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Issues in Science and Technology Librarianship
Spring 2010
DOI: 10.5062/F4ZP4419


Are A & I Services in a Death Spiral?

Valerie Tucci
Physical Sciences/Engineering Librarian
College of New Jersey
Ewing, New Jersey

Copyright 2010, Valerie Tucci. Used with permission.

Traditional fee-based abstracting and indexing (A&I) services in the physical sciences and engineering are in a "death spiral." Will the death spiral be a thing of beauty like the compulsory movement in pairs figure skating? This is a movement with great beauty and created by individuals working together, communicating and trusting each other. Or will it instead mimic the decline of newspapers? Can fee-based abstracting and indexing services work together with the free services such as Google Scholar to produce a product that is even more useful? Or will the fee-based services slowly fade away? What are the current factors affecting the future of traditional abstracting and indexing services?

Corporate libraries are closing and academic library budgets are being cut. Unfortunately, the fee-based A&I services (e.g., Inspec, Compendex) are now in the spotlight and, in many cases, on the chopping block. These services were once considered sacred and essential, and the birth of online searching only strengthened their position. However, in the last 40 years a new paradigm has evolved. The quest for a quick answer and instant gratification often circumvents the use of traditional fee-based A&I services that take some knowledge and training to use successfully. Instead, one might use a database such as Google Scholar, developed by hidden computer algorithms against an unknown universe of information on the Internet. This database is free and available to all. Its selection criteria are unknown, its coverage is uneven, and its formatting is very non-traditional.

Perceptions are changing. Traditional A&I services are considered "finding" tools, providing citations and abstracts. They are expensive, and available primarily through the library. They require specialized skills, their complex interfaces are an obstacle, and many users find their myriad interfaces to be unfriendly, confusing, and unforgiving. Database structure is hierarchical and many do not want to take the time to understand the hierarchy, let alone use it to find information. Keyword searching is now king; rarely are all the advanced searching capabilities of the A&I services being used. Many of the traditional A&I services (e.g., SciFinder Web, PubMed) now provide a "Google-like" phrase search interface to compensate and still provide the advantages of the hierarchy. Will this trend continue until the traditional services transform themselves into Google look-alikes or be replaced by other search capabilities using artificial intelligence? One author (Murray-Rust 2008), believes that traditional services will be replaced. Murray-Rust states that "closed publications, binary software and toll-access databases are being swept away by the emerging philosophies and technologies." Murray-Rust also states that "many young scientists do not read or use closed systems, and are increasingly frustrated by out-of-date approaches."

Another factor affecting the future of traditional A&I services is that today the information goal is defined as digital full text. Traditional A&I services primarily deliver only metadata, and often require additional steps to access the original source, and there are often time delays before the source can be obtained. The user's selection of a particular article often depends on whether full text is available and not on its actual relevance. Publisher repositories of full text, such as IEEE Xplore, have created their own universe of users, often to the exclusion of these users publishing in non-IEEE publications. It is interesting to note that the lack of full text for everything is considered a deficit for traditional abstracting and indexing services while the provision of any full text by Google Scholar is considered a plus. Full text is so important to the user that there are now published reports on quantifying how well Google Scholar does in providing full text. For example, Baldwin (2009) reported that Google Scholar is working to meet the demand for full text of articles by supplying full-text of 25% of chemical engineering articles and 13% of mechanical engineering citations in the universe of publications she was examining. In addition, many academic libraries link Google Scholar citations to the full text of their journal holdings, thus increasing full-text retrieval even more and making Google Scholar more appealing.

Then there is the matter of coverage. Published studies report that Google Scholar's coverage is quickly catching up to the coverage of the traditional A&I services. For example, Meier and Conkling (2008) found a near 90% overlap of Compendex with Google Scholar. In another article (Clark and Kraus 2007) a 65% overlap between Google Scholar and Chemical Abstracts was found.

Yet another factor that also has to be considered is that of open access and its influence as the future of A&I services. A. Ben Wagner (2009) tags open access as a wildcard in this game of A&I survival and examines many of the ramifications of the movement.

Given all the changes what will the future bring for these services and how will it affect libraries, librarians, and users? I believe that the A&I services will follow the downward spiral of newspapers. However, some services will enlist the synergy of the death spiral in figure skating. With trust and communication the strengths of free and fee-based services will be combined. A partnership will develop in which fee-based services will adopt more of the artificial intelligence underlying free services while retaining the special features that make these services so valuable. For example, I predict various versions of the databases depending on the needs of the user with different interfaces (e.g., SciFinder and STN CAplus) and different cost structures. What I do not see is a growing demand for the fee-based products. I believe revenue will decline and publishers will have to find ways to replace this revenue. This said, I have to caution that an entirely new paradigm may evolve (e.g., Google Scholar charging for searching), or a disruptive technology will be developed which trumps all current search technologies.

For librarians the future will involve establishing a learning commons where literacy skills are taught and shared but where the universe of knowledge searched is undefined and always growing with new data. Librarians will learn to accept change and new technologies and work with variant sources of information and its retrieval. Libraries will continue to be centers of life-long learning but no longer have warehousing of knowledge as a main goal because the realization will grow that there are other pathways to gathering knowledge. Libraries will instead continue to provide the new technologies that will be necessary to acquire knowledge in new and different forms and provide librarians the tools to guide users down the new pathways.


Baldwin, Virginia A. 2009. Using Google Scholar to search for online availability of a cited article in engineering disciplines. Issues in Science and Technology Librarianship [Internet]. [Cited May 18, 2010]; 56. Available from:

Clark, M.L. and Kraus, J. 2007. Finding chemistry information using Google Scholar: a comparison with Chemical Abstracts Service. Science and Technology Libraries 27(4): 3-16.

Meier, J. J. and Conkling, T. W. 2008. Google Scholar's coverage of the engineering literature: an empirical study. Journal of Academic Librarianship 34(3): 196-201.

Murray-Rust, P. 2008. Chemistry for everyone. Nature 451:648.

Wagner, A. Ben. 2009. A&I, full text, and open access: prophecy from the trenches. Learned Publishing 22(1): 73-74.

DISCLAIMER: The opinions expressed in this column are those of the author and do not necessarily represent those of ISTL, the Science and Technology Section, or the American Library Association.

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