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Commerce Department Plans to Shut Down NTIS
by and
Posted On August 17, 1999
In a surprise announcement on August 12 that stunned the information community, the Secretary of Commerce, William M. Daley, announced plans to shut down the National Technical Information Service (NTIS) (http://204.193.246.62/public.nsf/docs/FFF05791D63331D1852567CB00693643). The Secretary plans to work with Congress to dismantle the agency, "while preserving public access to scientific and technical reports." The full proposal will go to Congress this month.

The plan proposes shifting the paper, microfiche, digital archives, and bibliographic database to the Library of Congress. At press time, a Library of Congress representative indicated the Department of Commerce had made "preliminary contact" with the LC about this proposal. No further details on LC's possible role—whether merely as an archivist for past NTIS (http://www.ntis.gov) collections or as an active document delivery service (unusual for LC)—were available.

The announcement of the proposal indicated that the Commerce Department would try to ensure the public availability of government technical and business information provided by government agencies "for long periods of time." It suggested that existing search engines, for example, on the Library of Congress' Web site, could provide retrieval of technical documents for the public.

The announcement indicated that "extensive review and analysis" had led to the conclusion that "the core function of NTIS, providing government information for a fee, is no longer needed in this day of advanced electronic technology." Instead, the Secretary's announcement pointed to Web publishing as one viable alternative for government agencies, citing the example of a digital document Commerce had recently placed on its own Web site for free, while NTIS offered a print and microfiche version for $27. According to the announcement, "These changes in the information marketplace have made obsolete the need for NTIS to serve as a clearinghouse and, thus have in turn made it increasingly difficult for NTIS to maintain its operation on a self-sustaining basis, as established by Congress."

When asked for details on the process of the extensive review, a Commerce Department representative pointed to the March 1999 Semiannual Report to the Congress from Commerce's Office of the Inspector General. This report indicated that NTIS' sales have dramatically declined over the last 6 years and claimed that the core clearinghouse document delivery portion of NTIS had not shown a profit since FY1993. It stated that between FYs 1995 and 1998, the agency lost a cumulative $4.8 million. The report concluded that "even with significant efforts to improve its profitability, NTIS can no longer generate sufficient revenue to remain self-supporting." Unlike other government agencies, e.g., the Government Printing Office, NTIS' establishing legislation requires that it be self-supporting. The Secretary cited the danger of NTIS "going bankrupt" as a primary reason for the shut-down proposal.

Mission

The press release focused on the NTIS' role as a publisher of government documents with scientific, technical, engineering, and related business information. However, most users of NTIS' database and services recognize its primary functions as identifying, describing, and delivering federal contract research reports. Produced by research facilities outside the government in support of federal contracts, these documents may or may not have Web versions or even print versions available for sale or delivery. In any case, few government contractors would accept any obligation to maintain archives of their work for the U.S. taxpayer.

Over the last 5 years, NTIS' collection of over 3 million titles has moved more toward scientific and technical reports from government agencies, due to a change in the law affecting the obligation of federal agencies to mandate contractors to file their documents with NTIS. (NTIS does have a finding service where users can request that the agency chase down known contract research studies and add them to the NTIS collection.) They still handle some 100,000 to 150,000 documents annually. In many cases, NTIS represents a primary publishing arm for many government agencies, e.g., the Environmental Protection Agency, Health and Human Services, Agriculture, etc. Besides being one of the historical pillars of the online industry with a database extending back to the early 1960s, NTIS provides document delivery service for many foreign and international technical reports and documents (up to 10 percent of its collection). It also handles the licensing of federal government databases to online services.

What's Next?

The Secretary's announcement promised the department would do all it could to relocate, retrain, and place NTIS' 250 current employees. "This was a tough decision to make, but sound management dictates that we cut our losses and recognize the technologically advanced environment we live in," said Secretary Daley. "This is the right thing to do and the best thing for the American taxpayer."

In September, Commerce will go to Congress with a proposal. Hearings may follow. The two subcommittees with oversight responsibilities for NTIS are:

Senate Committee on Commerce, Space, and Transportation's Subcommittee on Science, Technology, and Space, chaired by Bill Frist (R-TN)

House Committee on Commerce's Subcommittee on Telecommunications, Trade, and Consumer Protection, chaired by Bill Tauzin (R-LA)

Senator John W. Warner (R-VA) and Representative Thomas M. Davis III (R-VA) have protested the move, but primarily because the closure of the Springfield, Virginia-based agency would affect their constituents.

