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Bell & Howell Information and Learning’s ProQuest Academic Edition Brings Articles Directly to Students for a Low Fixed Fee
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Posted On February 28, 2000


The digital library of the future continues to emerge. In its latest form, it looks like an undergraduate library. Bell & Howell's Information and Learning division (BHIL, formerly UMI) at http://www.bellhowell.infolearning.com has launched ProQuest Academic Edition (http://ae.proquest.com). For a fixed price of $19.95 per semester (4-month period), students get access to all the articles from 1,500 to 2,000 periodical titles. (The full ProQuest collection includes over 6,000 titles.) The new edition includes elaborate taxonomies of subjects stemming from eight broad areas of college curricula.

Designed to help college students with term papers, class projects, and assignments, the ProQuest Academic Edition's Web interfaces use topical search trees prepared by academic experts. The eight channels are Arts and Humanities (art, communication, history, language, literature, philosophy, etc.); Business and Economics (general economic theory, monetary economics, general finance, etc.); Applied Science and Technology (mathematics, engineering, materials science, applied physics, etc.); Education (administration, teacher training, assessment and evaluation, etc.); Science (biological sciences, zoology, agriculture, forestry, chemistry, etc.); Telecommunications and Computing (computer sciences, careers, industry, networks, equipment, policy, etc.); Psychology (motivation, emotion, sensation, therapy, etc.); and Social Science (anthropology, geography, political science, sociology, etc.).

A ninth channel for recreational reading offers coverage on entertainment, consumer goods for work and play, hobbies and recreation, job hunting, leisure reading, personal finance, sports, travel, and trends and popular culture. Tyler Steben, vice president and publisher in BHIL's higher education publishing group, told us that students testing the new ProQuest Academic Edition told them that the recreational channel would help them organize their "downtime" more efficiently. He reports that over 70 percent of the students in the test group use the recreational channel regularly.

Topic trees can carry up to 10,000 links, though at present they average around 1,000. Once students click their way through to a specific key topic, they get an up-to-date list of relevant scholarly citations from journals, periodicals, and newspapers. The list indicates whether the article is available as citation plus abstract, full text, or full-image mode (full text plus graphics). For example, clicking on Arts and Humanities, then History, then U.S. History, we reached a double column list of specific topical areas covering themes and time periods in American history. No one could accuse the editors of jingoistic tendencies. The very first listing read "American imperialism." Under that category, we reached "U.S. territorial acquisitions" and one click more brought up a list of 50 citations from a wide array of sources, arranged in reverse chronological order. Dates of coverage extended from last month (January 2000) to 1998.

At this point, the system offered more sophisticated search options: specific words or phrases, date ranges (current = 1998 to present; backfile = 1986 to 1997); publication type (newspapers, periodicals, reference books, all); citations and abstracts vs. full text of articles. For assistance, users can send questions directly to technical support staff.

According to BHIL's president, Joe Reynolds: "ProQuest Academic Edition benefits students at all levels, both on- and off-campus. They learn the importance of focused inquiries and primary sources, and they appreciate the instant online access to the research materials they need to support their studies." Instructors can also use the system to build courses and create assignments.

In developing the taxonomy for the topics, BHIL worked with college curricula and leading college textbooks. Steben said, "We modeled the topics on the most popular textbooks already used in universities." Leading scholars—professors and chairs of university departments—then reviewed and evaluated the breakdowns.
 

More to Come
Academic Edition is a work-in-progress. BHIL will soon incorporate immediate access to other Web resources as well as electronic books. In developing the Web links, according to Steben, they will use the existing trees and generate links for almost every topic node. By the end of March, Steben hoped they would have selected a partner to work with on the Web link portion of the project. In any case, he assured us that the links would all represent solid sites, "no term paper mills."

BHIL already has relationships with several major e-book suppliers, such as netLibrary, and Steben indicated they were busy gathering information on suppliers to both Microsoft and the Adobe and Palm e-book platforms. The company is not looking at public domain or free online book sites at this point, according to Steben. He indicated that the recent purchase of Chadwyck-Healey gave BHIL a source for e-book copy. The Chadwyck-Healey operation would guarantee that the specific edition of books that might otherwise exist in the public domain would be the edition most preferred by scholars, Steben said. BHIL would incorporate these e-books into ProQuest Academic Edition, but they probably would not go into the general ProQuest collection sold to libraries and other institutions.

