The future of online reference - II

By SAM VAKNIN, Special to UPI   |   Nov. 11, 2003 at 11:33 AM

SKOPJE, Macedonia, Nov. 11 (UPI) -- This is the second part of a roundtable on the future of online reference, with three pivotal industry players. Part I ran Monday.

-- Patrick Spain is Chairman and CEO of Alacritude, publisher of eLibrary and Encyclopedia.com. eLibrary is a digital archive of more than 13 million documents culled from over 2000 publications. It includes newswires, newspapers, magazines, journals, transcripts, photographs, maps and books - major works of literature, art, and reference.

-- Troy Williams founded Questia in 1998 and has served as its President & CEO ever since. Questia is a massive online library of over 400,000 books, journals, and articles organized into more than 4,000 research topics. It caters mainly to students and offers cool features such as online annotation, page printing for free, and bibliography generator.

-- Tom Panelas is the Director of Corporate Communications of the Encyclopedia Britannica -- the Rolls Royce of reference works. It has been available online for a few years now -- the 32 volumes, an interactive atlas, a student's version, a links directory, and a topical compilation of thousands of magazine articles and multimedia. The Britannica has alternated between revenue models: subscriptions only, then free access with advertising, and back to subscriptions.

Q. Questia competes with the likes of NetLibrary and Alacritude's e-Library. What differentiates it from its competitors?

-- Williams: Questia's and netLibrary's collections are very different. The Questia collection was developed specifically for undergraduate research in the humanities and social sciences. A staff of academic librarians determined which books are most important and useful for undergraduate coursework in these fields. Digital copyrights were negotiated with the publishers or author of the titles. Many publishers feared e-books and digital copies of their titles would cannibalize their hard copy print sales. Making them understand the benefits of placing their titles in the Questia online library was an education process.

Having obtained the digital copyrights we digitized the books since most of the content was unavailable in electronic format. The resultant book collection contains the complete text and original pagination of more than 45,000 books from the 19th through the 21st centuries. Our goal is to build a collection that includes important works from all time periods and provides our users with a full range of resources just as any quality library does. We want to build a true research collection, not just a compilation of recent publications. The entire Questia collection has more than 400,000 titles -- including 360,000 journal, magazine, and newspaper articles.

In contrast, the 37,000-title netLibrary collection was developed by incorporating books that were already available in electronic formats. As a result, it lacks many important retrospective titles. Additionally, netLibrary was developed with the view of selling individual titles. Consequently, although it has titles in a broader range of subjects than Questia, it was not developed as a "collection." Questia specifically excludes titles in the natural sciences, technical and medical fields. We have a strong focus on "collection development" so that we can support rigorous academic research in thousands of social science and humanities specific topic areas.

A second important point of difference is the business model. Questia's is direct to the consumer. Individuals purchase subscriptions. We do not sell institutional site licenses to colleges or universities. NetLibrary sells to institutions. Public, private, and academic libraries, or consortia thereof, buy specific titles that it vends, similar to the way they purchase print copies.

Third, with Questia, there is no limit on the number of simultaneous users for any given book or article. No book is ever checked out or unavailable to a subscriber. With NetLibrary, the number of users is restricted to the number of electronic copies of a book purchased by a library.

The advantage of NetLibrary is that it significantly reduces the costs of owning and maintaining books, i.e. the overhead associated with shelf-space such as lighting, the costs of checking books in and out manually, re-shelving them, rebinding them, lost and misplaced copies, etc.

Lastly, the research environment is very different. Questia provides a set of tools that enable a user to do better research and organize their work -- to highlight, jot down notes or bookmark a page, look up items in a dictionary, encyclopedia, and thesaurus, and create properly formatted citations and bibliographies in MLA, APA, ASA, Chicago, and Turabian styles. All these can be filed in a user's customizable personal workspace, which is akin to an online filing cabinet. Users can create multiple project folders to organize their research, "shelve" frequently accessed books or articles, and refer back to their bookshelf at any time.

NetLibrary offers four dictionaries as a reference tool but does not provide the type of customizable personal research environment that Questia does.

Alacritude's eLibrary is a subscription-based reference tool with newspapers, magazines, books, and transcripts. Their collection is not a research library but rather a compilation of recently published content on a variety of subjects. E-Library can be used as an informational supplement. It seems to me to be more focused at the junior high school level or as an inexpensive alternative to Lexis.

Q: The Britannica has three types of products -- print, online and digital-offline (CD-ROM/DVD). Do they augment each other - or cannibalize each other's sales?

