Commercial databases are simply collections of information presented electronically. Databases range in size from simple books made searchable, to several billion records in the larger news databases.
The retail database industry is obscure. Costs are highly variable and difficult to determine in advance. Products with the same name may contain different information. Databases are frequently combined into larger collections of databases, (also called databases,) often several times. An individual magazine or database may exist within several databases and several collections.
Within this confusion are the definitive, must-search databases. Definitive databases are determined by success in the market. Not necessarily the 'best', nor most useful but the market-successful become definitive resources over time. Such databases will be invaluable in your search for answers. More discussion on the database industry can be found in Section 9 of the FAQ.
There are a selection of alternatively funded commercial quality databases which are freely available over the internet.
ERIC, (Education Resources Information Center) is presented by the [US] National Library of Education. Established in 1966, ERIC is one of the cornerstone databases for the education field and provides citations & abstracts to education-related literature. Eric is a distributed database now. Coordinated through AccessEric, one of the prominent sites is AskEric out of Syracuse University.
Further descriptions can be found from AccessEric: an FAQ & website, or from SilverPlatter, EBSCO, Dialog or FirstSearch. Access is free on the net.
CRIS, (Current Research Information System) is produced by the US Dept of Agriculture (USDA) and includes Canadian, USDA, and Czech agriculture, food and forestry research. Projects sponsored by these or affiliated agencies are included. Further descriptions can be found from the USDA website. Access is free on the net.
Agricola is produced by the [US] National Agricultural Library and its cooperators. This is an important bibliographic database covering agriculture and all the related disciplines (including forestry & agri-business & alternative agriculture). Started in 1970, this has become an important database limited only by its bibliographic nature. Further descriptions can be found from OVID FieldGuide,
Dialog, SilverPlatter, FirstSearch and from the USDA website. Access is free on the net. (The USDA funds further related free databases too.)
Thomas, presented by the [US] Library of Congress, delivers US legislative information (including Congress, Representatives, Senate & the many committee reports). Further descriptions can be found from their website FAQ or website. Access is free on the net.
EDGAR, produced by the (US) Securities and Exchange Commission, delivers all public US company submissions as required by law. The information is factual and numerical - and includes both current and past submissions. Further descriptions can be found from their website here or here. Access is free on the net. EDGAR is also a basic ingredient to other commercial databases like EDGAR Plus on Dialog or Hoover's Company Profiles on EBSCO.
MOCAT, UKOP and AGIP are the US, UK and Australian government publication databases. These are free on the net. See Finding Books for more.
The Library of Congress, The British Library, and The National Library of Australia card catalogues can be searched online. See the Finding a Library article for this.
The United States Department of Energy (DOE) publishes The DOE Information Bridge, a database with full-text and bibliographic records of
DOE-sponsored research and development. Covers research projects in energy sciences and technology.
If you are eagerly investigating free bibliographic databases, then I strongly suggest you read Bases de données gratuites by Jean-Pierre Lardy. This directory has over 200 entries! Thanks to the Systran translation tool, click this to read this page in English.
(choose French to English)
Finding All Databases
Many databases are unavailable through the major database retailers. Such databases are typically tightly focused, often with a limited audience. If they are not found compiled into larger databases, then you will find them here.
Gales Directory of Databases is produced by Gale Research. Volume 1 (online databases) and Volume 2 (CD-rom, Diskette, Magnetic Tape, and other database formats) form the definitive listing of databases in the world. Further descriptions can be found from Dialog and Datastar. Most large libraries will have a copy - ask for it by name. New editions are released every 6 months.
Fulltext Sources Online, published by Information Today Inc, is a reverse directory for full text databases sold by about ten of the larger database retailers (with a US bias). Use this directory to find online sources for a particular periodical, newspaper, newsletter or TV/Radio transcript. For example, BBC Summary of World Broadcasts is available on Datastar, Dialog, FT Profile, Nexis & Westlaw. (Dewey: Q025.04 FUL)
The Directory of Australian and New Zealand Databases is a printed directory published by the Australian Database Development Association (ADDA). Similar associations and directories may exist in other countries.
You will access commercial databases through one of five basic sources.
1_ From a Commercial Database Retailer,
2_ From alternatively funded (free) internet sources (see above),
3_ Through a Library or other venue with a site license,
4_ With the help of an Information Professional (searching for you),
5_ Directly from the source with a personal subscription.
Let's discuss Commercial Database Retailers.
Consider the Commercial Database Retailer as the department store of the information market. The industry is dominated by a handful of dedicated retailers like The Dialog Corporation, Lexis-Nexis, and InfoMart. Other retailers focus on certain types of databases.
Retailers select the databases they carry, and enjoy mark-ups in the region of 300% to 400% from which they provide customer service, support and promotion. So very much service and promotion is provided that these retail giants hold a pivotal role in the distribution of commercial databases.
A list of database retailers follows.