If Not NTIS, Who?

When it comes to the government documents (but not the government contract research reports), the U.S. Government Printing Office (GPO) would seem the logical successor. The GPO, an agency within the legislative branch of the federal government, has the broad mandate of serving as the publisher for all federal agencies. Andrew Sherman in GPO's Office of Congressional, Legislative and Public Affairs stated, "We do have an interest in some of the functions of NTIS. For a long time there was a problem of fugitive documents—documents that were not in depository libraries—and most of those are found in the NTIS collection. NTIS has claimed that certain documents were exempt. So, with the pending closure of NTIS, we have an interest in making those documents freely available to the public, and hopefully through the Federal Depository Library Program (FDLP)." Sherman pointed out that GPO sold 19 million publications last year, generating $61 million in revenue while NTIS only sold 1.3 million publications and at very high prices. (In FY1993, NTIS sold well over 2 million documents. It has had to request Congressional appropriations three times in the last few years to supplement sales revenue.) Sherman couldn't understand why NTIS ever had a mandate to be self-sustaining.

Sherman indicated that GPO was not interested in all NTIS' services, however. "There are a number of functions in NTIS that are trade-, commerce-, and technology-related (like Federal Patent licensing and the Center for Utilization of Federal Technology) that don't really mix with information dissemination. I'm not sure how that will be sorted out." He also wondered why the proposal had targeted the Library of Congress as the site for storing the digital archives and bibliographic database.

In general, Sherman considered the GPO was eager for the opportunity to replace NTIS' role in handling government documents. "For the last 5 or 6 years, NTIS has been in a competitive mode with GPO, and it hasn't helped either organization." They would even like the staff of NTIS to come over with the collection. Sherman stated, "We hope to see the elimination of competition, which is destructive to both organizations. We hope to take advantage of economies of scale to lower prices for products. And, we hope to consolidate and improve, building upon our synergies. Having multiple places for the public to get documents creates problems."

Reactions

NTIS' constituencies clearly hope for an organized and well-considered re-assignment of the agency's functions, assuming the closure goes through. Lynn Bradley of the American Library Association, said, "This would be a good opportunity for a reasonable dialog on what's next. We believe government information should not be a commercial commodity. This is consistent with our long-term support for the library depository program and free access to government information in general. We hope that the library community, the Congress, and the Commerce Department can proceed in a process that moves the issues forward. We look forward to a vigorous debate."

The Special Libraries Association sent a letter to Secretary Daley expressing their concern on two points, one of which surprisingly focused on the availability of print. "Our primary concern with the proposal to close NTIS lies in the availability of present and future publications in print format. SLA agrees with the shift in focus to electronic availability of NTIS products, and we applaud you for seeking to save the taxpayers money while ensuring delivery of information. However, special librarians and information professionals believe that their users will always require hardcopy products to meet certain needs....

"Also of concern to SLA is the fact that the interested non-governmental stakeholders were not given an opportunity to engage in the development of the proposal. Many in the U.S. library community consider the resources produced by NTIS to be incredibly valuable....

"Implementation of this proposal without the involvement of all stakeholders would be an unfortunate mistake."

Northern Light, NTIS' controversial partner in the creation of the new usgovsearch.com product (see our June 21, 1999 and March 29, 1999 NewsBreaks), plans to continue its commitment to servicing federal government information regardless of what happens to NTIS. (The bulk of the premium, pay-per-view content in that service consists of abstracts from the NTIS database.) However, Leslie Ray of Northern Light stated, "We have a close partnership with NTIS. They provide many of the components of our service, especially on the premium information side. Whatever happens, we hope to maintain access to the database of government data that we expect to live on in some form, though possibly from a different source. But NTIS people have displayed a real passion for providing good information, for catering to the information professional community, for customizing data to meet user needs, and for broadening their audience. Frankly, we're rooting for NTIS."

