(Editor's Note: In the wake of The Dialog Corporation's implementation of DialUnits and the disconnecting of connect-time charges (see the May 6 NewsBreak by Barbara Quint, "Dialog Re-Introduces 'CPU-like' Charges, Drops Connect Time"), information professional Mary Ellen Bates decided to do some before-and-after research on the impact of these changes. Here's her NewsBreak-worthy preliminary report. A more in-depth report will appear in the September issue of Searcher.)
Effective June 1, Dialog changed its pricing structureóeliminating connect-time charges and instituting an ill-defined "DialUnit" charge instead. The DialUnit fee varies by file, with a low of $1 for the newspaper files to a high of $23 for some pharmaceutical files. Dialog support files (200 and 415) and Homebase are free of DialUnits.
So what exactly is a DialUnit and when is it charged? Unfortunately, it's still hard to say. In theory, DialUnits are intended to replace connect-time charges. When they rolled out DialogWeb, Dialog charged connect time only while the system processed commands. That made Dialog Web searches significantly cheaper than "classic" Dialogósometimes 30 to 45 percent cheaper depending on how you search. In order for Dialog to migrate users to the Web without suffering significant loss in revenue, they have invented the DialUnit to replace the connect-time charge.
Each command incurs a fraction of a DialUnitóincluding administrative commands like COST, BEGIN, and HELP, a fact glossed over by all preliminary Dialog documentation. In a OneSearch, the DialUnit charge is spread across the files with the percentages assigned based on the amount of processing done in each file. While you read material on the screen, you incur no DialUnits. Per-record output display and telecommunications charges are in addition to DialUnit charges.
According to several Dialog staff members, the company set the value of a DialUnit based on the "average" connect-time cost for a search. In theory, then, searchers should not notice much of a difference between the old and new pricing schemes.
There is, however, an ugly catch: Dialog rounds fractional charges up to the next full DialUnit. A quick searchóretrieving a company record, printing a full-text article using an accession number, trying a search and realizing you're in the wrong fileócan cost you significantly more than it did under connect-time charging. And, in fact, even lengthy searches will almost always cost more, at least for efficient searchers who had already learned how to keep connect-time charges to a minimum.
The Bad News
A comparison of 30 before-and-after searches shows that if you use the same search techniques now as you did before DialUnits, you will pay more. How much more depends on whether you used Dialog Classic or DialogWeb. Prices vary much more dramatically when comparing pre-DialUnit DialogWeb, since the Web pricing structure kept connect-time charges to a minimum. While each searcher's experience will differ, we found that most searches cost about 20 percent more, and short searches can cost twice or three times as much due to the rounding up of the DialUnit.
An interesting "anomaly" (as a Dialog spokesperson called it) is the occasional glitch where identical searches result in different DialUnit charges depending on whether the searcher conducted them in Dialog Classic or DialogWeb. For example, a quick search and display of tables of contents in file 770 resulted in one DialUnit on DialogWeb and two DialUnits on Dialog Classic. Dialog is collecting reports of such incidents in an effort to correct the problem. Who wants to guess which of these two calculations they will retain?
The Good News
It's not as scary as you think. A single command doesn't incur a full DialUnit. Despite earlier fears expressed on searchers' listservs, a single Rank, Limit, Add/Repeat, or Target command generally will not incur a full DialUnit. Yes, this pricing change still essentially amounts to a 20 percent increase in rates (on top of the rate increase in January). But it is not equivalent to the per-search fee structure used by LEXIS-NEXIS.
And searchers have discovered one way to keep DialUnit costs down for quick searches. Since Dialog allocates the fractional DialUnit costs across files on a OneSearch, adding a number of cheap or free files to a search can significantly lower the total cost of a search. By spreading out a single DialUnit across many inexpensive files and one high-cost file, most of the DialUnit charge will fall on the cheap or free files.
For example, we conducted a quick search in file 516 (Duns Market Identifiers) for a specific company and printed the record in the full format. Following are the charges:
- May 1998, file 516 alone: $6.32
- June 1998, file 516 alone: $12.44
- June 1998, files 516 410 415: 9.23 (files 410 and 415 have $0 DialUnits)
- June 1998, files 516 papers: $4.65 (newspaper files have $1 DialUnits)
In this example, the cost of a quick look-up in file 516 in June actually fell lower than the connect-time pricing. Obviously, there are some searches where interlarding the appropriate files with 60 or 70 extraneous files will prove more trouble than it's worth. But there are some tricks for including the cheap files in the DialUnit calculation while eliminating them from the search results. We will cover these issues and other cost-saving techniques in the full version of this article, to appear in the September issue of Searcher. A few tips are clear already, though:
- Think of the DialUnit as a minimum per-search fee. Think twice about doing quick look-ups on Dialog if you can find the same information elsewhere for less.
- Use OneSearch wisely. If you know you need to search several similar files, search them simultaneously. But don't search broad DialIndex categories unless you really expect to find relevant information in all the files.
- Take advantage of the ability to "water down" an expensive file with a number of $1 DialUnit files. I suspect that the Papers files will see significant increases in usage from smart searchers using these files to minimize the DialUnit charge on a quick search.
Rounding up DialUnits is equivalent to Dialog rounding up all connect time to the next hour. My recommendation: Contact Dan Wagner (email@example.com) and tell him you want DialUnits charged in 1/60th increments. If they could do it for connect time, they can do it for DialUnits too.