The Future of Online Reference

By: Sam Vaknin, Ph.D.

Also published by United Press International (UPI)

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November 9, 2003

These are momentous times in the digital content industry. Within the past 60 days, Barnes and Noble withdrew from the e-books business, peddling its electronic publishing house to iUniverse and terminating the sale of digital titles from its Web site. It then proceeded to take private its publicly listed online arm.

To the consternation of many authors, Amazon, its chief Internet competitor, introduced a "search inside the book" feature with an initial database of 120,000 titles. It was preceded by's less comprehensive but otherwise similar search engine.

Project Gutenberg - the pioneering and largest depository of free, mostly "plain-vanilla" (text only) e-books - added the 10,000-th title to its unsurpassed collection. In the meantime, e-book aggregators, such as, now proffer tens of thousands of free titles for download in up to 8 file formats. Even Microsoft has spent the last few months offering a free weekly selection of 3 commercial titles each, exclusively readable on its MS-Reader application.

Buffeted by these winds of e-commerce, vendors of online reference - textbooks, dictionaries, and encyclopedias - are eyeing the market warily and wearily.

Patrick Spain is Chairman and CEO of Alacritude, publisher of eLibrary and eLibrary is a digital archive of more than 13 million documents culled from over 2000 publications. It includes newswires, newspapers, magazines, journals, transcripts, photographs, maps and books - major works of literature, art, and reference.

Troy Williams founded Questia in 1998 and has served as its President & CEO ever since. Questia is a massive online library of over 400,000 books, journals, and articles organized into more than 4000 research topics. It caters mainly to students and offers cool features such as online annotation, page printing for free, and bibliography generator.

Tom Panelas is the Director of Corporate Communications of the Encyclopaedia Britannica - the Rolls Royce of reference works. It has been available online for a few years now - the 32 volumes, an interactive atlas, a student's version, a links directory, and a topical compilation of thousands of magazine articles and multimedia. The Britannica has alternated between revenue models: subscriptions only, then free access with advertising, and back to subscriptions.

First I asked these pivotal industry players how they saw the future of paid access to online reference works, textbooks, and scholarly material?
Spain: Online reference is being consumerized or "Wal-Marted."  That which used to be delivered to a limited audience of thousands (librarians and large companies) is now available to a huge audience in the tens, maybe hundreds, of millions. This affects prices, business models, and the very structure of the industry.  Many generic reference materials (encyclopedias, dictionaries, thesauri, etc.) are available for free and will remain so for the indefinite future. They serve either to market print and other electronic products or they generate advertising. Good models do both. Some very specialized titles with limited audiences may continue to be able to charge. But most cannot. This means that people won't pay or won't pay much for "content" - but they will pay small amounts for services that help them find, organize and publish answers to their questions especially when those relate to wealth (finance and career), health, and certain types of entertainment.

Panelas:  We've seen in the past three years a reaction to the meme of the middle- and late-1990s, that all information on the Internet has to be free and that people won't pay for it. For a few years it held somewhat true, but as the Internet population became more experienced, their interests and preferences inevitably changed. 

People who were using free information on the Web eventually became fed up. Many of the sites they used disappeared because they had no self-sustaining economic model. Much of the information online was worthless. It became difficult to tell whether information on the Web was reliable.

As a result we've seen a growing realization among Internet users that not all types of information are equal, that authoritative information is valuable, somewhat rare, costs money to create, and for these reasons it's worth paying for. Many more people are willing to pay for high-quality information on the Internet than four years ago, especially since the price of online reference is at a nadir. We see online as the area that will grow the fastest, as far as the vending of reference goes. Many people will subscribe through third-party organizations such as Internet service providers with whom we have established relationships.  Subscribers to SBC Yahoo! DSL service, for example, can choose a subscription to along with their service.  In the future, publishers will probably provide one kind of service to such third-party distributors and create others, with better, premium offerings, for customers who pay them directly, since there's more revenue in such subscriptions.

Increasingly, information Web sites will "aggregate" content - that is, incorporate sources that go well together but could not be integrated before the Internet., for example, includes three encyclopedias, magazines and journals, a guide to the best Web sites on various subjects, and other information. Thus sources that were previously spread throughout the library stacks, requiring the wearing out of much shoe leather to bring them together, now come to rest in one place, on the screen of your computer. This trend will no doubt continue.

Williams: Online reference resources, i.e., eLibraries, will become an indispensable part of education over the next 20 years.  There are a number of discernible trends: first, electronic access will be the primary method of accessing scholarly information within a decade or two. It removes the need to be near a physical copy of the title one needs to access, it resolves multiple-user issues, and greatly increases the ability of a researcher to find what he or she is looking for. 

Second, online access to scholarly information is an integral part of the trend towards online and distance education. The undergraduate population is diversifying and now includes students enrolled in distance learning programs, rural students without physical access to an adequate library, and older, community college students who work or have family obligations that prevent them from spending time in their campus library.

