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Magazines > Searcher > March 2010
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Vol. 18 No. 2 — March 2010
SEARCHER'S VOICE
Rats!!
by Barbara Quint
Editor, Searcher Magazine

The Searcher's Voice PodcastIn the life of every editor, there come those dark nights of the soul. There you are, steadfastly fulfilling your duties, reading the professional literature, joining the listservs, browsing your RSS feeds, perusing the blogs, and — suddenly — it appears! The article you wish you’d written or, certainly, edited, and you’re reading it in another publication! Rats! Rats!! Rats!!!

And as if fate isn’t satisfied with merely sticking the knife into your heart, it twists the blade. The publication containing the gem of an article you should have mined yourself turns out to be a sister publication edited by a multidecade friend and colleague (the beloved, companionable, good-humored Marydee Ojala). Not satisfied with merely publishing the excellent article, ONLINE ’s editor even flaunted it as the January/February 2010 cover story! Written by Amy Affelt, the article is entitled “Paving Paradise: Database Content Removal and Information Professionals.” You can get a free PDF of the article from ONLINE magazine by visiting either the Searcher or ONLINE websites.

Search services are losing not just individual items but archives of whole titles — in some cases, of whole publishers.

The article focuses on a problem area that I have always considered my special area of interest — namely, data quality. In this case, Affelt starts off with coverage of how documentation of individual legal cases has been removed due to settlements between litigants and subsequent court orders. Then she expands into other individual article removals. She also details how vigilant professional searchers must be to detect some removals. Often it involves not only detecting the absence of the expected but cross-checking with other searchers and numerous phone calls to vendors. She does point out the way some of the major services — LexisNexis, Westlaw, Factiva, etc. — handle removals, particularly of case law information.

The problems these days are even bigger and more difficult to solve than Affelt’s article covers. Just a week before I read the piece, I had the distinctly uncomfortable job of covering a crisis in coverage. EBSCO has a long-standing policy of seeking out exclusive arrangements for journal titles. It recently signed exclusive deals with Time, Inc. (more than 25 titles involved) and Forbes. Reacting strongly to some remarks in EBSCO’s announcement and denouncing the general policy, an EBSCO competitor — Gale, a part of Cengage Learning — wrote an open letter urging librarians to oppose the policy. EBSCO responded sharply in an open letter of its own. And we’re off to the races. (For details, see “EBSCO Exclusives Trigger Turmoil,” Jan. 28, 2010 [http://newsbreaks.infotoday.com/NewsBreaks/EBSCO-Exclusives-Trigger-Turmoil-60836.asp].)

But this isn’t the only example of exclusives leading to data deprivation. Just a month before the EBSCO/Gale contretemps, ITI published another NewsBreak covering the removal of BusinessWeek from services that had offered online access for decades, a removal initiated by Bloomberg, the new owner of the publication. (For details on that action, read Anne Mintz’s NewsBreak, “Clarification of Factiva Announcement Concerning BusinessWeek Removal,” Dec. 10, 2009 [http://newsbreaks.infotoday.com/NewsBreaks/Clarification-of-Factiva-Announcement-Concerning-BusinessWeek-Removal-60123.asp].)

And this leads us to the larger problem. Search services are losing not just individual items but archives of whole titles — in some cases, of whole publishers. And, more critical, as the age of intermediated searching drifts further and further into the mists of time, it’s end users who get hit, end users who not only won’t see it coming but won’t know they’re bleeding until they’re dead in the water. Professional searchers may try to stand guard, but in an era in which people license data by the “ocean-ful,” what are the chances of missing one species of fish, much less Nemo?

This entire grim experience beckons me to the solace of one of my favorite authors, the wondrous Pelham Grenville (P.G.) Wodehouse. On the subject of life’s potholes, he wrote eloquently in his 1948 work, “Uncle Dynamite”:

In these days in which we live, when existence has become a thing of infinite complexity and fate, if it slips us a bit of goose with one hand, is pretty sure to give us the sleeve across the windpipe with the other, it is rarely that we find a human being who is unmixedly happy. Always the bitter will be blended with the sweet, and in this melange one can be reasonably certain that it is the former that will predominate.

A severe indictment of our modern civilization, but it can’t say it didn’t ask for it.

How wise. How true. How Wodehousian. (For further solace and infinite jests, you can find links to public domain online copies of his works in his Wikipedia entry.)

For further research on the difficulties at hand and on their way to your computer screen and your licensing agreements, you can look forward to
a follow-up article on the bigger picture of data loss by Ms. Affelt to be published in a future issue of Searcher. She was very glad to hear from me.

Thanks for the lead, friend Ojala. Heh, heh, heh.

— bq


Barbara Quint's e-mail address is bquint@mindspring.com.
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