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When It Pays to Pay for Research

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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. A great deal of information is not on the Internet, particularly thoroughly researched, carefully checked information.

Information professionals have long known this, and that’s why they use high-end research tools such as Dialog, at www.dialog.com, and LexisNexis, at www.lexis-nexis.com. In recent years both these information aggregators have made their offerings more affordable for more casual business users, and both services are worth a look.

There’s a middle ground between the high end of the commercial research databases and the free Web, but it has presented some pretty tough terrain for companies treading on it in the past.

Northern Light tried providing paid reference services through the Internet at midrange prices, combining a generic Web search engine with proprietary content from thousands of newspapers, magazines, and books, and 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 received great reviews but also failed to catch on in sufficient numbers with the business, educational, and home markets it targeted.

For Full-text Access

The latest attempt is from a company called HighBeam Research, at


, which has picked up the pieces from the struggling eLibrary, having acquired 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,” says HighBeam chairman and CEO Patrick Spain, so now the service is simply called HighBeam. Currently, it 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 & 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. Magazine and journal articles account for the largest percentage of these, but they also include 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, which go to publishers, obtain rights to their content, and then relicense it to HighBeam and other companies.

Basic access to HighBeam’s content is free, but you see only previews of eLibrary articles. Full membership is $19.95 per month or $99.95 per year. The company has “over 40,000 paid subscribers,” says Spain. “Some months we make money, some we don’t,” he adds.

What’s Worth Paying for?

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, although 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. The free Web can reveal useful, factual information you’d be hard pressed to discover elsewhere, but it’s also rife with rumors, gossip, hoaxes, exaggerations, falsehoods, ruses, and scams.

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 offices, small businesses, and large corporations who can make their own research purchasing decisions, on the theory that the autonomous spending of research dollars is a growing trend.

In a nutshell, says Spain, “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 reidgold@netaxs.com or www.netaxs.com/~reidgold/column.

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