1999, when I last looked at low-cost options to traditional databases,
libraries have increased their spending on databases from $17 million to
over $50 million per year1.
Depending on the individual library's mission, these databases advance
research, consumer awareness, patient care, financial knowledge, and general
education, among other things.
Several years ago
database producers began putting the power of searching, document identification,
and document delivery in the hands of end users, and that trend continues.
Everyone can search ERIC, PubMed, CARL UnCover, and other bibliographic
services without charge, use the bibliographic information, and selectively
pursue the full text on their own, either through the search service (e.g.,
CARL) or at their libraries. The phenomenon of promoting periodical databases
to end users generates two interesting possibilities. Libraries could easily
make these databases available for their patrons by linking to them on
their Web pages and circumvent the expense of costly database subscriptions.
The other possibility is that end users will discover these services and
build their own virtual libraries at their desktops — circumventing the
library. The debate that remains, however, is to what degree the low-cost/free
Web services compare with the traditional electronic database resources
that most librarians prefer.
Some readers may
be suspicious of free services. How long will these services be around?
Are the services experiments by database producers to "hook" end users
and subsequently sell them the services? For example, will Britannica.com
go from free to subscription due to the online advertising slump reported
by newsbytes.com on March 13th? That's what we hear. To what degree is
their publication coverage and currency stable? Well, it shouldn't really
matter. If a resource is free today, and the end user's query warrants
using it, then we should not quibble over the particulars of the resource.
Naturally, librarians may not wish to set themselves up for the dilemma
of how to handle their patrons and their budgets if a free resource goes
south or begins charging, but opportunities are meant to be exploited.
So let's get that free bibliographic information or full text while we
It's well known
that CARL, ERIC, Electric Library, and PubMed are free to search, that
each provides a reliable search engine and displays results in usable bibliographic
citation formats. Northern Light's Special Collection, another widget in
the searcher's toolbox, has recently been joined by three other free/low-cost
services: FindArticles.com, Contentville, and XanEdu. To determine the
comparable effectiveness of these bibliographic/full-text services with
each other and with traditional subscription databases, I played my own
version of "Twenty Questions." Using my 20 test questions, I measured how
these services stood up in terms of searchability, overlap of results,
and "bang for the buck."
These 20 questions
were searched against each service. I discovered that the results depended
on the search interfaces, capability of the search engines, depth and breadth
of journal coverage, and other assorted variables. But, in conducting the
searches, I tried to fully deploy all of each service's search capabilities
to ensure that the strengths of each service were exploited. The search
results are intended as a rough guideline in regards to the usability of
the services. Table 1 (below) provides information
concerning the features of each database.
Category #1: Free Searching
and Free Full Text
the only no-strings attached free service, covers 300 "reputable" magazines
and journals dating back to 1998, providing full text for almost every
article (I have noticed getting some hits where no article was viewable).
The data comes from a selective feed of Gale Group's InfoTrac articles.
Coverage in Gale Group's own InfoTrac service is massively larger — even
in terms of archival coverage of the same sources.
for over a year, FindArticles still seems like a prototype effort, which
may account for the quirkiness of its search engine. I read the "Search
Tips" carefully, but the efficacy of my searches was, more often than not,
guided by my intuition, rather than the well-written, but — sad to say
— often erroneous search help documents.
For example, when
reading the help for Boolean searching, I saw a reference to an Advanced
Search option. Unfortunately, I couldn't find this option, and my e-mail
to FindArticles elicited a form reply that referred me to its FAQ. The
"Search Tip for Boolean Searching" states that entry of WORD1 +WORD2 (i.e.,
airbag +safety) mandates that Word2 must appear in results with Word1.
However, this didn't seem to be the case. Figure
1 shows I retrieved 61,724 hits for a search formatted in obedience
to FindArticles' help screen.
Figure 2 shows
399 were retrieved with the entry +WORD1 +WORD2 (i.e., +airbag +safety)
— a strategy that FindArticles' help did not mention. This means if the
end user does not understand basic searching nuances, the retrieval will
be confounding. [Professor Péter Jacsó, who provided a comprehensive
review of this database2,
zeroes in on another FindArticles software snafu in "Software Makes LookSmart
LookDumb" from January 2001's Information Today.]
