Northern Light: The Future of Finding Journal Articles?
If you've read any banner ads recently, you've encountered
Northern Light. This Boston-based company appeared on the Net last
week. Their "Special Collection" offering intrigued me,
so I gave it a try. Since I've been studying digital copyright
protection recently, I entered the Special Collection search
and typed "digital certificate."
To my delight and astonishment, the list of results that came
- Recent: the articles all showed reasonably current date lines.
- Relevant: the articles were all on point, providing good
information about this important areas
- Reasonably high-quality: the sources were from trade journals
and news wires that carry moderate to high credibility.
The hit list was also very complete, with over 1000 articles listed.
Northern Light claims to have over 1 million articles
(not Web pages, articles) online already.
The hit list includes for each article a brief abstract. If an
article looks interesting, click on a hyperlink, and you see a
more detailed abstract, and citation information. If the article
still appeals, you can buy it for a fee of $1 to $4.
Turning Database Searches Upside Down
Even when searching a high-quality sources, if over 1000 items
are returned, you're probably going to want to refine your search
somehow. With an engine like AltaVista, that usually means adding
new search terms, perhaps using Boolean operators. But Northern Light
offers a new feature, which they label as "Patent Pending," called
Custom Search Folders. Based on what
you have searched for, the engine returns not only a list of
candidate articles, but also, along the left side of the screen,
a column of search categories to help you narrow the search.
(In fairness, AltaVista's Live Topics is an attempt to provide
similar narrowing functionality, albeit using a very different
For instance, under Northern Light, "digital cerfificate"
yielded categories such as:
- Secure electronic transactions (SET)
- Software industry
- Electronic commerce
- Digital signatures
- Network security & Encryption
I believe this aspect of Northern Light is inspired. They've
inverted the usual process: instead of expecting the customer to
pick a database, then do a search (and perhaps repeat the process
with a different database if the first foray fails), Northern Light
has the user do the search first. Then, if the hit list is
daunting, the user can narrow the search by picking Custom Search
Folders that break down the hit list into logical sub-categories.
The Custom Search Folders break content into categories across
- Subject (e.g., hypertension, baseball, camping, expert systems,
- Type (e.g., press releases, product reviews, maps,
- Source (e.g. commercial Web sites, personal pages,
magazines, encyclopedias, databases)
- Language (e.g., English, German, French, Spanish)
By letting the user do the search first using his or
her choice of keywords, and then asking the user to
pick a database or type of document, Northern Light solves
(at least in part) the database selection problem. I'm
much more likely to be able to navigate the list of Custom
Search Folders than an up-front list of databases I've never
heard of in the first place.
The Special Collection Isn't Ideal -- Yet
Northern Light claims that their "Special Collection" consists
of the full text of recent issues of over 1800 journals, news wires,
and the like. An inspection of the list of sources shows a large
number of trade publications, some of them quite specialized.
The Special Collection today may meet the needs of many
in the public, and perhaps many in industry, but it may
not satisfy academics.
I showed Northern Light to an engineering professor at my
university, and we did several sample searches. He felt the
articles he saw were good, but were not really of the caliber
he sought in his research reading. We looked at the list
of sources, and he didn't find the specialized scholarly
journals a researcher in his discipline would rely on.
This may be the case today, but things will change. The
publishers of high-quality scholarly journals have warily
embraced Web publication, but in many cases they've protected
their revenue streams by charging more for electronic journals
than their print counterparts. They're probably terrified
at a marketplace in which their articles might be sold "by the sip"
for no more than $4.
They should be terrified. Tools like Northern Light threaten
to raise the expectations of searchers, both in the general
public, and professionals alike. People will demand a single,
efficient search interface that crosses multiple articles.
They'll also demand much lower fees than publishers tend
to demand today. Publishers will have to share their
metadata with services like Northern Light, and they'll
probably have to adjust their per-article fees downward.
Search for Free, Pay for Quality Content: The Future of
Rock and Roll
Although users of the Internet are accustomed to
searching and reading content at no charge, I believe
many users will in fact fork over reasonable fees for
high-quality content. Whether you're working on a term paper,
or researching an illness someone in your family suffers, or
studying an aspect of electronic commerce that affects
your business -- no matter what kind of information you're
looking up online, you're better off with quality information.
For years now Internet advocates have called the Net "the
world's biggest library." In many ways this claim was a fraud.
The most humble public library held more high-quality information
in its stacks than the Net offered freely. Services like Northern
Light will enable the Internet to live up to the hype, by providing
high-quality content to the masses. The content may not be
free, but at $1 to $4 per article, the public may find it
cheaper than gassing up the car for a trip to the local branch
What do you make of all this? How do
you find the information you need for your coursework, or
your job, or solving personal problems? Are general search
engines becoming useless, or do they still serve you well?
I'd love to hear from you on this or any other
topic discussed in Internet Outlook. Drop me a line!