Magazine article Information Today

Are We Being Ripped off? (Investigative Report)

Magazine article Information Today

Are We Being Ripped off? (Investigative Report)

Article excerpt

Pricing for electronic information is a minefield of strong and often disparate views. Customers don't want to be overcharged, and suppliers don't want to leave money on the table. Neither side wants to feel that they're being ripped off. This dichotomy is made all the more interesting when aggregators get involved to try to unite the common needs of customers with the needs of a host of different suppliers.

In this first of two articles, I solicited the views of one academic user and two subscription database providers:

* John Harrington has been manager of information services at U.K.'s Cranfield University since 1992. Cranfield has 3,000 postgraduate students spread across three campuses: engineering, applied science, and management. Its budget for electronic information in engineering and applied science is approximately $500,000.

* Mark Furneaux is managing director of European operations for Cambridge Scientific Abstracts (CSA). He joined the company in 1996. CSA is a privately owned U.S. database producer that publishes a wide range of primary and secondary databases. It launched its own Internet service (IDS) in 1994.

* Jack O'Toole is senior director at Engineering Information and has worked in publishing and information for 25 years. Engineering Information, perhaps best known for the Compendex database, also makes its online products available through Engineering Village, the leading service of its kind.

Subscription or Transaction?

"Students are not information-literate, not even the postgraduates," said Harrington. "And this problem is getting worse because their expectations have been colored by the use of Web search engines. There's no way that you can let students use services that charge for mistakes. Pricing models need to encourage users, not put them off. Subscription pricing is definitely the preferred model in higher education, with transactional searching now the exception."

Furneaux agrees. "We have no services that charge for mistakes, so to speak. However, we have recently added a new credit card service where customers get 36 hours of searching for $39, but so far this service has been a well-kept secret. We've talked about adding transactional but don't have any plans in this respect, primarily because our focus continues to be on the academic marketplace."

"We do review this on a regular basis," said O'Toole. "But I do believe that the industry has changed radically in the past 10 years. Subscription pricing is now the best offering for the majority of our customers, and we will all benefit from better revenues if we offer primarily subscription pricing. I'm certainly not in favor of credit card billing for occasional users. I think this is a complete waste of time and money. Credit card billing is a money hole designed to upset, and that's definitely not our business. We're very happy to leave aggregators such as Dialog to service the transactional market."

Corporate or Academic?

Harrington does think that academic customers should get special treatment. "We've always pleaded a special case. We believe that we represent a shop window for information services and that our students are then more likely to use these services in their chosen careers. It's also important that the services we subscribe to are specifically designed for academic customers. Compendex via EDINA may be clunky, but at least it's been designed for students. The CSA/IDS service has also been designed with the needs of academia in mind."

Furneaux was clearly pleased to hear this. "A big plus with IDS is that we have listened carefully to the academic marketplace, and we've given them the kinds of products that are right for them. Not just price, but also functionality and access methods."

"We charge for value," explained O'Toole. "And corporates therefore pay a premium. Twenty corporate researchers will probably be doing more heavy-duty searching than 5,000 students mucking around on third-year projects. …

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