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Magazines > Searcher > June 2004
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Vol. 12 No. 6 — June 2004
The Critic
by Barbara Quint
Editor, Searcher Magazine

How would you like to make a living being nasty? (Why are you all looking at me that way? SHADDUP!!) If I may be allowed to continue (harumph), what this world needs is more critics in place, people who can evaluate the quality of information on the fly, people who can continually monitor established sources, people who can accurately rate the reliability of information before its use puts their clients' interests and welfare in danger. Clearly, in most situations, effective critiquing of information will require specialized knowledge and expertise, the kind possessed by specific types of knowledge workers. But only information professionals have the generalized knowledge to detect the patterns of development or non-development that determine the authenticity of data sources. Only information professionals can assess the full information needs of clients and correlate those needs with the specific content of identifiable sources.

The other day I was working on an NewsBreak about a new service called WorldData. The international economic and financial data in WorldData comes from an alliance of three leading business news services: the Economist Intelligence Unit (EIU), EcoWin, and Alacra. These are all respectable suppliers of economic data and, like all good hunter-gatherers in this subspecies of the online industry, are always on the look-out for new or better data sources. In fact, these services proudly display their latest captures by announcing them in "New Data Added" or "Latest On..." sections. However, scan through such announcements and you quickly realize how erratic coverage must be for users trying to do comparative studies. For example, the press release that initiated my research into the WorldData service boasted that it provided country profiles for 150 countries with real-time data. However, the fastest data deliverer in the alliance — EcoWin — states on its Web site that it only covers 80 countries. And that's just a broad brush example. Wait till you try getting into the nitty gritty of which service carries housing statistics for what country and at what level of detail and for which years of coverage.

Text services have equivalent problems. The other day I did a search in Factiva's Publications Library and retrieved a set of headlines and annotations for a client. Ten days later, the client sent me back the search and asked me to retrieve a subset of full-text articles. (Yes, Whipper-Snapper Searchers of the World, there are still clients who hire intermediary searchers to do such things.) All the articles popped out as quick as you please, except one. For some unexplained reason, an article from the Miami Herald had disappeared. A trip to the Herald's own Web site and to Dialog's archive also failed to turn it up. But did that deter the relentless searcher? Do you really need to ask? And I did find the article. Where? Sitting there with a bow in its hair, cute and perky, in a Google News cache. Another $2.95 picked from the pockets of commercial sources! Upon perusing the article, the only reason I could discover for its disappearance from official archives might be the tag saying it came from a Washington Post news feed. But Google had snatched it from the World Wide Web's waste basket and made me and my client happy.

Speaking of The Washington Post, from what I heard, it was the only one of the major newspapers that yawned its way through the Tasini crisis. The Post has always kept its digital archive free of articles not written by their own staff or under work-for-hire contracts that granted permission for electronic re-publication. That solves one publisher's problem, but what about searchers looking for the missing articles? And, even worse, what about searchers — end users and professionals — who perform a search on the Post's archives and just assume the search was comprehensive? Some embarrassing scenarios come to mind. Can't you just see Senate or presidential aides standing in front of their masters, heads hung in shame, as clippings are waved under their noses and tirades delivered with all the roar of the final "Trump"-et ("You're fired!")?

Sometimes you can't even rely on such basic human motivators as greed to secure data flows. The other day, while on Amazon ... again (sigh), I decided to check out an author for whom I had not yet received an announcement from the Amazon Alert service that provides e-mail notices about new or forthcoming books correlating to a user-supplied list of authors or titles. This particular author has produced books every 2 years for about a decade and I had gotten kind of worried not hearing from her. To my surprise, the author had released a book dated that very month. Why on Earth had Amazon failed to send me a message?! Usually Amazon Alert notices go out well before the book is published to promote pre-ordering. A series of messages to Amazon revealed that it had ceased the Alert service, with no notification to customers or chance for customers to retrieve their lists. At this point, I continue to receive "people like you" recommendations, but the marketing geniuses at Amazon appear not to recognize "Me, Myself, and I" as qualifying as "people like you." Apparently, Amazon tossed the Alert lists without integrating the information into its other recommendation databases. Why a company that so aggressively pursues business opportunities as to build databases that cross-correlate purchases by one buyer with those of others in the hope of finding items that might attract a purchase would ever cavalierly refuse to accept specific requests from buyers defies logic. Even the logic of greed. But I'll tell you one thing. I am now looking for a book service that will supply such notices and, if I find one, I will definitely keep a file copy of my favorite authors, just in case.

Insuring data quality requires constant monitoring. It's hard enough to train end users in general rules of protection, like checking home pages as well as pages embedded deep inside a site or learning to separate sponsored sites from un-sponsored ones in Web engine searches. It would be impossible to expect end users — even assuming they had the skills — to evaluate the quality of individual sources and data streams. Staying on top of data quality issues is hard enough for information professionals, but at least info pros have the connections needed to do the job. For one starters, they have each other. They share concerns and discoveries on listservs with fellow info pros. They also know key vendor personnel and how to approach them. Even if they don't know the best person with whom to speak when they start an investigation, they can very quickly find the right name by checking with other colleagues. Actually, sometimes dealing with vendors can work out better if you use a name supplied by colleagues, as in "I was on the BusLib list the other day trying to find out if anyone else had had the same trouble with your files as my client had. Several people told me they had. I promised to get back to them after I talked with you. Now when did you say you'd get back to me on this?"

See! I told you being nasty could get you places.

Barbara Quint's e-mail address is
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