Third, the Internet has engendered a powerful trend toward personalization. Elibraries such as Questia enables its users to personalize their library. Notes and highlights in various colors in each book and article can be saved for future reference. Documents, “virtual bookshelves” and even previous term papers and bibliographies can be saved online and organized in various folders. 

Fourth, people increasingly expect complete mobility. ELibraries such as Questia enables researchers to access their personalized copies of books and journals as well as old term papers and current work-in-progress from anywhere.

Q: Who are Alacritude's main competitors?

Spain: Alacritude competes with Google on the low end and Nexis on the high end. Google is in the throes of creating a marketplace and, only incidentally, allows its users to find knowledge. Nexis provides very specialized (and expensive) information services to enterprises. Alacritude's eLibrary helps our users to locate pretty good answers inexpensively. We are different in that we are evolving our service to tightly integrate tools and content and to let our customers search anywhere, even other services, from a single easy-to-use online research interface.   

Q. Questia competes with the likes of NetLibrary and Alacritude's eLibrary. What differentiates it from its competitors? 

Williams: Questia's and netLibrary's collections are very different.  The Questia collection was developed specifically for undergraduate research in the humanities and social sciences. A staff of academic librarians determined which books are most important and useful for undergraduate coursework in these fields. Digital copyrights were negotiated with the publishers or author of the titles. Many publishers feared e-books and digital copies of their titles would cannibalize their hard copy print sales. Making them understand the benefits of placing their titles in the Questia online library was an education process. 


Having obtained the digital copyrights we digitized the books since most of the content was unavailable in electronic format.  The resultant book collection contains the complete text and original pagination of more than 45,000 books from the 19th through the 21st centuries. Our goal is to build a collection that includes important works from all time periods and provides our users with a full range of resources just as any quality library does. We want to build a true research collection, not just a compilation of recent publications. The entire Questia collection has more than 400,000 titles – including 360,000 journal, magazine, and newspaper articles.


In contrast, the 37,000-title netLibrary collection was developed by incorporating books that were already available in electronic formats. As a result, it lacks many important retrospective titles. Additionally, netLibrary was developed with the view of selling individual titles. Consequently, although it has titles in a broader range of subjects than Questia, it was not developed as a “collection.” Questia specifically excludes titles in the natural sciences, technical and medical fields. We have a strong focus on “collection development” so that we can support rigorous academic research in thousands of social science and humanities specific topic areas.


A second important point of difference is the business model. Questia's is direct to the consumer. Individuals purchase subscriptions. We do not sell institutional site licenses to colleges or universities. NetLibrary sells to institutions. Public, private, and academic libraries, or consortia thereof, buy specific titles that it vends, similar to the way they purchase print copies. 


Third, with Questia, there is no limit on the number of simultaneous users for any given book or article. No book is ever checked out or unavailable to a subscriber. With NetLibrary, the number of users is restricted to the number of electronic copies of a book purchased by a library. 


The advantage of netLibrary is that it significantly reduces the costs of owning and maintaining books, i.e. the overhead associated with shelf-space such as lighting, the costs of checking books in and out manually, reshelving them, rebinding them, lost and misplaced copies, etc.  


Lastly, the research environment is very different. Questia provides a set of tools that enable a user to do better research and organize their work - to highlight, jot down notes or bookmark a page, look up items in a dictionary, encyclopedia, and thesaurus, and create properly formatted citations and bibliographies in MLA, APA, ASA, Chicago, and Turabian styles.  All these can be filed in a user’s customizable personal workspace, which is akin to an online filing cabinet. Users can create multiple project folders to organize their research, “shelve” frequently accessed books or articles, and refer back to their bookshelf at any time.


NetLibrary offers four dictionaries as a reference tool but does not provide the type of customizable personal research environment that Questia does.


Alacritude’s eLibrary is a subscription-based reference tool with newspapers, magazines, books, and transcripts. Their collection is not a research library but rather a compilation of recently published content on a variety of subjects. eLibrary can be used as an informational supplement. It seems to me to be more focused at the junior high school level or as an inexpensive alternative to Lexis.

Q: The Britannica has three types of products - print, online and digital-offline (CD-ROM/DVD). Do they augment each other - or cannibalize each other's sales?

Panelas: In the past decade we've seen huge increases in sales of all electronic formats at the expense of print, which has declined. The proportions have stabilized, however, and most people are choosing their medium based on the way they like to look for information. Prices of electronic encyclopedias are lower than print, but the value proposition of print is different, and people who continue to buy print do so because they like it. Meanwhile the declining price of reference information in general has put reference works in many more homes than before. So today rather than cannibalization, there's an expansion of the overall market, with more people buying reference products than ever before and people choosing the form they prefer. 