In marketing the new service, BHIL is seeking—and finding—partners. It plans to distribute ProQuest Academic Edition through channels that include online retailers, content providers, educational publishers, and distance-education providers. According to Reynolds, textbook publishers have approached them, looking to develop highly focused online "packages" that supplement existing publishing programs. The day after announcing ProQuest Academic Edition, BHIL announced it had signed an agreement with Bedford, Freeman & Worth Publishing Group to start distributing Academic Edition as a complement to selected textbooks in psychology, sociology, and economics by fall 2000. According to Steben, they will "shrinkwrap" predefined searches specifically relating to chapters in the textbooks.

In the fall, BHIL will also add community features that allow student users to communicate with each other and instructors, according to Steben.
 

Too Good?
Sound wonderful? How much? $19.95 per 4-month semester for access to all eight channels plus the recreational ninth channel. In contrast, libraries accessing fuller versions of the ProQuest collection can pay $60,000 a year. BHIL verifies student access through spot checks and scanning for ".edu" in domain names, as well as some other review methods, but it does not call universities to verify student status. However, Steben asserted that they have no plans to market ProQuest directly to the general public. Academic Edition is not, according to Steben, a test run for a broader market product.

Could academic librarians, the major current market for ProQuest, come to resent the disparity in price with the end-user-oriented Academic Edition? Steben did not think they should. He pointed out that the service would primarily appeal to students working outside their libraries. According to Steben, a lot of academic libraries currently buying ProQuest do not offer access outside their buildings. Like most Web-based information services, Academic Edition operates 24/7. Steben thought the service would particularly appeal to instructors in community colleges or lower-tier 4-year colleges by helping them train students in research techniques. Also, Steben hopes that students using the Academic Edition at home or in their dormitories will come to appreciate other library sources and use them more efficiently. However, Steben also indicated that as time goes by, he expects Academic Edition to differ more and more from the main ProQuest collection. The exemption of Chadwyck-Healey content from full ProQuest is just the beginning of the process of differentiation, apparently.

Despite BHIL's stated hopes for a peaceful reaction from librarians, when we spoke to two academic librarians, both immediately worried whether ProQuest Academic Edition would end up luring students away from equivalent or even superior Web-based services the library offered at no cost to the student. One person with whom we spoke considered it an attempt by BHIL to expand direct marketing and bypass the role of librarians as intermediaries. She stated that to say she was "bowled over" [by BHIL's launch of ProQuest Academic Edition] would be too complimentary. "It's not all threatening, and they have the right to take advantage of market opportunities, but if we have more data for a lower cost in the same market, then it's hard to support this as a trend," she said. Also, as occurs with many "slice-and-dice" offerings these days, end-users may be confused by the same brand name appearing on two products with vastly different content—in this case, a library offering all or most of ProQuest's potential 6,000-plus titles vs. the 1,500 to 2,000 in ProQuest Academic Edition.

What about publisher concerns? When the price of a single subscription to even an inexpensive trade or general periodical can cost more than 4 months of access to 1,500 to 2,000 publications, could this cannibalize the print sales of publishers contributing to BHIL's ProQuest collection? One publisher representative with whom we spoke said it would not affect his company, because it wouldn't be in the program. He pointed to all the complaints from academic librarians about the diminished coverage of LEXIS-NEXIS's Academic Universe and estimated that the reason for the reduction probably stemmed from publishers, including the speaker's publisher, forbidding the integrator from offering their journals in such a low-cost program. If so, this could mean that the standard for selecting top journals in every field promised by BHIL may have to accommodate the withdrawal of key sources by publishers concerned with revenue cannibalization.

In any case, this exciting new product offering promises to be very educational—for information industry watchers as well as student bodies.

To take a tour of ProQuest Academic Edition, visit http://ae.proquest.com/aegate/tour/aetour.html.


Barbara Quint is contributing editor for NewsBreaks, senior editor of Online Searcher, and a columnist for Information Today.

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