own data.
Infonautics with its Electric Library service, later renamed
eLibrary, offered a flat-rate plan that cost $60 per year
for full-text access to articles from more than a thousand
newspapers, newswires, magazines, books, and TV and radio
transcripts. eLibrary also received great reviews but
also failed to catch on in sufficient numbers with the
business, educational, and home markets it targeted.
The latest attempt is from a company called HighBeam Research,
which has actually picked up the pieces from the struggling
eLibrary, acquiring it in August 2002. Headquartered in
Chicago, the company initially gave the reborn service
a new moniker, Alactritude, which was a combination of
the words “attitude” and “alacrity.”
“People had problems spelling it,” said HighBeam
chairman and CEO Patrick Spain, so the company now calls
its service by the same name as the company. HighBeam
currently has two components, the retooled eLibrary and
a generic Web search tool that uses the well-regarded
Fast search engine licensed from the Norwegian company
Fast Search & Transfer.
HighBeam has roughly doubled the number of information
sources used by eLibrary to 2,600, from which 28 million
full-text documents are currently available. The largest
percentage of these are magazine and journal articles,
though also available are newspaper articles from the
U.S., Canada, and around the world; TV and radio transcripts
from NPR, ABC, and FOX; photos; maps; the Bible; all the
works of Shakespeare; dictionaries and thesauri; an almanac;
and the Columbia Encyclopedia.
The company gets it content primarily from two information
aggregators, ProQuest and Thomson Gale, who go to publishers
and obtain rights to their content then relicense it to
HighBeam and other companies.
Basic access to HighBeam’s content, which lets you
see only previews of eLibrary articles, is free. Full
membership is $19.95 per month or $99.95 per year. The
company has “over 40,000 paid subscribers,”
says Spain. “Some months we make money, some we
One way HighBeam tries to distinguish itself from past
efforts of its type is by helping customers organize the
articles and other data that they find through it. You
can assign articles to folders based on topic, for instance,
though this isn’t much different from using folders
on your own hard drive.
What’s best about HighBeam is the quality of the
information you can find through it. Though the free Web
can reveal useful, factual information you’d be
hard-pressed to find elsewhere, it’s also rife with
rumors, gossip, hoaxes, exaggerations, falsehoods, ruses,
and scams. Because it’s so easy to put information
on the Net, it’s easy to find false information.
HighBeam deserves to succeed. It provides a good service
at a good price. But I’m not sure it will. Too many
people expect information, even high-quality information
that costs real money to create, to be free.
Its strategy is to target individuals working in home
office, small business, and large corporate settings who
have the research budget to make their own purchasing
decisions. It sees the autonomous spending of research
dollars this way as a growing trend.
In a nutshell, says Spain, “If you want to buy an
Italian suit, use Google. If you want to find out how
Italian suits are made, use HighBeam.”
Reid Goldsborough is a syndicated
columnist and author of the book Straight Talk About
the Information Superhighway. He can be reached at