Q: The web offers a plethora of highly authoritative information authored and released by the leading names in every field of human knowledge and endeavor. Some say that the Internet, is, in effect, an Encyclopaedia - far more detailed, far more authoritative, and far more comprehensive that any Encyclopaedia can ever hope to be. The web is also fully accessible and fully searchable. What it lacks in organization it compensates in breadth and depth and recently emergent subject portals (directories such as Google, Yahoo! or The Open Directory) have become the indices of the Internet. The aforementioned anti-competition barriers to entry are gone: web publishing is cheap and immediate. Technologies such as web communities, chat, and e-mail enable massive collaborative efforts. And, most important, the bulk of the Internet is free. Users pay only the communication costs. The long-heralded transition from free content to fee-based information may revive the fortunes of online reference vendors. But as long as the Internet - with its 2,000,000,000 visible pages (and 5 times as many pages in its databases) - is free, encyclopedias have little by way of a competitive advantage. Could you please comment on these statements?

Spain: I agree. Still, Open Directories and free powerful search engines (which, let's remember, make their money by trying to sell you goods and services relating to the keywords used in your search) only constitute 5% (or less) of what amounts to "research." First you have to find it; we have made good progress here. Then you have to organize it; there are few good tools for this. Finally you have to publish it, likely using one of Microsoft's applications. This entire process from search results to answers delivered in publishable form remains painful and time consuming. The opportunity lies in making research as easy as search. It seems simple, but it's very hard.

Williams: The real issue here is previously published material. There is certainly a lot of information on the Internet and that is a wonderful thing.  However, there is virtually no place an individual who is not part of a major college or university can go online and find the full-text of books, including contemporary and recent ones. To say that the information that is available online is equivalent to the information stored in the Library of Congress is absurd. I’m not talking only about the range of information but also about the value of the editorial process. There is clearly a huge difference between someone posting something on a website and someone rigorously researching a book for five or ten years and then submitting it to peer review and the careful attention of editors. Virtually none of the fruits of this serious research and editorial process is available on the Web. The material on the Net suffers from a chronic issue of questionable credibility and is ephemeral. The material published by leading publishers is reliable and has lasting importance.

Panelas: It simply isn't true that the Internet is an encyclopedia. It's an aggregation of information by anyone who wants to put it up there. An encyclopedia is the product of a unified idea, a single editorial intelligence. The people who create it are skilled in their craft. It seeks to cover all areas of human knowledge and to do so in a way that both gives each area its due proportion and integrates it all so the various parts work well together. It reflects many choices that are made consciously and in a consistent way, and since it represents a summary of human knowledge rather than its sum total, the choices editors make about what to leave out are as important as the ones about what to put in. 

True, there are people who are hostile to this idea, and, again, we saw some of this in the '90s enthusiasm for the Internet and the related belief that it would literally transform every aspect of life overnight. A sophisticated world such as ours, which relies on knowledge and information to function, can tolerate only so much bad information before problems arise, and we saw some of that in the early years of the Web, which is why more people today see the virtues of an encyclopedia than did a few years ago.

The collaborative possibilities of the Internet are very interesting, and we'll see in due time what their implications are for publishing. Some people are predicting that everything will be utterly transformed, but that usually doesn't happen.

Q: What are eLibrary's future plans regarding online reference?

Spain: Alacritude, through its, Researchville and eLibrary services is already addressing head on the need to create an easy to use and cost effective research service for individuals. 

Q: What are the Britannica's future plans regarding online reference?

Panelas: We plan to keep improving what we offer, with new sources of information, more "non-text media," better search and navigation, and ease of use. 

Q. What are Questia's future plans regarding online reference?

Williams: We are not focused on the traditional reference area. Reference books tend to be far more costly to acquire rights to. In addition, they are far more difficult to get into a web-ready format. As a result, we do not feel that the benefits warrant focusing on this area today. Our strategy is simple. We want to build a massive online library of carefully selected high-quality, full-text books.   

Q. There are rumors about Questia's (lack of) financial muscle. Its future is said to be in doubt. Is there truth to it?  

Questia is in the best financial position that it has ever been in. We are cash flow positive. We more than tripled revenue last year and we will nearly do so again this year. Today we have subscribers in 170 countries. In the US, we have individual subscribers on over 2,000 college and university campuses. And those are just the ones we know of. Most of our users don’t give us that information. Our customer satisfaction levels are extremely high as you can see from the feedback on our site.  We see the result of that high satisfaction in that once someone subscribes, typically they stay subscribed for quite a while. Any recent rumors about Questia are probably the echoes of older stories from a few years ago and would not be accurate. 

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The Future of Electronic Publishing

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Revolt of the Scholars

The Idea of Reference

Will Content Ever be Profitable?

The Disintermediation of Content

The Internet and the Library

The Future of the Book

Free Online Scholarship - Interview with Peter Suber

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