Internet Outlook with Richard Wiggins | 65 | WebReference

Internet Outlook with Richard Wiggins | 65

Vol. 1 No. 6 September 5, 1997 home / experts / internet

Enter Northern Light

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."

Sample Northern Light search

To my delight and astonishment, the list of results that came back was:

  • 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 approach).

For instance, under Northern Light, "digital cerfificate" yielded categories such as:

  • Secure electronic transactions (SET)
  • Internet
  • 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.

Northern Light Sample Citation / Abstract

The Custom Search Folders break content into categories across four dimensions:

  • Subject (e.g., hypertension, baseball, camping, expert systems, desserts)
  • Type (e.g., press releases, product reviews, maps, resumes, recipes)
  • 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 library.


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!

Comments are welcome

Produced by Richard Wiggins and

Created: September 5, 1997
Revised: September 10, 1997