As a searching
purist, I'd say if a database software doesn't perform well, it isn't worth
a penny; but one can hardly disregard a database that doesn't charge a
cent for access to articles in the Journal of the American Academy of
Child and Adolescent Psychiatry, American Journal of Economics and
Sociology, Online, Lancet, Topics in Early Childhood
Special Education, National Review, and the New Statesman
(not to mention Wrestling Digest and Trailer Life) because
of a couple of quirks. As we all know, even the most expensive subscription
databases have bugs.
Special Collection [http://www.northernlight.com/power.html]
for end users
InfoTrac Expanded Academic ASAP
The moai of Easter
Ship of Theseus problem
"Eyes wide shut" and
Funding for the arts
Doppelganger in film
for gifted children
Andrew Johnson's Impeachment
Grade inflation in
Online shopping and
What do lottery winners
do with their prize money?
Drilling in ANWR
Cell phones and cancer
the Shuttle Challenger disaster
Air bags and death
• Free service
• Full text
"ads" accompany search and results pages
Category #2: Free Searching
and Pay Per View
With an array
of titles, including American Demographics, Guns and Ammo,
Gamer, Business Week, the New Yorker, Wired,
and Rolling Stone, a searcher can find articles by P. J. O'Rourke,
Paul Theroux, and Stephen King on this service. Speeches by Winston Churchill,
Edward Everett, Tipper and Al Gore, Victor Hugo, and Daniel Webster, among
many others, make Contentville an attractive resource for undergrads looking
for "primary sources" (see Figure 3). Most
individual items are available for immediate download and cost $2 or $3
(charged to a credit card). Additional features include access to television
transcripts and screenplays, but these items are more expensive.
One problem with
this service is its spotty journal coverage. I know Steve Martin has written
for the New Yorker, but I could not find any of his pithy contributions
through Contentville. Of course, Contentville has received a fair amount
of publicity recently in advertising its agreement to work within current
rulings and not use freelance articles, regardless of publisher feeds,
without author permission. Perhaps Mr. Martin has his own Web site sales
program. Similarly, I would have expected more than 11 hits on my "RU486"
search. The 11 retrieved, however, came from the
Family Planning Perspectives, the
Progressive, and Science
News, which suggested balance in its magazine coverage.
would not rank as a top contenders for the end-user market. Pay-per-view
rival Northern Light's broader content base and competitive charges make
it superior. Even FindArticles, despite its erratic search software, provides
more value. Undergraduates or consumers may find Contentville useful, particularly
because of its coverage of specific interest magazines (for example, All
About Beer and the Alfred Hitchcock Mystery Magazine).
pay per view
in coverage of listed periodicals (i.e., questionably selective)
Light Special Collection
With its aggressive
commitment to offer resources for affordable online viewing, Northern Light's
publication list has grown by 40 percent to 7,100 titles since early 1999.
The bulk of its Special Collection comes from titles supplied by Gale Group
and Bell and Howell Information and Learning, although Northern Light has
increased direct dealings with publishers, especially in building up its
news wire and news media feeds. As one of the innovators in free searching
and pay per view, its charges are much more reasonable than UnCover's.
For example, an article I wrote for Searcher some time ago costs $14.50
for fax or desktop delivery via UnCover. Northern Light charges $2.95 for
the same article. (FindArticles has it for free and Contentville hasn't
heard of me, yet.)
To utilize Northern
Light's Special Collection, go straight to its "Power Search" option and
select the "Special Collection" radio button, or click on http://www.northernlight.com/power.html.
Not all the publications are journals; the Special Collection includes
reference books, wire stories, television transcripts, college newspapers,
and industry reports. In fact, a great deal of the retrieval for many of
my 20 questions came from newspapers and wire reports, though this isn't
always the case. In the past, Northern Light used to offer a way to "de-select"
certain categories of information, including news wires and newspapers.
Northern Light dropped that feature for some reason, sad to say, but a
Northern Light representative with whom we spoke said that the company
was considering re-instating it due to user complaints.
In keyword mode,
the end user is searching the full text of the articles in the Special
Collection. This is occasionally problematic and sometimes results in bewildering
retrieval, because no proximity operators are available, although you may
search phrases in quotes. A title search is more direct, but the end user
may miss some relevant documents. Notice the respectable titles Northern
Light retrieved for a search on "methylphenidate and children" in Figure
The most valuable
aspects of Northern Light's service are that it can be searched without
charge with the bibliographic citations retrieved sufficient to locate
the article, again without charge. Even if you choose not to pay Northern
Light to read an article you find, you still find a citation good enough
to tap a library's collection. When the end user chooses to buy, the document
normally costs between $1 and $4. To get started with Northern Light, one
needs to register for a member account; this requires a credit card. Another
great feature is the free "Alerts" that end users can easily set up.
pay per view
database of publications to search against
against full text sometimes yields irrelevant hits; no proximity operators
list includes numerous non-scholarly sources
Category #3: Subscriptions
for End Users
XanEdu from Bell
and Howell Information and Learning (BHIL) markets its ReSearch Engine,
MBA ReSearch Engine, CoursePaks, LitPacks, and CasePaks to undergraduates,
graduate students, and faculty. Three-month subscriptions cost $19.90,
6-month subscriptions $29.90, and a complete yearly subscription, $49.90.
