ProQuest Dialog: Predictions and Reactions
Posted On June 19, 2008
With the sale of Dialog to ProQuest, the big questions remain. Can ProQuest do better than Dialog's previous owners? Can the company design and implement anew integrated platform that combines all the precision searching functionality traditional to Dialog, while adding all the innovations of the last 10–15 year sand anticipating the next 2–5? Can it build a Web 2.0-compatible online environment before time and the tide of web forces move on to Web 3.0? Is the information professional market strong enough to make it worth its while? Can working with info pros bring about new products and new development processes that lead to end-user products? (For details of the sale, see the accompanying NewsBreak at http://newsbreaks.infotoday.com/nbReader.asp?ArticleID=49578.)
The general opinion of commentators on the acquisition seems to dismiss Thomson Reuters' handling of Dialog over the years as neglectful. In her June 12 OnlineInsider blog coverage (www.onlineinsider.net) of the acquisition, Marydee Ojala, editor of ONLINE magazine and online searching veteran, commented, "I probably wasn't the only one to notice that Dialog was looking a whole lot like the unwanted stepchild of Thomson."
Nonetheless, a look at Dialog developments under Thomson ("Key Dates for Dialog"; www.dialog.com/about/key dates) seems to belie some of the charges of inertia. For example, in 2001, Dialog introduced Dialog1, an end-user service, and Dialog Company Profiles, a repackaged collection of company information extracted from multiple databases. In 2002, Dialog PRO appeared targeted at small businesses. In 2003, anticipating today's cloud computing services, the Dialog Application Programming Interface (API) and Dialog Portals appeared to help companies integrate Dialog content into their internal web services. Whether the initiatives were adequately developed, fully marketed, reasonably priced,or at all successful are issues open to discussion, but they did happen.
Can ProQuest Do Better?
According to the announcement, ProQuest intends to "invest aggressively in Dialog" and to integrate its content. Dialog contains some 900 databases encompassing more than 1.4 billion unique records. It has direct operations in 27 countries and,since the distributors generally differ from ProQuest's, the company plans to maintain those agents, according to Marty Kahn, CEO of ProQuest. ProQuest's current product array includes some 9,000 titles reaching back, in some cases,for several centuries. Its access points presently include ProQuest, CSA Illumina, Chadwyck-Healey, UMI, eLibrary and SIRS, Ulrich's Serials Analysis System, COS Scholar Universe, Serials Solutions, and RefWorks/COS.
The first change for users stemming from the new ownership should be the loading of more ProQuest databases onto Dialog and DataStar. Dialog already carries 10 files from the traditional ProQuest side of the house and 28 from CSA. Some of the files that could be coming onboard Dialog soon could seem familiar to Dialog searchers. Some years ago, CSA (Cambridge Scientific Abstracts) removed some of its own databases from outside search services, including Dialog, as it launched its own search service, CSA Illumina. No schedule has yet been revealed for starting the introduction of more ProQuest files to Dialog, but Boe Horton, senior vice president of ProQuest's Research Solutions group and former chief operating officer for CSA, indicated it might not take too long."It should be fairly straightforward to put them back up," said Horton. "The way we handle data has improved dramatically over the last two years. It shouldn't be hard to do." One experienced Dialog hand predicted a 6-month "settling in" period.
Then comes the hard part. Legacy systems such as Dialog's need complete reworking to meet the challenges of the future—or even the present. ProQuest has already embarked on a major platform design project to integrate ProQuest and CSA content into a "best of breed", Web 2.0-level service.
As Andrew Snyder, president of Cambridge Information Group, says, "The platform needs to be upgraded. That's true of a lot of information companies today. We don't underestimate the task, but the demand and need are very real and we're hoping to both upgrade the system and continue to fill user needs. People want functionality."
The platform development project will extend to encompassing Dialog content and search functionality. According to Kahn, "ultimately the vision has to be seamless searching of content behind firewalls and on the open web, inside and outside the enterprise." Until the platform redesign is implemented, Kahn plans to operate both Dialog and DataStar as independent services, the way they are now.
One of the barriers to transforming Dialog has always been restrictive clauses in Dialog's contracts with database producers, some of which date back 30 years or more. Kahn admitted that contract problems affected both pricing rigidity an dhow the service could handle data. He planned to go into discussions with producers. He expects some agreements will have to be renegotiated. He also plans extensive discussions with groups of information professionals about what they want and need from a newly designed system. As they work on the integration process, Kahn expects they may find some content gaps which they could plug by developing new databases.
Dialog staff are reportedly happy about the change. The announcement caused quite a buzz at this week's annual SLA meeting in Seattle. When Cynthia Shamel,covering the conference for a future article in Searcher, asked Dialog booth staff, "Condolences or congratulations?" the reply was "Congratulations, for sure."
Nostalgia, sometimes bittersweet, seemed to be the tone struck by the announcement for many veteran searchers. Nancy Herther, anthropology and sociology librarian at the University of Minnesota Libraries, mourned a long lost Golden Age of searching represented by Dialog:
Professional, mediated searching is an artifact in large academic research libraries, where web-based databases and information literacy (self-service or power-to-the-people) is the general rule. I haven't searched Dialog, myself, in probably 15 years. However, it still remains, an icon of the age of mediated, high-quality searching. The web has democratized access and changed distribution, but we have lost a lot in quality control—a role that searchers performed par excellence!
Dialog was the premier vendor of the mediated search age—superior quality, customer service, smart people, forward thinking,and a great broad-base of databases to meet most needs.
Anne Mintz, director of knowledge management at Forbes, uses Dialog "on occasion."The heaviest use goes to the files licensed under subscription, but she"wouldn't give up her Dialog accounts." Disagreeing somewhat with the stated ProQuest strategy of targeting information professionals, however, Mintz considered they should try reaching out to smaller businesses, those that couldn't afford to license aggregators. She also stated that they should not drop pay-per-use pricing. "For iterative searching," said Mintz, "Dialog is brilliant with its documentation for structured files. There are a lot of things it does just right. But to focus on the library market only would be mistake. It just isn't a market any more. The growth is in the non-library market; the library market is saturated."
Speaking of nostalgia, Dialog has inspired loyalty not only in its customers, but also among former employees. A private listserv of ex-Dialog employees numbers around 285 members. And for the venerable system, the most venerable ex-employee, Roger Summit, founder of Dialog, feels a great challenge exists for the for-fee services in the present environment of vast amounts of free information.
The most heartfelt comment, however, came from Amelia Kassel, president and owner of MarketingBase. Through her mentor programs and teaching, Kassel has trained generations of searchers. She remains an ardent advocate for the "positive benefits of training searchers on Dialog," but she's "tired of fighting the resistance to learning Dialog." In fact, she doubted the venerable service would last. "This is it for Dialog, the last hurrah. What's unique, ProQuest will integrate," Kassel predicted sadly, "Then they'll re-brand it and it will be over."
What would it take to keep Dialog viable? "The ideal," said Kassel, "would be retaining all the Dialog functionality with a Web 2.0 interface and platform,something that would work well for both professional and end-user searchers."Kahn indicated that the platform project already has a "very excited" committee exploring the opportunities offered by "cloud computing" third-party services.
If Marty Kahn, ProQuest, and Cambridge Information Group have their way, Kassel and remaining Dialog searchers will see their dream come true. But Kahn has no illusions. It's not going to be easy. Building a new up-to-date platform,according to Kahn, "is like building a new baseball stadium. It has to be modern, but still completely respectful of tradition. We have our hands full,but we're going to give it a go."