Since its beginning in 1966, the venerable ERIC education megabase-(How venerable? On Dialog, it's File 1)-has derived its million-plus records through the networked contributions of 16 clearinghouses and 10 adjunct clearinghouses located at academic institutions around the country. Following a sweeping reorganization of the U.S. Department of Education begun in 2002, a new Draft Statement of Work (SOW) was issued on April 10 for the contracts that control the production of the ERIC database and the document delivery operations of the ERIC Document Reproduction Service (EDRS). Under the new SOW (http://www.eps.gov/spg/ED/OCFO/CPO/Reference-Number-ERIC2003/listing.html), the clearinghouses, the ERIC Processing and Reference Facility run by the Computer Sciences Corp., and EDRS run by DynEDRS Inc. would be eliminated and a central contractor selected to handle the entire operation.
Specifications for the new contract omit requirements to support most of the customer services conducted by the clearinghouses, including the production of the popular digests, toll-free phone assistance, and the 6-million-hits-a-week AskERIC service. The clearinghouses and their supporters have started a campaign to revise the draft SOW, but the date set for receiving public comments ends on May 9. (Comments go to Jeff Halsted, 202/708-8283, 202/708-9817 fax, Jeff.C.Halsted@ed.gov.)
Currently, the ERIC (Educational Resources Information Center) database provides bibliographic citations to education-related documents and journal articles. The print version of the file corresponds to two printed abstract/index titles: Resources in Education (RIE) and the Current Index to Journals in Education (CIJE). The world's largest education database is released to over 100 organizations for digital dissemination through CD-ROMs, intranets, library cooperatives, public access Web sites, etc. Among the outlets are a number of commercial online services, including Dialog, OCLC, EBSCO, Ovid, and CSA.
The ERIC database is also available on the Web from Access ERIC at no charge (http://www.eric.ed.gov). By the beginning of May, a new search engine and interface will be available on the government site. Currently, the EDRS document delivery service provides print and microfiche copies of non-journal material as well as access to some 86,000 full-text documents through its e*subscribe program.
In developing the content for ERIC, the clearinghouses network with some 400 organizations to promote usage, cooperate with adjunct clearinghouses and corporate partners, and conduct some 2,000 acquisition arrangements nationally and internationally. The toll-free access numbers for the clearinghouses average around 3,800 calls a week or nearly 200,000 requests a year. The new draft SOW would not renew the contracts for clearinghouses, scheduled to run out December 2003, and so would eliminate these user-oriented services. Current contracts with the Facility, EDRS, and Access ERIC are scheduled to expire June 2004.
The draft SOW calls for a single contractor to handle the database and related functions. The SOW points out that the length of time it takes for records to enter the database under the current organizational structure is still around 6 to 8 months. The new service could cut that turnaround time to a month. The SOW calls for a much greater influx of full-text content, including journal articles (or, at least, links to full-text journal sources) as well as documents, and for an online submission system for conference papers. The subject coverage would be comprehensive and cover all the topics covered by the 16 ERIC clearinghouses, but with no specific mention of the topics covered by the 10 ERIC adjunct clearinghouses.
In addition to expanded full-text coverage, the SOW mandates that the new ERIC operate electronically as much as possible, relying on Web access, e-mail input, listserv announcements, etc. It shall also link electronically to publishers and other commercial sources and permanent archives and support electronic archives of non-journal education materials. It shall use "electronic harvesting" to locate approved material on Web sites and automated indexing as much as possible.
According to the draft SOW, "The mission of the new ERIC is to provide a comprehensive, easy-to-use, searchable, Internet-based bibliographic and full-text database of education research and information for educators, researchers, and the general public." To accomplish this, the contractor must provide a "single ERIC website, database, and database search engine. The system will be available to the public 24 hours a day, 7 days a week, at http://www.eric.ed.gov." And the winning contractor shall have this in place for the public no later than July 1, 2004.
