You’re Searching What?!?


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I got a call today from a client who—having already subscribed to a number of professional databases through EBSCOhost—realized that he was not finding what he wanted and asked if I could do his research for him. This is not an unusual conversation for us info-entrepreneurs, but it got me thinking about the impact on information professionals of all the alternative avenues our clients have for getting access to the high-end content; we used to be able to control access, as owners of a Dialog or LexisNexis password.

It is almost staggering to see how many sources people now have for published articles. Perhaps the highest-profile option is from Google, that 800-pound gorilla dominating desktops everywhere. Google Scholar (www.scholar.google.com) offers links to both free versions of articles, often pre-prints from the authors' Web sites, and publishers' sites—requiring searchers to pony up $30 or more to download the article. What I found most interesting about the search results from Google Scholar is how unlike regular search results they are. Some links are to the actual article, some are to a log-in page, and some are nothing more than citations . . . not exactly what most Web searchers are accustomed to.

Another longtime portal for the full text of sci-tech content is Scirus.com, a great example of providing integrated access to both open Web and peer-reviewed articles. However, I suspect that the default combination of Web sites and fee-based articles in the search results is confusing to our clients, who aren't accustomed to having to pay for content they find from a search engine.

I recently reviewed Yahoo!'s Search Subscriptions service (www.search.yahoo.com/subscriptions), which has an interesting twist to the model of providing access to subscription-based content. At the Yahoo! site, you can select to search a subset of the content from Factiva, LexisNexis, FT.com, and several other sources. No, you cannot use the power search tools of each of those services—you are limited to Yahoo!'s Advanced Search options—but it does offer access to content that most searchers would not have thought to check out. And while the service has the word "Subscriptions" in it, in fact, most of the sources do not require a subscription to view the content; just provide a credit card and you will be charged on a per-document basis.

And, of course, any public library provides free access to fee-based resources to local residents bearing library cards. In fact, I did a survey for a client a few months ago that looked at the databases that public libraries make available to their patrons. What I found interesting was that the most common databases were ones that had clear use for a large segment of the population—AllDataOnline (car and truck repair information), CollegeSource Online (the full text of 25,000 college catalogs), and Learning Express Library (a collection of online practice tests to help users prepare for academic or licensing tests). Many public libraries also offer access to some of the major aggregators, such as EBSCOhost and OCLC FirstSearch. But based on the feedback I have gotten from reference librarians, their patrons either cannot or chose not to use these databases. As one reference desk veteran said to me, "We have two patrons who use FirstSearch on their own initiative. For everyone else, we have to walk them through the search, and I'm still convinced that they won't do any searching on their own."

My biggest complaint about any of these resources is that they are similar to a "basic" cable TV subscription. You have more channels than you can watch, and you can often find something worth watching—if you don't mind seeing your city council in action, or yet another documentary on the migratory patterns of lemmings—but you have no idea that you are not getting access to Showtime, Court TV, or, heaven help us, the Playboy Channel. OK, so maybe that is not the best analogy . . . the point is that, while you think you are getting a lot of information, your search tools are such that you almost inevitably are only scratching the surface, and are probably searching a small subset of the available literature. And these limitations usually are not surfaced at the search sites.

This is a real challenge to info pros, and a lot of us are not accustomed to teaching our users about the limitations of consumer-oriented versions of the high-end databases we know and love. Our role has always been to endorse, promote, and enthuse about value-added online services. We try to explain to our users what they are missing when they limit their research to a traditional search engine. But now we realize that we are put in the position of down-playing some of the Web-based versions of our longtime friends. "Yes, Google Scholar is lovely, but do you know what you're missing? You are looking at a mere shadow of a shell of what I can find for you."

Dramatic? Sure. But perhaps what we info pros need to do is hone our drama queen skills and start preaching a little FUD (Fear, Uncertainty, and Doubt) into the minds of our users. Tell 'em what they're missing, and show them what we've got.