The library listservs were abuzz with the topic at press time, particularly those serving government documents librarians. Here are some selected reactions:

From Robert Teeter, librarian, Santa Clara Valley Water District (rteeter@netcom.com):

"I am appalled by Secretary of Commerce Daley's decision to close NTIS. The rationale is that many reports are available for free on the Internet. While that's true for recent reports, it's not true for the vast backlog of valuable technical materials amassed by NTIS over the years. Even in my fields of engineering and environmental science, these materials are still useful to my customers. If that research—research which we paid for, after all—is no longer available in some form, it will be as if the government has thrown it all away."

From Sandra K. Peterson, government information librarian, Yale University Government Documents and Information Center (Sandra.K.Peterson@yale.edu):

"We have utilized it to provide for our students and faculty documents that were not distributed through the depository program and research and development reports published by private research organizations. We heavily use the indexing and abstracting service which NTIS has provided and have subscribed to a commercial vendor service which makes it available electronically since NTIS ceased publication of the GRA&I.

"It is a unique archive and as such is an extremely valuable national resource which should be preserved. I am not convinced that turning it over to the Library of Congress is the best course of action, at least from those of us who rely upon it."

From Jamie A. MacInnis, reference librarian, Curtis Laws Wilson Library, University of Missouri-Rolla (macinnis@umr.edu):

"We're constantly receiving requests for older reports, etc., which have only been accessible through NTIS. Also, considering the variability of publication through the Web, who will act as clearinghouse, ensuring permanent access in the future as NTIS has in the past?"

From Linda Johnson, head of the government documents department and data center, University of New Hampshire (linda@hopper.unh.edu):

"I am very concerned about the archival issue of all the reports NTIS has. Will the Library of Congress (I think that is where they are going) continue to sell them in a timely and efficient manner? Also, not everyone has a computer to download these materials so there still needs to be an outlet for libraries and others to purchase. However, I expect this proposal will be hammered out in Congress with much input from the library and information community."

From Stuart M. Basefsky, information specialist, Cornell University (smb6@cornell.edu):

"1) NTIS currently serves as a readily accessible archive of research reports which were generated, at least in part, through the aid of federal grant money. The Library of Congress is not considered a ‘readily accessible archive.'... What I mean by readily accessible is a high volume demand ... that can be met in a timely and organized fashion. LC is not set up for this kind of volume demand. NTIS, while not profit-making, is capable of tracking orders and getting information to companies, researchers, and the public with reliability. (NTIS allows other companies to make a profit, even though it is not making one itself. In economic terms, it is a ‘beneficial externality.') NTIS also requests reports from companies who fail to deposit them with NTIS. There is no administrative unit at LC to do this. In short, a current service would have to be replaced with a similar service with less experience. The newer service, unless monitored, would be less reliable and efficient.

"2) The Secretary's example of a current PDF document is flawed. Yes, the document is free on the Internet. Yes, it costs $27 to get it from NTIS. But, the Commerce Department did not notify the public that the document was available free (except via press releases in which the press failed to give a URL). The target audience of the press releases is not all encompassing. The PDF document is not likely to be held indefinitely at the Web site. Who will have access in 2009? (Currently NTIS catalogs the item, puts it into a database and assures its accessibility in the future—a value that may be equal to or greater than $27, especially to a researcher in need.) Also, PDF documents work now. What happens when the hardware and software change in the future?

"3) The proposal basically takes a service that recovers part of its cost and transfers it to a service that does not recover costs.

"4) If privatized, what materials currently collected will not be collected because they have no ‘market value' (not worth retaining)? Who makes that judgment? Scientific reports have little market value. However, one report can often save a large company thousands of dollars in research effort. The question is ‘Market value for whom?' The new company collecting the information. Or, the company in need of the one report that has ‘no market value.'"

Not all the reactions came from librarians. Information industry executives who deal with the NTIS to license government databases also expressed concern about where they would go in the future. None of them seemed eager to go door-to-door pursuing licensing arrangements with individual federal agencies, if they could avoid it.

A Breaking Story

This story has only begun. Check back on this site for follow-up reports.


Barbara Quint is senior editor of Online Searcher, co-editor of The Information Advisor’s Guide to Internet Research, and a columnist for Information Today.

Email Barbara Quint

Paula J. Hane is a freelance writer and editor covering the library and information industries. She was formerly Information Today, Inc.’s news bureau chief and editor of NewsBreaks.


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