-- Panelas: In the past decade we've seen huge increases in sales of all electronic formats at the expense of print, which has declined. The proportions have stabilized, however, and most people are choosing their medium based on the way they like to look for information. Prices of electronic encyclopedias are lower than print, but the value proposition of print is different, and people who continue to buy print do so because they like it. Meanwhile the declining price of reference information in general has put reference works in many more homes than before. So today rather than cannibalization, there's an expansion of the overall market, with more people buying reference products than ever before and people choosing the form they prefer.

Q: The web offers a plethora of highly authoritative information authored and released by the leading names in every field of human knowledge and endeavor. Some say that the Internet, is, in effect, an Encyclopedia -- far more detailed, far more authoritative, and far more comprehensive that any Encyclopedia can ever hope to be. The web is also fully accessible and fully searchable. What it lacks in organization it compensates in breadth and depth and recently emergent subject portals (directories such as Google, Yahoo! or The Open Directory) have become the indices of the Internet. The aforementioned anti-competition barriers to entry are gone: web publishing is cheap and immediate. Technologies such as web communities, chat, and e-mail enable massive collaborative efforts. And, most important, the bulk of the Internet is free. Users pay only the communication costs. The long-heralded transition from free content to fee-based information may revive the fortunes of online reference vendors. But as long as the Internet -- with its 2,000,000,000 visible pages (and 5 times as many pages in its databases) -- is free, encyclopedias have little by way of a competitive advantage. Could you please comment on these statements?

-- Spain: I agree. Still, Open Directories and free powerful search engines (which, let's remember, make their money by trying to sell you goods and services relating to the keywords used in your search) only constitute 5 percent (or less) of what amounts to "research." First you have to find it; we have made good progress here. Then you have to organize it; there are few good tools for this. Finally you have to publish it, likely using one of Microsoft's applications. This entire process from search results to answers delivered in publishable form remains painful and time consuming. The opportunity lies in making research as easy as search. It seems simple, but it's very hard.

-- Williams: The real issue here is previously published material. There is certainly a lot of information on the Internet and that is a wonderful thing. However, there is virtually no place an individual who is not part of a major college or university can go online and find the full-text of books, including contemporary and recent ones. To say that the information that is available online is equivalent to the information stored in the Library of Congress is absurd. I'm not talking only about the range of information but also about the value of the editorial process. There is clearly a huge difference between someone posting something on a website and someone rigorously researching a book for five or ten years and then submitting it to peer review and the careful attention of editors. Virtually none of the fruits of this serious research and editorial process is available on the Web. The material on the Net suffers from a chronic issue of questionable credibility and is ephemeral. The material published by leading publishers is reliable and has lasting importance.

-- Panelas: It simply isn't true that the Internet is an encyclopedia. It's an aggregation of information by anyone who wants to put it up there. An encyclopedia is the product of a unified idea, a single editorial intelligence. The people who create it are skilled in their craft. It seeks to cover all areas of human knowledge and to do so in a way that both gives each area its due proportion and integrates it all so the various parts work well together. It reflects many choices that are made consciously and in a consistent way, and since it represents a summary of human knowledge rather than its sum total, the choices editors make about what to leave out are as important as the ones about what to put in.

True, there are people who are hostile to this idea, and, again, we saw some of this in the '90s enthusiasm for the Internet and the related belief that it would literally transform every aspect of life overnight. A sophisticated world such as ours, which relies on knowledge and information to function, can tolerate only so much bad information before problems arise, and we saw some of that in the early years of the Web, which is why more people today see the virtues of an encyclopedia than did a few years ago.

The collaborative possibilities of the Internet are very interesting, and we'll see in due time what their implications are for publishing. Some people are predicting that everything will be utterly transformed, but that usually doesn't happen.

Q: What are eLibrary's future plans regarding online reference?

-- Spain: Alacritude, through its encyclopedia.com, Researchville and eLibrary services is already addressing head-on the need to create an easy to use and cost effective research service for individuals.

Q: What are the Britannica's future plans regarding online reference?

-- Panelas: We plan to keep improving what we offer, with new sources of information, more "non-text media," better search and navigation, and ease of use.

Q. What are Questia's future plans regarding online reference?

-- Williams: We are not focused on the traditional reference area. Reference books tend to be far more costly to acquire rights to. In addition, they are far more difficult to get into a web-ready format. As a result, we do not feel that the benefits warrant focusing on this area today. Our strategy is simple. We want to build a massive online library of carefully selected high-quality, full-text books.

Send your comments to: svaknin@upi.com

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