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HighBeam Introduces Free Full-Text Journal Articles
Posted On February 6, 2006
With unlimited access to 35-plus million full-text articles available to subscribers for $19.95 a month or $99.95 a year, HighBeam Research ( is already a considerable bargain, particularly when compared with traditional services charging pay-per-view on top of subscription fees. Now, HighBeam has made 1.5 million articles from its library available to anyone at no charge; the service does not even require registration information. To reach the new "freebies," searchers conduct a standard HighBeam search and receive results reflecting the entire library with labels identifying the free and "premium" content. However, a Modify Results box to the left on the screen allows searchers to display only the free material. At the same time, HighBeam announced new programs for publishers and advertisers, entitled HighBeam Publisher Direct and HighBeam Advertiser Direct. The company has also expanded its overall collection of reference and news sources available to subscribers, adding a "national newspaper" in TheWashington Post, local and regional news through the Knight-Ridder papers, and additional reference titles.

HighBeam draws its content from arrangements with full-text aggregators, such as Thomson Gale and ProQuest, and increasingly from direct licensing from publishers. The free 1.5 million articles come from more than 200 sources selected for their user interest and availability. Most of the material is current as of a day or two; archives can go back as far as 20 years or only 2 or 3. Examples of available titles are BusinessWire, Financial Management, Science News, and USA Today. Patrick Spain, chairman and CEO of HighBeam Research, said that the free service will usually include all of the articles HighBeam carries from the 200-plus sources. In contrast, the full HighBeam collection of more than 35 million articles includes more than 3,000 business, trade, academic, special, and general interest publications. The addition of Knight-Ridder's 30 newspapers will support local and regional news searches, while TheWashington Post's addition will offer national news archiving back to 1987. Spain stated that he planned to expand both the free and premium content on HighBeam.

Although the announcement of the new free full-text collection stated that it encompassed 200-plus sources, the actual count is 368. HighBeam offers a section on its service that spiders and links to open Web sources, available free. Now it has targeted more than 150 publications and nearly 100,000 articles in key areas of user interest from such titles as American History, CIO, Wine Enthusiast, etc. The listings will appear, labeled as free, in overall result displays. However, under arrangements with publishers, when users click on citations to content from publications on the open Web, they will be sent to the documents on the publishers' Web sites. For these publications, only the articles that publishers make free will appear as free, though other articles from the same publications may appear as premium content. In contrast, the full Web service on HighBeam allows users to search with open Web search engines along with closed Web sources that require users to be registered or subscribers.

The company is also adding a few free titles from its reference book collection, e.g., the Oxford Pocket Dictionary of Current English and the Oxford Pocket Thesaurus of Current English. In contrast, the full service for paying subscribers has more than 100 Oxford University Press (OUP) titles with more on the way. When completed, HighBeam expects to have nearly half a million entries from OUP covering science, technology, literature, finance, history, the arts, etc. This will bring the collection to more than 200 dictionaries, encyclopedias, almanacs, and thesauri.

At present, HighBeam reports some 6 million users on the system each month. Its free basic membership (i.e., registered users) has reached some 2.5 million users with paying subscribers constituting about 2 percent of that number. Advertisements provide revenue to the service. The new Publisher Direct service lets publishers feed specific free articles into the HighBeam Library collection and also feature the article sets on result displays in special advertising areas. The Advertiser Direct program offers cost-per-click, keyword-purchase programs that will place ads in sponsored link sections at the top and bottom of search results pages. It also places ads on "contextually relevant articles" near the texts using technology supplied by ContextWeb. The new promotions should not impair the "serious research" tone of HighBeam. Spain indicated that all advertisers have to be authorized by the vice president of advertising. "We won't allow bad material, though someone might be clever enough to sneak it by. But those guys don't want to be on our site. They don't want our users, the serious, information-oriented set of people who use our site."

Founded in 2002 as Alacritude, the company renamed itself HighBeam Research in 2004. From the beginning, however, its goal was, according to its background statement, to be "a new kind of online research company—one that served individuals with a service that delivered enterprise quality results at Wal-Mart, rather than Tiffany, prices." The range of features on the service is simple enough for most end-users, but also has the sophistication of some more advanced services, e.g., Boolean strategies, field structure, sorting results, saving searches, e-mailing results, etc. Registered users can also receive e-mailed alerts. Full members (i.e., subscribers) get additional features such as personalization tools and exporting results to Microsoft Office programs.

I asked Spain why he had chosen to change its policy and offer material without requiring either subscription or registration. He admitted that when he started the company, he never planned to offer anything totally free, but times had changed. "We were driven by two reasons, one from publishers and one from users. A number of our publishers have adopted the free model. For example, the Fortune line is now all free. We have had it in our premium area for a long time. The challenge became, ‘Is it fair to sell something that's available elsewhere for free?' As the Web becomes more transparent, we effectively can't. The second is that users are increasingly unwilling to pay, which is why publishers are making more [available] free."

I asked Spain whether the free service might be withdrawn if it didn't work out. He said, "No. We understand costs and will keep testing our new free content, but we're unlikely to withdraw it. Basically we're driven by a market we don't control, both publishers who keep evolving in response to advertiser rates and user behavior and users who are increasingly aware that some advertiser will pay for what they want if they go looking for it." He admitted: "If users hate ads, then we may evolve back to an ad-free environment, but if you want your site highly rated on Google and Yahoo!, free ranks higher and that keeps driving traffic." As regards advertising, Spain stated that HighBeam does not offer an "ad-free environment" at any price now, but then, "nobody's asked us for one." HighBeam does eliminate some ads for subscribers. For example, although HighBeam does not use pop-up ads, it does sometimes have pop-under ads for non-subscribers.

Some of these developments might seem rather depressing for HighBeam management, but Spain told me, "An interesting thing is starting to happen. Free content gets people to look at our site and use our tools. While they're getting the free material, they keep running into our premium content and see the tools that subscribers get. It seems to help us get subscriptions. And, if it's economical, we can support it with advertising."

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

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