In effect, as one of its Web pages states, the "ReSearch Engine gives you
access to millions of full-text articles from thousands of the world's
leading magazines, newspapers, and scholarly journals. It's current, accurate,
and comprehensive information you can access anywhere, anytime."
As a BHIL product,
XanEdu's "look and feel" mirror ProQuest products, as does most of its
content. But whatever happened to journal lists? As a librarian who pays
attention to what indexes and databases claim to cover, I feel that XanEdu's
lack of a periodical list is peculiar. This is a conspicuous oversight;
Ebsco, InfoTrac, Northern Light, Contentville, and FindArticles all list
from a XanEdu search usually contains references from respected journals
or newspapers. A search on the critical-thinking topic "reflection in action"
resulted in full text from Journal of Management Inquiry, Teaching
in Higher Education, British Journal of Nursing, Current
Anthropology, Christian Science Monitor, Social Work,
of Multicultural Counseling and Development, Personnel Psychology,
and American Behavioral Scientist.
After the subscriber
logs in, the XanEdu ReSearch engine defaults to a "Topic Find" form. If
the searcher enters "sanctions and Iraq" in this form, for example, the
engine retrieves a directory-like page which, as Figure
5 shows, seems somewhat less than helpful for either an experienced
searcher or a novice information seeker. But in my Google search for information
about XanEdu, I found a professor's informational Web page mentioning that
this is exactly how a teacher would want students to explore a topic.
On one of her Web
pages, Professor Dawn Rodriguez (University of Texas at Brownsville) wrote:
One of my students
was interested in learning more about crime in the United States, a broad
topic, but one of interest in an election year. With XanEdu Research Engine,
she was able to explore sub-topics until she found an area of interest
to her. She clicked on social science, then criminal justice, then criminal
punishment, then juvenile justice. There, she saw that there were collections
of articles on each of these topics: Delinquency prevention, history of
juvenile justice, juvenile corrections, juvenile court processes, juvenile
delinquency, juvenile defenders and police, juvenile probation and parole.
Juvenile court processes appealed to her. By skimming the list of titles
that the search engine located, she got a good sense of the issues and
the range of views on this topic: "Courts designed to stop teens at one
mistake," "Punishing choices: how to try teens convicted of major crimes,"
and "Juvenile justice failures shame our judicial system."
From the list of
"hits," she chose an article that provided her with an overview of varying
viewpoints about the issue: "Just Punishments: Federal Guidelines and Public
Views Compared" from Contemporary Sociology. This article gave her
a sense of some important issues in the field. Also, the list of subject
terms listed at the top of the article included some terms she could use
for continued research. Also, since this article was from an authoritative
source — a journal in the discipline, not just a newspaper article, she
knew that I would be pleased with her choice3.
To paraphrase the
instructor, it would be a better strategy to search for "Civil War," find
the topic, and explore the possibilities than to search for "Antietam Bridge."
This is certainly logical if the end user hasn't determined a topic.
If you've already
decided on a specific topic, however, you'll soon discover XanEdu's only
prominent gaffe. It takes a bit of poking around to find the keyword search
screen; it doesn't appear on the XanEdu home page. As Professor Péter
Jacsó stated, "XanEdu was designed for topical searches through
controlled vocabulary, but not for author, journal name or plain keyword
searches." Jacsó continued, "The idea of controlled vocabulary searching
is noble, but the implementation is not user-friendly."4
Actually, from the "Topic" find or "Advanced Find" form, the user need
only click on the first directory path, and along with the first citation,
the Keyword Search option will appear evident. Plus, if one is "lucky"
enough and the ReSearch Engine can't pick up the specified keywords in
a directory category, it will go directly to the Keyword Search form. As
6 shows, a keyword search on "Iraq and sanctions" provides more
straightforward results than a topic-oriented search.