To accomplish this task and guide the redesign of the system, the SOW requires the contractor to appoint a Steering Committee of no more than 12 educational experts and hire sets of three content experts for each category of coverage - which corresponds to the topics of the 16 current ERIC clearinghouses. To identify candidates for these critical roles, the draft SOW recommends asking the clearinghouse directors for suggestions. In summary, the contractor winning the award is expected to provide a complete restructuring and revised content plan in less than a year after contract award.
Oddly enough, the first reaction of David Lankes, Director of the Information Institute of Syracuse, which operates the ERIC Clearinghouse on Information and Technology and the AskERIC service, was subdued gratitude that the draft SOW ensured the continuance of ERIC. Last year, the directors of the clearinghouses were worried that the database would be discontinued completely.
In November 2002, the Education Sciences Reform Act of 2002 (P.L. 107-279) went into effect. It eliminated the Office of Educational Research and Improvement (OERI), the agency that had funded ERIC and other educational research. Instead it substituted a new Institute for Educational Sciences with a subsidiary National Center for Education Evaluation and Regional Assistance. The NCEE supervises the National Library of Education and ERIC. Fortunately, according to Lankes, the head of the Institute, Grover (Russ) Whitehurst, supports the ERIC database. Lankes doubted his predecessor would have.
Nonetheless, Lankes—and apparently his fellow ERIC clearinghouse directors—are gravely concerned about the elimination of their facilities' expert assistance, both in the creation of the database and in service to its users through synthesizing publications and direct responses to queries. For example, AskERIC, begun in 1992 as a project of the ERIC Clearinghouse on Information and Technology at Syracuse University, provides a personal virtual reference desk service for the whole ERIC system and maintains searchable archives for over 25 education-related electronic discussion groups. "AskERIC," said Lankes, "has over 60,000 individual user sessions and 6 million hits on its Web site each week."
Lankes fears that the draft SOW looks like "throwing the baby out with the bathwater. The Digests are hugely popular and not listed. AskERIC is gone along with all the customer side. It looks like they plan on just a database. That's a huge step back for ERIC in general whether it's centralized or decentralized."
In the April 2003 issue of D-Lib Magazine (http://www.dlib.org/dlib/april03/rudner/04rudner.html), Lawrence Rudner, director of Measurement, Statistics and Evaluation at the University of Maryland, published an article entitled "How Many People Search the ERIC Database Each Day?" In what Rudner called a very conservative estimate, he set that number at around 230,000. However, said Rudner, "From April to June 2001, ERIC Clearinghouse web sites averaged more than 70 million hits per month.... While the database is ERIC's core, its impressive usage data must be kept in perspective. ERIC, like other information providers, is much more than its database."
At present, Lankes said: the "directors of the clearinghouses are creating statements and gathering support. We are getting phone calls from ALA and other library and educational organizations looking to comment." The directors are doing this as individuals, Lankes assured me, as concerned citizens rather than ex officio. Although the clearinghouses are not going quietly, Lankes estimates they have only a 20-percent chance of influencing serious changes. He believes the timeline from the draft SOW to the final one will be short—a month if they revise it significantly or a mere 2 weeks if they do not.
Though Lankes found some good things in the draft SOW—faster processing, free full text, modernized metadata, and the clearly stated aim of making the database comprehensive, not just a collector of evidence-based research nor one administration's view of education—he still worried about the amount of power given to whoever monitors the contract. The new structure could "take ERIC out of the hands of experts in the field and put it into the hands of a ‘beltway bandit.'" However, he did feel that by not specifying the form of the proposal to gear it to certain audiences, it "looks like an open competition."
Overall, Lankes said: "I love we're arguing about the function and nature of ERIC. We're not arguing about ERIC becoming super-selective, highly political, or a system driven by political agendas. We should feel good that, at least on paper, no one is gutting the ERIC database, just doing it differently and debating how. That's to the credit of the Department of Education. They're not making it an empty political shell, but a debate between honest individuals on how to approach it."