As I mentioned the other day, the most recent issue of ISTL is full of very fine articles.
The one that really caught my eye is the Viewpoints article Are A & I Services in a Death Spiral? by Valerie Tucci. It echoes a lot of the themes that I first wrote about way back in December 2006 — that the traditional A&I services will have a lot of problems competing with services such as Google Scholar which are free to the user.
Here’s some of what Tucci has to say:
Given all the changes what will the future bring for these services and how will it affect libraries, librarians, and users? I believe that the A&I services will follow the downward spiral of newspapers. However, some services will enlist the synergy of the death spiral in figure skating. With trust and communication the strengths of free and fee-based services will be combined. A partnership will develop in which fee-based services will adopt more of the artificial intelligence underlying free services while retaining the special features that make these services so valuable. For example, I predict various versions of the databases depending on the needs of the user with different interfaces (e.g., SciFinder and STN CAplus) and different cost structures. What I do not see is a growing demand for the fee-based products. I believe revenue will decline and publishers will have to find ways to replace this revenue. This said, I have to caution that an entirely new paradigm may evolve (e.g., Google Scholar charging for searching), or a disruptive technology will be developed which trumps all current search technologies.
I’m more or less in agreement with this sentiment. Expensive databases such as INSPEC or Compendex will be increasingly difficult to justify for strained library budgets. They’re quirky and difficult sometimes, and you have to have good knowledge on how they work and are structured to get the most out of them. They’re also really focused on top level research — not the kinds of tools that undergrads will be using for their engineering design lab report.
The cost per search will be high, the groups that use it and find it important (librarians and some high-level faculty and grad students) will never use them enough to get that cost down much. And since they’re databases that are served by a bunch of different interfaces, it can be hard to see where the real ground breaking innovation will come from. They’re low-hanging fruit at budget time.
On the other hand, as far as I can tell, use for other databases such as Scopus and Web of Science (and SciFinder, to some extent) is still pretty healthy. They’re run by large commercial organizations who aren’t going to give up their market share and revenues easily and have the resources to back it up (yes, I said it, CAS is run like a commercial organization). They’re relentlessly customer focused (if not perfect, of course), their focus on citations and other “vanity” products gets the attention of faculty.
They focus intensely and relentlessly on innovating their products (if not always successfully). And they market directly to faculty and research officers, driving demand from library users. It’s a lot easier for us to spend big bucks if other on-campus groups are encouraging us with their support.
On the third hand, as Tucci states in her article, there are publisher and multipublisher article databases like IEEE Xplore or Scitopia or that also provide a way into content that will be good enough for a lot of users’ needs. A potential new player is single library or consortial content aggregations. Ontario’s Scholars Portal Journals project serves purchased full text journal content to all of Ontario’s institutions of higher education, each institutions only seeing what they subscribe to. My institution’s Scholars Portal Journals database has access to over fifteen million full text articles.
So, it’s a race. A race between budget constraints, free services and “good enough” on one hand and innovation and marketing and value-added services on the other.
I think that ultimately Google Scholar and it’s ilk will win the day and become the de facto academic finding tools, that they will add enough value to their free products to make subscribing to all those A&I services problematic at best. On the other hand, even in the 10 year time frame I wouldn’t be too surprised to see one or two of the big products still standing, somehow having found a way to add real value to all the data that they have access to — and maybe even some smaller super-niche products too. Publisher and consortial aggregations will still likely have a roll as hosts for content.
Of course, as I mentioned way back in 2006, Google or Microsoft could buy up all those A&I companies practically with their petty cash fund. And if Google can make us pay for Google Books Search, well, once they end up as the last academic search engine standing…