Cost Control: Using Automatic Accounting Features to Monitor Search Costs
Bates, Mary Ellen, Online
"What the heck is this $500 search on our online bill?!? Who are we charging for this search?!?"
Sound familiar? For libraries and information centers that charge out their online searches, either entirely or only those searches over a certain amount, keeping track of the online charges for every search is difficult and time-consuming. The old standby, keeping a log sheet by each searcher's computer, requires a tedious cross-check with the monthly invoice. And, in the crush of short deadlines and heavy workloads, the log sheets are not always filled out.
One option for tracking search expenses is installing microcomputer search software that tracks every session on each searcher's computer. One such product is DIALOGLINK Communications Manager for DIALOG. With this solution, each terminal will have its own log and compilation, but comparison to the monthly invoice must still be done manually. In addition, there are tradeoffs in features between using system-specific accounting software and those of other communications packages such as CROSSTALK, ProComm or SMARTCOM.
ONLINE ACCOUNTING FEATURES
An alternative to using system-specific accounting software is to have the online service do the accounting work for you. Many databanks are responding to the growing trend of search expense charge-back by permitting the searcher to attach a client name to each search. The monthly invoice will include the client information that can then be used to charge the search back to the requester. Many online services even sort and subtotal the search costs by client.
However, until the revolution comes and we have a single command language, searchers must still remember which command to type to begin the accounting feature on each online service. "Let's see...is it //logit? set subacct? project?" Fortunately, several online services allow their users to customize their profiles to automatically prompt for a client name, and more and more services are providing cost estimates when the user logs off.
HOW TO USE THE "CLIENT-TRACKING, COMMANDS
Here are short descriptions of the procedures for automatically tracking search charges, changing client names during the search session, and displaying estimated search charges when exiting a service.
To begin Data-Star's accounting feature, type ..set subaccount at any search prompt. (See Figure 1 for an example of Data-Star's acknowledgment of the client name.) (Figure 1 omitted) You can use a client name of up to eight alpha-numeric characters. Using this command makes a permanent change to your account; whenever you log in after having once typed see subaccount you will be prompted for billing information. Data-Star also prompts for client name each time you change databases.
To change to a new client name during a search session, you must change databases, by typing ..c
Data-Star automatically displays an estimate of costs when you sign off.
DIALOG's command to start its accounting feature is set subacct
To change to a new client name, type set subacct
DIALOG allows users to set up a user profile to automatically execute the set subacct command. To do this, use the online editor to create a file called PROFILE and enter the command set subacct ?. This command must be the last line of the PROFILE. (Figure 2 shows the steps involved in creating and editing a PROFILE.) (Figure 2 omitted) This PROFILE will be automatically invoked every time you logon to DIALOG, and DIALOG will automatically prompt for a client name before you can begin a search. If no client name is provided when prompted, DIALOG will disconnect you. (The PROFILE feature also allows you to store user-defined formats, different terminal settings, and the NOTICE feature, which warns users of any TYPE, DISPLAY or PRINT command that generates output of $100 or more. Type HELP SET at any prompt for more information.)
DIALOG automatically displays an estimate of costs at the end of each search session.
DOW JONES NEWS/RETRIEVAL
To start the accounting feature on Dow Jones News/Retrieval, type //logit
To stop the accounting feature, type //logit
To have Dow Jones automatically prompt for a client name, you must call Dow Jones and request "Mandatory //LOGIT." Once the change has been made by the Customer Service department, you will be prompted for a client name before you can begin a search. The Mandatory //LOGIT will not allow the user to proceed until a client name or number is provided.
Since Dow Jones has three pricing plans (Standard, Corporate, and BlueChip), their cost estimator displays the elements for which you are charged but not the actual cost to your account. The pricing formula consists of a per minute charge, an "information unit" charge (each 1,000 characters), and special fees. You will need to calculate the actual charges by calculating the connect charges, information unit charges and any special fees, based on the type of Dow Jones subscription you have. To display the connect time and total number of information units, type //usage. (See Figure 3 for an example of the information displayed.) (Figure 3 omitted) Dow Jones will display the minutes and information units, broken down by database. Any databases that include special fees have a dollar sign ($) next to the database name. Unfortunately, the //usage command does not indicate the cost of the special fees, which can be a significant portion of the total search cost.
