By Gary Price & Henrietta Thornton-Verma
ProQuest’s Udini, which underwent a quiet launch at the beginning of this year, is now being trumpeted more widely by the database giant. Udini‚ the name refers to a certain escape artist as well as you,” according to Rich LaFauci, Udini’s product manager‚ is a database of articles that is sold to individuals rather than to libraries. The target market, according to the company’s press release, is knowledge workers without access to libraries, and that includes, per the company, freelancers, workers in organizations that lack libraries, and unaffiliated authors.
“The challenge for all of us who serve information seekers is to look at the world through their eyes. Not every one of the world’s researchers has access to a research library. It doesn’t mean that libraries failed at their mission or their marketing and proposing that idea strikes us as not only illogical, but insulting to libraries.”
Holdings and pricing
The cloud-based service, powered by ProQuest’s Summon discovery service, allows subscribers to search 150 million (and growing) trade and popular magazine, newspaper, newswire, and journal articles from more than 12,000 sources. Significantly, the Udini website claims that the product also offers the world’s largest collection of PhDs and theses, totaling over 2.6 million.
Articles may be bought individually, with standard articles ranging from 99¬¢ to $3.99, and specialty items starting at $4.99. Subscriptions are also available, at $30 for a 14-day project pass, or at $30 per month with a two-month minimum commitment. The company’s pricing plan doesn’t state the upper limit for specialty resources, but browsing the offerings reveals that some recent aerospace dissertations cost $37 each for unlimited access, which includes the ability to download and print the material. Trial access for dissertations only‚ read full document, no print or download, expires after 72 hours”‚ is available for $4.99. If a user buys full access to a dissertation after paying for trial access, the trial cost is credited to the full cost. Unfortunately, there are no listings showing which titles are available through basic payments and which are premium, though LaFauci explains that 96 percent of the material in the database is accessible under the basic plan.
The articles portion of Udini competes with similar services such as Gale’s HighBeam Research, which costs $29.95 per month or $199.95 per year, and findarticles.com, which is a CBS Interactive product whose articles come from Gale. Another competitor is docstoc.com, where some articles sold for $3.99 in Udini cost $6.95 or $6.99. Udini also includes what ProQuest refers to as a personal library, where, as well as storing articles they’ve bought through the service, users can drag and drop PDFs from their desktop and save web pages from any site. These features compete with such web services as Evernote, Mendeley, Pocket (formerly Read It Later), and Zotero, which have free and premium versions.
Issues for libraries
While Udini is unavailable to libraries, it raises many issues for them, especially with regard to why users would choose this product over using their public library’s databases or free web access. Why, for example, would a prospective user pay $3.99 for Obama and Romney Spar Over Death of Bin Laden, an article that appeared in the May 1, 2012, issue of the New York Times? It is available at public libraries through databases produced by ProQuest and other aggregators, as well as free through Twitter and Facebook and other means, including the Times‘s own website. Google, is, of course, another source for finding free access to many of these resources, and it’s just one tool for creating alerts on subjects of interest, a convenience that isn’t available on Udini.
ProQuest correctly notes that its dissertation offerings are not available through most public libraries and stresses that the other materials offered through Udini are outside the realm of the core functions of the public library, such as providing material on genealogy and personal health, so the company doesn’t see the product competing with its main customer base‚ libraries. LaFauci also explains that while material such as dissertations can be bought outside of Udini, the service offers the “ease of discovering dissertations in a broader context.”
The service raises the problem, however, that those who buy it are paying twice for the same information‚ once using their tax dollars and again when they pay for their subscription. It also creates the situation that subscribers are buying the same big deal that libraries loath; Udini subscribers pay for many titles they don’t want and will never use, and there’s no option to buy subsets of the material, though users can buy individual articles. A greater danger, however, is that library boards and other funders will see the availability of Udini as an opportunity to defund library database subscriptions, and this would further lessen access for library patrons who cannot afford private research tools.
There are many cases in which the service provides a citation but lacks the full text of the material (according to LaFauci, this is because of limitations imposed by the verdict of the Tasini vs. New York Times case); there is little offered from before the 1980s, and much of it is citation only, but there is no alternative mentioned (though the company is considering offering access to its ProQuest Historical Newspapers database). In fact, there is no mention of libraries or librarians on Udini’s site, and the service bills itself as “the world’s article store for entrepreneurs, consultants, educators and everyone else who needs quality research, a slogan that positions it as an alternative to public and academic libraries. However, LaFauci points out that Udini’s “Support” link allows researchers to ask questions that will be answered in “near real-time” by staff who will point users to public library materials and other sources. At the support page, users may also mine previous queries, but a search for “African American Newspapers,” for example, returned a previous query titled “Shakespeare his work and life.”
Ease of use‚ including the time it takes to search, access, and read‚ is a selling point of Udini. Rather than sophisticated search possibilities, ProQuest’s market research, says LaFauci, reveals a user preference for a Google-like interface. However, the resource does not provide nearly the convenience it should when it comes to conducting a general or overview search about an unknown topic. Udini offers little search assistance, and the default search is a Boolean “or” (a bug that the company plans to fix).
This means that, for now, a publication search for the New York Times returns titles containing the words new, york, or times. The several pages of hits unearthed include the Australian & New Zealand Grapegrower and Winemaker and the Baluchistan Times, and users must page through them to find the requested title. There’s no way to jump to the results beginning with N, and attempting to find an exact match by using quotation marks around New York Times results in an error message. A related problem is that many trade magazines are listed as scholarly journals.
Though Udini is powered by Summon’s powerful metadata, that data is not visible to users as it is when using Summon. Descriptors, for example, are not linked to related material as they might be in a library-accessible ProQuest database, and few refinements are available once a general search is complete to help a user focus a query. Successful use of many library databases, of course, also has a learning curve, but help and even classes are available for prospective users.
Empowering users with skills to search on their own is what information professionals should be doing, be it in a group setting, one-on-one, or even casually with friends and family. Saving researchers time and showing them the best tool for their work shines a positive light on librarians’ professional skills and the library as a whole, not to mention creating invaluable word-of-mouth marketing.
The bottom line is that much of this material is available free through public libraries. The existence of a market for Udini may further expose libraries’ failure to market their database resources adequately (attend LJ‘s upcoming webcast on this subject), not to mention to let the public know that many articles are available free on the web at the library or at home. Libraries have a precedent for creating demand in this way: many are actively and successfully promoting their ebook holdings to consumers who were not previously patrons. One solution is co-op advertising, in which vendors help to market their own materials. It also seems possible that, since ProQuest is marketing Udini to the public, it could also better market its library databases out there, at least on behalf of consortia if not on behalf of individual libraries.
However it happens, librarians’ task now is to show the public what databases are capable of and how they apply to their current and future research needs. End users don’t care where the answer comes from; they just want an answer. Shouldn’t libraries and librarians be the ones to provide it?