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When it Pays to Pay for Research

When it Pays to Pay for Research

There comes a time when one asks even of Yahoo, even of Google, “Is this all?” Yahoo and Google do an admirable job of categorizing the Internet and making its contents more accessible. But ultimately they’re search tools, not research tools. There’s a great deal of information not on the Internet, particularly thoroughly researched, carefully checked information.
Information professionals have long known this, and it’s for this reason that they use high-end research tools such as Dialog, at <>, and LexisNexis, at <>. In recent years both of these information aggregators have made their offerings more affordable for more casual business users, and both services are worth a look.
But there’s a middle ground between the high end of the commercial research databases and the free Web. It’s a middle ground, though, that has presented some pretty tough terrain for companies treading upon it in the past.
Northern Light made a go at providing paid reference services through the Internet at mid-range pricing, combining a generic Web search engine with proprietary content from thousands of newspapers, magazines and books, charging $1 to $4 per full-text article. It received stellar reviews, but its parent company, Divine Inc., went bankrupt, and the service has emerged today as a specialized tool for companies who want to search inside their own data.
Infonautics with its Electric Library service, later renamed eLibrary, offered a flat-rate plan that cost $60 per year for full-text access to articles from more than a thousand newspapers, newswires, magazines, books, and TV and radio transcripts. eLibrary also received great reviews but also failed to catch on in sufficient numbers with the business, educational and home markets it targeted.
The latest attempt is from a company called HighBeam Research, at <>, which has actually picked up the pieces from the struggling eLibrary, acquiring it in August 2002. Headquartered in Chicago, the company initially gave the reborn service a new moniker, Alactritude, which was a combination of the words “attitude” and “alacrity.”
“People had problems spelling it,” said HighBeam chairman and CEO Patrick Spain, so the company now calls its service by the same name as the company. HighBeam currently has two components, the retooled eLibrary and a generic Web search tool that uses the well-regarded Fast search engine licensed from the Norwegian company Fast Search and Transfer.
HighBeam has roughly doubled the number of information sources used by eLibrary, to 2,600, from which 28 million full-text documents are currently available. The largest percentage of these are magazine and journal articles, though also available are newspaper articles from the United States, Canada and around the world; TV and radio transcripts from NPR, ABC and Fox; photos; maps; the Bible; all the works of Shakespeare; dictionaries and thesauri; an almanac; and the Columbia Encyclopedia.
The company gets its content primarily from two information aggregators, ProQuest and Thomson Gale, who go to publishers and obtain rights to their content then re-license it to HighBeam and other companies.
Basic access to HighBeam’s content, which lets you see only previews of eLibrary articles, is free. Full membership is $19.95 per month or $99.95 per year. The company has “over 40,000 paid subscribers,” Spain says. “Some months we make money, some we don’t,” he says.
One way HighBeam tries to distinguish itself from past efforts of its type is by helping customers organize the articles and other data that they find through it. You can assign articles to folders based on topic, for instance, though this isn’t much different from using folders on your own hard drive.
What’s best about HighBeam is the quality of the information you can find through it. Though the free Web can reveal useful, factual information you would be hard pressed to find elsewhere, it’s also rife with rumors, gossip, hoaxes, exaggerations, falsehoods, ruses and scams. Because it’s so easy to put information on the Net, it’s easy to find false information.
HighBeam deserves to succeed. It provides a good service at a good price. But I’m not sure it will. Too many people expect information, even high-quality information that costs real money to create, to be free.
Its strategy is to target individuals who work in home office, small business and large corporate settings who have the research budget to make their own purchasing decisions. It sees the autonomous spending of research dollars this way as a growing trend.
In a nutshell, Spain says, “If you want to buy an Italian suit, use Google. If you want to find out how Italian suits are made, use HighBeam.” 

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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