LEXIS/NEXIS automatically prompts you for a client name of up to 32 characters. Blank spaces and non-alphanumeric characters, except the semicolon (;) are permitted. To change client names during the search session, press the client! key, or type c, and the client identification screen will be redisplayed.
Normally, you can leave the client identification screen blank. However, you can contact Mead's Customer Service and request that your ID number be changed to require that a client name be typed in before being allowed to proceed with a search.
When you sign off, LEXIS/NEXIS displays the elapsed time of the search session and the number of searches executed. However, since searches are priced differently depending on the database(s) used, and since charges for printing and displaying text are not listed, you cannot estimate the total cost from the signoff screen. LEXIS/NEXIS has developed a service called PAYBACK to get around this problem. To use the PAYBACK service, contact your Mead account representative and ask that a PAYBACK ID number be assigned to your account. You will use this special ID number to tap into the weekly billing record for your bill group. Eight weeks' worth of billing information is retained. PAYBACK allows you to search for charges for a particular client name, charges incurred by a particular ID number, or searches on a particular day.
A typical PAYBACK document includes the date of the weekly coverage, client name, date of the search(es), the bill group, user ID, user name and total charges. Keep in mind that these are undiscounted charges--volume discounts are not factored into the cost estimate. The report can be displayed on the screen, printed, or downloaded onto disk (using the MAIL-IT option). Mead also offers conversion software to convert downloaded PAYBACK information into DIF, ASCII, dBASE or spreadsheet formats. You can set up an automatic weekly report of your charges using the ECLIPSE feature.
LEXIS/NEXIS expects to introduce an online cost estimator some time in 1993.
The command to begin NewsNet's accounting feature is project
To display the cost when logging off, type $off. To see the cost for a client's search while still logged on, turn off the accounting feature (project off) then type $. This will display just the costs incurred for that project/client.
NewsNet allows users to customize their accounts to ensure that client names are entered for each search and that the search costs are automatically displayed when logging off. Type options at the main prompt and choose the "global options" menu. You will be guided through the default setting choices, including automatic display of search cost estimates when logging off and automatic prompting for client name when logging on. (Figure 4 shows the steps to change your options.) (Figure 4 omitted)
Session estimate commands are not available to customers who use NewsNet through an external gateway or who are billed through an intermediary such as one of NewsNet's international sales representatives.
NewsNet's monthly invoice will not normally break out the search charges by client number; only the total monthly charges are listed on the invoice. All is not lost, though. Around the tenth business day of the month, detailed charges of the prior month are available online, itemizing each search session by client name. To view the online invoice, type invoice at the main prompt. You will be prompted to enter either latest for the most recent month's invoice, or the month and year of the invoice you need to see. You are allowed six free invoice readings per month--you are credited for the connect time spent in INVOICE. You can also call Customer Service and ask that your invoice automatically include the breakout of charges by client name rather than just the summary of charges.
Not all online services have the ability to permanently change your account to prompt for a client name and to display a cost estimate when you logoff. However, as more libraries pass on their search charges to the department requesting the research, the need for accurate, timely, automatic accounting grows. Sooner or later, we all will be able to throw our search log sheets in the recycling bin and count on online services to let us charge it back to our clients!
Mary Ellen Bates is Director of Information Services for History Associates Inc., a research firm in Maryland. She is an active member of Special Libraries Association and the Association of Independent Information Professionals. She received her M.L.S. degree from University of California, Berkeley, and has been an online database searcher since 1979.
Communications to the author should be addressed to Mary Ellen Bates, History Associates Inc., 5721 Randolph Road, Rockville, MD 20852; 301/770-1170; Fax 301/881-1069; MCI Mail--502-6205; CompuServ--71730,3272; DIALMAIL--31659; Internet--mebswell.sf.ca.us.…
Questia, a part of Gale, Cengage Learning. www.questia.com
Publication information: Article title: Cost Control: Using Automatic Accounting Features to Monitor Search Costs. Contributors: Bates, Mary Ellen - Author. Magazine title: Online. Volume: 17. Issue: 1 Publication date: January 1993. Page number: 39+. © 2009 Information Today, Inc. Provided by ProQuest LLC. All Rights Reserved.
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