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When Research Requires the Big Guns

When Research Requires the Big GunsThe Web is a gargantuan repository of information. Google, the popular Internet search tool, indexes a whopping three billion Web documents. You might think the Web contains everything you could possibly need to know.
Not so.
Professional researchers know well that good research involves more than just searching the Web. More than two-thirds of the publications used most often by knowledge workers either don’t have Web sites or don’t make their material available on the Web for free, according to a study by Outsell, a market research firm that focuses on the information industry.
The Web also can be a source of information that’s biased, outdated or inaccurate.
It often makes sense to start with the free Web when searching for information. But when the information you need is for critical business or academic purposes, it can be smart to then go beyond the Web.
Libraries traditionally have been the place to go when you needed information, and they can still serve that function well. One resource used by librarians and professional researchers alike is commercial research databases.
There are countless scenarios for using a commercial research database, but three common ones are looking for information about a possible business partner, doing market research on the potential customers and existing competitors for a new product or service, and searching for doctoral dissertations.
These days, you can access commercial research databases yourself, though you may not always want to.
In the past, the world of commercial research databases was a forbidding one, where information was difficult to get and expensive once you got it. This has changed somewhat in recent years, with the big three commercial research databases offering easier-to-use Web interfaces and lower-priced options.
Dialog, LexisNexis, and Factiva are more accurately referred to as information aggregators. They gather information from hundreds of third-party databases and let you quickly search through any or all of them using the same search procedures.
Each service has its strengths, says Cindy Shamel, president-elect of the Association of Independent Information Professionals, who runs her own research company, Shamel Information Services, in San Diego.
• Dialog, at <>, is the oldest of the three, created in 1972 as the world’s first online information retrieval system. It has traditionally been strong on scientific, technical and intellectual-property material, and it’s still that way. But now it’s also excellent with general and business news.
• LexisNexis, at <>, is a combination of Lexis, the premier source of in-depth legal and regulatory information and public records, and Nexis, a good source of general and business news, market research and company information.
• Factiva, at <>, is a joint venture of Dow Jones and Reuters. The premier source of breaking business news and global content, it combines the full text of the Wall Street Journal with the Dow Jones and Reuters newswires. For information about worldwide business and international affairs, it provides material from nearly a thousand non-English sources in 118 countries and 22 languages.
Each service has different pricing options for individuals, small businesses, large businesses and information professionals. For individuals and small businesses, a pay-as-you-go plan makes the most sense.
You don’t pay a subscription fee but instead pay only for those articles or records you download. Searching through the databases and viewing headlines are free. Each article or record you read in its entirety costs around $3, though fees can vary widely. I’ve found these services very useful, but if you get carried away, costs can escalate.
The possibility of an expensive search is one reason to hire a professional researcher to do the searching for you, Shamel says. “You need experience to do cost-effective searching,” she says.
Each of the big three database aggregators has material that others don’t have. The best strategy for any given project might be to search through only one, two or all three. Professional researchers also typically bypass the Web and dial into these services directly, which gives them more advanced searching options.
Others reasons to hire a professional researcher are if you don’t want to do it yourself or don’t have the time. “You can find yourself spending so much time searching for information that you don’t have enough time to run your business,” says Penny Leidtke-Sienkiewicz, principal of the Philadelphia-based research company On-Target Information Services.
The Web site of the Association of Independent Information Professionals, at <>, lets you search for researchers by services, subject matter and geographic area.
For more on online researching, check out David Novak’s Information Research FAQ, at .  — Reid Goldsborough is a syndicated columnist and author of the book Straight Talk About the Information Superhighway. He can be reached at [email protected] or <>.

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