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NTIS Provides Free/Cheap Electronic Delivery of Technical Reports
by
Posted On July 15, 2002
The National Technical Information Service (NTIS; http://www.ntis.gov) is the federal government's leading delivery outlet for scientific and technical reports, especially those produced under government contract. On its Web site, NTIS has begun electronic delivery of all its reports dating to 1997. Reports numbering fewer than 20 pages are free; those over 20 pages are $8.95. The scanned reports appear in Adobe PDF. Some documents are retrieved through links to other federal agency Web sites; however, NTIS promises that the archived copies of all documents will remain available through its site. "One Search. One Source. One Solution." is the banner cry of the Web site upgrade project.

Searchers can access the NTIS database dating to 1990 at no charge on the Web site. (The full database, dating to 1964, remains available on leading commercial services, such as Dialog.) Once a searcher identifies a document of interest using the database, he or she will either have the option to link to the full text at another agency's Web site or to download the publication from NTIS. Payment mechanisms include credit cards and deposit accounts.

In making the announcement, NTIS clearly proclaimed its commitment to archiving: "As we grow and change, you can count on one constant: the permanence of our collection. NTIS continues to maintain the most comprehensive archive of the U.S. Government's entire range of scientific, technical, and business-related information. (Some federal agencies may drop titles from their holdings from time to time, but NTIS will always offer its full collection of publications and other information products.)"

Search options for the NTIS database on the organization's Web site remain rather crude at this time, lacking the specific field-searching capabilities of the commercial services. The options do allow users to create adjacent word phrases, date limit, and relevancy rank results. However, at present one cannot specify an author's or agency's name as such, though the free-text searching will retrieve the name as part of the general text. In other words, if you knew the word "environmental" occurred in the title, you would not be able to specify its appearance in that field; the search would retrieve "Environmental Protection Agency" as well. People who have the NTIS's PB or identifying numbers in hand should find free-text searching effective for quick retrieval checks. Nancy Collins, director of NTIS's Office of Product Management and Marketing, told me that NTIS has plans underway to improve the search engine soon.

NTIS has served as the primary collector of federal contract research for over 50 years. It also serves as a collector of international technical documents, computer software, licensed federal databases, etc. Currently, NTIS has nearly 3 million documents covering some 350 subject areas in its archives. Over the last decade, the number of NTIS documents has dropped as federal research budgets have declined. However, it still adds somewhere in the neighborhood of 1,000 documents a week. All the documents in the new program are scanned images, not full-text searchable.

Super-large documents may be exempted from the program (e.g., the full set of NAICS codes) as too large to download. However, NTIS has begun offering some of these documents on CD-ROM. I asked Collins whether NTIS plans to expand its CD-ROM delivery of documents for users who are willing to pay a premium price (but still not as much as print or microfiche charges) for the convenience. She indicated that it would. At present, however, its technical and accounting systems only allow for one document per CD-ROM. NTIS would prefer to offer a set of documents resulting from a search on CD-ROM. Collins tells us to look for that as a future enhancement.

I interviewed an information broker who specializes in document delivery about the challenge posed by this free or very cheap government service. The broker expressed some concerns about copyright and access issues. For example, some of the documents in the NTIS collection actually represent journal articles, while others come from foreign countries. However, Collins assured me that these documents would all be available on the Web site. Journal articles that occasionally appear in the NTIS collection usually stem from research done by government researchers. The funding agencies make arrangements for full government access. Similar clauses designed to protect federal agency access occur in international agreements as well. Since NTIS's mission as a federal agency is to disseminate its studies as widely as possible, the new open Web access will simply contribute to that mission, according to Collins. (Sort of a ricochet copyright clearance?)

NTIS has faced some challenges in the past. A few years back the Secretary of Commerce to whom it reports decided that Web use by federal agencies made NTIS unnecessary and proposed its closure. However, Collins told me that the threat has diminished significantly. At present, it does have to "scramble" to remind agencies that the American Technical Preeminence Act requires posting of technical reports with NTIS for permanent archiving. This effort has proved effective. Collins indicated that federal agency Web sites have begun referring users back to NTIS for archived reports.

Since 1997, NTIS has offered a higher-end research service through an arrangement with the Library of Congress' Federal Research Division (FRD). The Custom Information Research Service provides access to the subject specialists working in and with the FRD for a fee-based research and analysis service. Interested parties can place their requests through NTIS's Web site and payment mechanisms. FRD staff discuss the project and provide cost estimates. The minimum charge is $500, equivalent to around 5 hours of FRD staff time, according to Robert Worden, head of the division. To obtain a request form for the service, users are asked to call 703/605-6184 or e-mail jhounsell@ntis.gov.

Like NTIS, FRD operates on a cost-recovery basis, making it very entrepreneurial, according to Worden. In general, the division does not include librarians. It has around 34 people on its permanent staff, but can expand to 120 by tapping into consulting arrangements, depending upon demand. Staff members have Ph.D. or masters degrees in physical sciences, history, political science, technology, education, etc. All have the ability to do research in at least one foreign language.

Since the program began, marketing has been minimal and usage has reflected that fact. According to Worden, NTIS has averaged 10 inquiries per month for the last year and a half and probably around 10 percent of those inquiries has led to active projects. However, recently NTIS began a more active marketing program, including Web coverage. In the future, NTIS plans to offer links to the custom research service on more of its Web site pages.

NTIS appears to be on the march both in its basic service of supplying documents and at the higher end of the research process. Each year it distributes over 1 million items to over 60,000 customers. With its mandate to recover costs, however, NTIS may depend on people coming to its site to download freebies and staying to purchase older and pricier reports. Time will tell how successful its efforts will be, but one must salute NTIS for the effort. Our tax dollars at work.

When it comes to federal sci-tech and business reports, we must agree with Collins and suggest that users "Start here first" at the NTIS Web site.
 
 


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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