The most important selection tool for databases is the database description. These are factual, accurate descriptions of what each database includes and how they can be searched.
Many of the database descriptions are online. To facilitate finding these, we have added links here and in other articles. Further descriptions may be available from retailer websites.
The Dialog Corporation
Dialog (www.dialog.com) merged with Datastar (specialized in European databases) a few years back to create the largest commercial retailer in the world. It has just been resold to a UK firm, M.A.I.D, to create The Dialog Corporation. Documentation and access, however, remains largely distinct.
Lexis-Nexis (www.lexis-nexis.com) has a focus and specialty on full text and legal research. Lexis does not present information about databases but instead supplies information on specific sources which appear in one of their databases.
EINS (www.eins.org) is a major European retailer. Formerly the European space agency: information retrieval service (ESAIRS). I have not completed my investigation but EINS appears to be much cheaper than others. Certainly have a look at the price list and compare for yourself. Also helpful, EINS has no start-up costs.
OCLC's FirstSearch (www.oclc.org/firstsearch/databases/) serves a collection of databases primarily to the library community. There are several price formats, from annual subscriptions to pre-paid searches from the web - starting at a cost of US$1/search... This itself differentiates FirstSearch from other database retailers but let me stress, it is biased towards library users.
WestLaw (www.westlaw.com) is dedicated to legal databases, and is a direct competitor to Lexis of Lexis-Nexis.
The WestLaw website.
FT Profile (www.ftep.ft.com) is the online information retail wing of Financial Times (UK).
FT Profile database descriptions appear to be absent but there is some advertising material available.
There are more database retailers. Find them through the Gale Directory of Databases Vol 1.
The Commercial Information Sphere is covered more in Section 33 of our Information Research FAQ.
Databases are complex structures based on the inverted index and on a range of search technologies including Boolean terms, truncation, complex limits, descriptors, filters, ranking and more. Certainly the technology is becoming easier to use (look at the Reuters Business Briefing for state of the art) but there is still much to learn. An experienced searcher will locate far better results than a novice will. However, an uninvolved searcher has a handicap, both in price and language. Sometimes it is wise to get help searching a database. Sometimes it is not.
The commercial database industry is shifting to use the internet as the preferred delivery vehicle. Considerable changes are coming too - not the least a tumble in the price of information.
Another change is a move towards full text databases. Some databases include only bibliographic information, many provide abstracts but only a small fraction include full text. This will frustrate you deeply as full text databases are so very very convenient.
Technical strategy is discussed elsewhere, in Sections 33.2 & 33.3 of our Information Research FAQ.
Researching databases is incredibly difficult and cumbersome. They challenge the mind, stretch far beyond the simple skills of searching the internet, and since every minute is expensive, there is much added pressure.
However, database research is a skill like any other. Practice with the databases of your local research university at an off-peak time (mornings are good) and using the CD-rom versions - learn on something free and not 2$ a minute.
A database is a collection of anything - meaning a database blissfully passes on the chaos for us to deal with rather than presenting a more logical/understandable front like the web (humour intended). This character has also blurred the contours of a database. Most small databases are merely digested versions of small books and directories, often made available to you at 50 cents a page. Of course, large databases are just hard to conceive, let alone describe. Word-searchable libraries? World knowledge snapshots? Commercial information marketing firms go further and group similar databases together into massive multi-database topic searches with phenomenal power.
A Myriad of Databases
A primary difficulty comes from the sheer number of databases in existence today. To get a feel for the size of this industry, stop by a large library and ask for the Gale Directory of Databases Volume 1: the partially definitive listing of global databases. The absolute number will astound you. This also explains why some of us are so excited about internet development. Just making the existing databases more easily available will transform our society. The Information age is just starting.
All research is guided by the resources at hand. Most amateur researchers suffer because they have very few resources at hand (or think they do). Research is also guided by the budget, the time and perhaps the skill. When selecting research databases, try to be aware of three further factors:
Research here is easiest on Australian, British and American resources. This may be unfortunate or of little consequence but does bear consideration. Many large databases are also large only because of their range of information. Which is better, searching 6000 magazines or 600 business magazines. Depends on the research topic.
There are many databases that can claim definitive coverage but there are many more which should be kept in reserve. Just like the internet, a researcher is not expected to look at everything relevant, just enough to get to the solution.
Global Textline was a database of phenomenal size, indexing text from over a hundred newspapers globally, reaching back many years. Australian Education Index (AEI) includes the contents of a small book of Education related theses abstracts. Each topic may only include 10 relevant theses over 5 years. Size is a thus linked to database value. Searching Global Textline would always turn up leads. AEI will not.
Selecting a Database
Despite the factual nature of information research, word of mouth appears to be tremendously important in choosing databases. Some guides do describe the quality of various databases, and make valuable suggestions but such guides also age rapidly as new products emerge. A rough understanding may emerge with practice. Our advice appears in other articles.