At $49.90 per year,
the XanEdu ReSearch Engine is an excellent value for undergraduates and
graduate students. Searchers will find full text, in many cases accompanied
by graphics, or full-page PDF articles from a wide range of publications,
including many daily newspapers, magazines, and scholarly journals. Librarians
might note that since individuals may purchase access so cheaply, it may
beg the question of having a smorgasbord of pricey menu items such as Lexis-Nexis
Academic Universe and Ebsco Academic Search Elite.
• All articles
are full text
often includes more newspapers than journals
search not immediately evident
"maxes out" at 50 hits
Category #4: Library Subscription
Academic Search Elite
Group's InfoTrac Expanded Academic ASAP
the searching budget allows thousands of dollars for subscriptions to full-text
databases with quality search software, the traditional subscription database
vendors are preferable for institutions. The cost-benefit of subscribing
to these traditional services should be compared, at least for evaluative
purposes, with individual access to new, less-expensive alternatives that
are rapidly emerging.
Having used EbscoHost's
Academic Search Elite for several years, I have never been excessively
impressed. Why, when trying to view an article for a retrieved citation
tagged with a "full text icon," should the screen inform the searcher "Full
Text rights to this article have not been licensed to EBSCO? For more information,
please contact [the publisher]"? Of course, this rarely happens, but when
you've paid for access to full text, it doesn't seem fair that you should
have to go down that path. Sure, it covers 2,550 publications (1,650 peer-reviewed).
Yet I still see students performing basic searches on the topics du
jour (i.e., "capital punishment," "medicinal marijuana") and finding
full-text articles only one-third of a page in length from peer-reviewed
publications such as the Canadian Medical Association Journal or
three-quarters of a page long in the Humanist. Though interesting,
these items are usually insubstantial.
Gale Group's InfoTrac
Expanded Academic ASAP is an excellent fully appointed alternative to Ebsco's
Academic Search Elite. Articles from more than 1,500 scholarly, trade,
and general-interest publications are indexed. The search help is particularly
well written, and I could not find any significant anomalies in the search
Is access to Academic
Search Elite or Expanded Academic ASAP worth the price? Both are solid
products for public and university libraries. Yet one should consider the
percentage of overlap that more inexpensive services such as XanEdu or
pay-per-view databases might offer.
results due to solid search engines
major and minor publications
— not viable for the end user
Questia made its
debut as predicted in January 2001. It currently describes itself as a
research service accompanied by a core liberal arts collection of around
50,000 digitized books. The service markets to college students. No journal
articles are available yet, but Questia says that it has signed up a number
of university presses, such as Oxford, Harvard, and Chicago. When Questia
does open up journal access, it promises to include older volumes.
can explore Questia by topic, author, or title and highlight text, create
margin notes, compile bibliographies, and save work in folders. Questia
has advertised that its book collection has been carefully selected by
10 collection development librarians, who have "hand-picked" the most valuable
texts in each discipline. However, a good part of the collection appears
to be out-of-print book titles from university and other publishers. A
search can have varied results. For instance, searching the words Budapest,
Hungary yielded a couple of useful books, such as Budapest, a Cultural
Guide (Oxford, 1998) by Michael Jacobs, but clicking on the link "more
like this" provided only the same title. An author search on Graham Greene
resulted in six interesting hits, but only one was written by Graham Greene.
A search on Charles
Darwin as subject provided some useful texts but left out important contributions
by such authors as Michael Ruse and Ernst Mayr. A search for Thomas Hardy's
of the Native led to only one title, a book about making the film.
The real reason
some titles don't appear is probably that publishers would not grant access.
Displaying text must be done page by page in a tiny window that can open
very slowly. One page can be printed at a time, but not downloaded. Questia
has described its service as a "complement" to college libraries and that
seems accurate. One hopes students realize this and don't mistake it for
a complete academic collection.
Questia is currently
engaged in a mega-promotion effort. Multiple ads are appearing in university
newspapers. Deans receive solicitations to allow free trials for honors
students. Questia has also designed its home screen with students in mind.
Take a look at the "Question Marquis in his e-boudoir" on the left side
of Figure 7. He wants to spend more time
on "passion and dueling" and less time on research, so he uses Questia.
Is this kind of silliness going to appeal to college students? It remains
to be seen.
