|Is free information really all we need?|
I obtained a copy of the above White Paper that explores the future of content aggregation in an age in which we have reams of 'free' information at our fingertips. I found this particularly interesting because this is something that we are constantly coming across in the law library. With so much information available on 'free' sites, there is always the danger that trainees and fee-earners will just rely on this, because sometimes they think it's easier to do a Google search, than a more tailored search on one of our subscription databases. While free information can be authoritative, there is still a huge amount that should not be relied on for legal research - so we often find we are valiantly trying to impart this to trainees as soon as they enter the firm, in the hope that it will mean they develop good habits from the outset.
The White Paper contains data collated via a Panel set up to represent the information profession, called 'The Voice of the Information Professional'.
'Content aggregation' is where publishers make their publications available via a paid-for database - the content is licensed to the provider, and the publishers are paid royalties. The other way that publishers make their content available is by putting it behind a paywall, so much like The Times newspaper did last year. Sometimes when this happens, it is removed from the content aggregators, but not always.
Free Information - how reliable is it?
The Panel were asked 'do you trust free information for work tasks?' 96% of respondents 'sometimes' trust free information for work tasks. I would say this is the view I woul have given as well. Obviously wherever possible, you want to be extracting information from an 'authoritative' source - so for example, I would rather refer a fee-earner to information from a journal article from Westlaw, or a note on PLC, than a random website that could have been written by a teenager! However, that having been said, it is a regular occurence that we get asked a number of weird and wonderful legal research/company information questions, and sometimes there just isn't any information on the more authoritative sources - so it's time like that where I will often have no choice but to use information from a more unknown source. I think so long as the fee-earner is aware of this, it is a reasonable option.
The White Paper also questioned the panel on what kind of 'free' information they would be more inclined to trust. It was generally agreed that content found on goverment-maintained websites, professional news firms such as Reuters or Bloomberg, and content on sites such as the BBC, can be considered 'highly' trustworthy.
The downside of 'free' information
One of the main problems surrounding free information is that it is not designed for the kind of research carried out by information professionals - it is far more focused on just providing an overview of what's going on in the world to the average member of the public sitting at his or her desk at lunchtime. The information is not stored in such a way that always makes finding it easy - therefore carrying out research on such websites can be time consuming and frustrating. This is often because the information is not indexed as well as it is on a content aggregation website. There's also the problem of inconsistency in terms of archiving: "Different websites have different approaches to archiving, and an article found online today may not be available tomorrow."
The benefits of using a content aggregator
The paper sums up the benefits for the user of a content aggregator, by breaking down the argument for why content aggregation is something worth paying for. They create a 'Value Chain' which charts the advantages of using this kind of provider, as opposed to trying to conduct your research over separate websites, all with separate access policies.
1. Save time
2. Save money
3. Increase search accuracy
4. Access an extensive archive
5. Have a single point of access
The Panel were also asked if they believe that a paid-for content aggregator saves times, and 77% said they believed that this does save time in terms of carrying out searches, and the set of results they receive back. Interestingly, the question was also asked whether or not they go to a content aggregator to look for a particular source, even if it may be on the web - and apparently 50% replied yes to this. Lexis Nexis claim that this highlights the value of content aggregation in today's environment - even when so much is apparently available 'free'.
Speaking from my own point of view, I would definitely say that I think the fact that the search interface on a content aggregation website is so good, means that I feel more confident that the searches I am running are going to bring back all of the results that are relevant. A particular publication might well be searchable online, and it might even be possible to obtain the full text of an item in this way. If I know exactly the item I am looking for, then I might well just get it from the 'free' source - particularly because on some of our content aggregation websites, we try and charge back any searches - and in this cost-conscious climate, the fee-earners are always happy if I can avoid doing so! But if I am just searching for articles on a particular topic, for example, I wouldn't be happy about just relying on Google, or Google News. I might well use it as a back up - so I often run searches firstly on the paid-for databases, and then supplement this with the free searches - but never the other way round.
Obviously it always depends on how much time you have, how in-depth your fee-earner wants you to go, and if there is a means of charging back any searches that incur costs. But speaking very generally, I can see where the opinion given in the White Paper is coming from.
Downside to content aggregation: vanishing publications
The Paper also discusses what many people believe is a big disadvantage to services offered by Lexis Nexis, Sweet and Maxwell etc - and that is that sometimes, titles that were once available on there suddenly disappear. Some argue that this is a clear reason why in the age of free information, content aggregation is obviously becoming less important. However, this Paper claims that the main reason for titles suddenly disappearing is simply that they stop being published, or the provider changes publisher and licenses the content to another content aggregator. Sometimes a publisher will also decide to license their own content directly. The argument is simply that new titles become available just as often as others go away, and therefore it is not an indication of the decline of content aggregators.
The future of content aggregation
Lexis Nexis maintain that information professionals can further the case for content aggregators within their organisations. They state that senior management need to understand that 'generic information' does not have the 'added value' that aggregated intelligence can provide. For example, a company report prepared by an authoritative commercial company information and intelligence provider adds so much more than simply giving a fee-earner a set of annual returns on that company, for example. It's time saving as a lot of the work has been done already, so it saves time AND costs, as the information professional doesn't have to spend so long piecing together a lot of information from different sources.
I think there is some truth in this, but at the same time, in our law library, we are always wary of some company information providers, simply because it isn't always clear how authoritative the sources of their information are - sometimes the info doesn't come from the primary source, eg. an annual return - so while yes, there's no denying these flashy, all singing and dancing company information reports can be very useful indeed, you always want to be sure that the sources are authoritative. So my point is, sometimes a set of annual returns being pieced together might well be more time-consuming - but at least you know you have taken your info from a known source.
Anyway, Lexis Nexis end the Paper by outlining the key areas that content aggregators need to focus on going forward:
- Continue to ensure that searching and indexing capabilities develop and keep meeting end user needs
- Retain supply of content through forging strong alliances with publishers
- Address the challenges of incorporating social and online media - there's a lot of information available via these channels
- Invest in their products in order to differentiate themselves from low-cost and free services.
- Build products and solutions that are specifically tailored to particular job functions
There is little doubt that this is a hugely topical issue for law librarians. Content aggregation vs free information, in a very cost-conscious climate, is something that poses a ongoing dilemma for the law librarian who is trying to ensure that they provide their fee-earners with authoritative information - but at the same time keeping costs at a minimum. Lexis Nexis appear to realise that providers like themselves are facing many challenges in order to ensure that customers continue to be able to justify paying for their services in today's environment.
Image courtesy of Graur Cordin: http://www.freedigitalphotos.net/images/view_photog.php?photogid=982