Tuesday, December 21, 2010

Net Neutrality and Federated Searching

Net neutrality is a topic of frequent discussion in libraries, which makes sense given how many people use libraries as little more than an internet service provider. Unfettered and impartial access to the world wide web is an important part of library programming and activities, and many libraries and librarians have responded in kind, lobbying to keep the Internet neutral. However, the neutrality of federated search engines is often overlooked. Federated (or “Integrated,” according to at least one vendor) search engines “sit on top” of existing library resources, allowing patrons and staff to search multiple databases using one search. For many people that search may be their only experience with a library’s holdings in a search session. Federated search platforms are provided by vendors. Increasingly, the vendors that offer these services are the ones that also offer content, such as databases that contain articles and other documents. EBSCO’s Integrated Search (EHIS) and ProQuest’s relationship with Serials Solutions, developers of Summon, should have librarians and library administrators on edge because of the potential for conflicts of interest. Summon could funnel users to ProQuest’s content at the expense of content from other vendors. Summon has repeatedly stated that it is vendor neutral as libraries can purchase it without any ProQuest content. Will EHIS deliver neutral content, or content that favors EBSCO products?

When deciding on which federated search platform to use, net neutrality becomes part of the equation. A federated search that returns biased, non-neutral, results is one that may not deliver the information your patrons need. Disconcertingly, they may not realize that.

How do you test federated search engines for net neutrality? I am credentialed at an institution that uses EHIS. I searched for dozens of terms, and the results weren’t pleasant for EHIS. It’s a crude test, but EHIS failed it.

EHIS consistently promoted EBSCO resources, favoring Academic Search Premier, an interdisciplinary EBSCO databases, over product from other vendors that are more specialized. For example, a search for “anorexia” returned ASP results before PsychInfo* and allied health results.

Conversely, another library I have access to uses WebFeat by Serials Solutions as a federated search engine. Using the search terms from EHIS, WebFeat showed no favoritism.

In sum, be aware of the relationships among vendors, and between vendors and their products, when shopping for a federated search. If you have other ways to test the efficacy of federated search engines, drop me a line.

* This institution gets PsychInfo through ProQuest.

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