Raw Retrieval Data
As most searchers
can see from the information presented in Table 2,
wide disparities exist in retrieval from these six services. I made every
effort to search the databases as efficiently as possible, but in many
cases irrelevant items were retrieved as well as an abundance of results
from sources that proved less than comprehensive (i.e., brief newspaper
articles, etc.). Although I discussed FindArticles' cranky software, I
believe I performed my searches accurately, and so when 3,004 hits are
reported for a search on "funding for the arts," many of the first few
pages of results that I looked at were relevant!
2 shows that FindArticles may provide an acceptable free alternative
and definitely a service that the penurious will want to explore. After
all, it always found something on the topics I searched.
was not so comprehensive. It retrieved five or fewer hits in 50 percent
of the searches. Of course, Contentville's subtitle is "The Cross-Content
Search," and valuable items such as transcripts and speeches were retrieved
also (but weren't counted in this evaluation). The attractive aspect of
Contentville lies in the niche publications it has decided to include.
Special Collection performs well. The downside of this service is that
the Special Collection seems to embrace as many transitory newspaper and
wire reports as journal sources. Take the last search on "sanctions and
Iraq." Page after page of results from this set came from publications
such as the Bergen County Record, the Dayton Daily News,
Today, and the Providence Journal. Fine newspapers perhaps,
but hardly political science journals. A suggestion might be to separate
the "Special Collection" into various subdivisions. The "Custom Search
Folders" into which the system automatically collates retrieval proved,
at times, inefficient in delineating what types of documents were located
within the folders.
The XanEdu numbers
may be somewhat misleading — it never displays more than 50 hits per keyword
search. But its retrieval was substantive. Of course, it uses many news
sources also — during my search on the impeachment of Andrew Johnson,
Today, Chicago Sun-Times, Gannett News Service, and the
Francisco Chronicle showed up a fair number of times. But in the same
results I saw references (and full text) from the Yale Law Journal,
Presidential Studies Quarterly, the New Republic, the Nation,
Ebsco and InfoTrac
worked as expected. Both are worthwhile subscription databases and, while
there isn't a great deal of redundancy between the two (at least upon inspection
of the first 10- 20 hits from each search), both usually retrieve an ample
number of citations/articles for most purposes. Please note, however, one
conspicuous inconsistency. InfoTrac found 90 articles on "classroom activities
for gifted children," but Ebsco only found seven. Other than that case,
the two servers generally run "neck and neck."
I attempted to assess was overlap in retrieval among the databases. In
particular, I wanted to ascertain whether end users could find enough material
on the low-cost or free services to fulfill baseline research needs. Naturally,
the high-profile traditional databases should fare better, but can end
users find substantive resources through the other databases under discussion?
One way to test the efficacy of the inexpensive services is to compare
their retrieval to each other and to their traditional counterparts.
lists are so diverse, a scholar might want to use all the available services.
The first 10 hits for the "airbags and death" from Northern Light's Collection
was comprised entirely of newspaper articles. Even FindArticles' first
10 hits retrieved more research-oriented material, including articles from
Why spend $10,000
to $20,000 per year for a full-text database when you and your clientele
can perform searches and view the documents for free (FindArticles), at
a small pay-per-view charge (Northern Light), or for a nominal subscription
(XanEdu)? Naturally, it depends on the needs of the end user, but more
options are emerging, and it "pays" to look at all of them. Northern Light,
FindArticles, and XanEdu are attracting end users, and so is Questia, a
company that heavily targets end users in its advertising. [See sidebar
above and Figure 7.] Will we see more of
these services? With the dot-com burnout still underway, the answer to
that question remains very uncertain. After all, Britannica.com has announced
that it plans to go back to charging. End users would be wise to use these
services now while we have them and information professionals should expect
the opportunity for real bargains to persist, burnout or no burnout.
8 illustrates an "end user's free and low cost research page."
This page is available at http://library.ctstateu.edu/~bibman/enduseroptions.html.
One: Overview of Services
Two: "Twenty Questions" — Search Results
Wide Shut" and
for the arts
phones and cancer
1. Bowker Annual.
45th edition. R.R. Bowker, New Providence, NJ. 2000, pp. 418-425.
Péter, "FindArticles.com Embraces Free Content Trend," Information
Today, vol. 17, no. 10, November 2000, pp. 38-40.
3. Rodriguez, Dawn,
"The Key to Effective Research: Getting the Right Start" [http://unix.utb.edu/~drodrigu/webdraft.html],
accessed March 2, 2001; University of Texas at Brownsville.
Péter, "On the Way to Information Xanadu," Information Today,
vol. 17, no. 9, October 2000, pp. 38-40.