Information Services & Use, 15 (1) p.49-52, 1995.

The internationalization of the information industry

 Presented at the fall meeting of the
Association of Information and Dissemination Centers,
September 25-27, 1994,
Washington D.C., USA.



Chairman Emeritus,
Institute for Scientific Information®

The Scientist, Inc.®
3501 Market Street
Philadelphia, PA 19104 USA
Tel. 215-243-2205
Fax 215-387-1266

Home Page:

1. Introduction

I was rather surprised when Bruce Kiesel invited me to speak today. Perhaps because I have not been at an ASIDIC meeting for a long time. I would have reacted with equal surprise if the call had come from the IIA I have not attended its meetings for some time and I was one of the founders. IIA, NFAIS, and ASIDIC all have changed quite a bit. There was a time when the distinction between “for-profit” and “non-profit” organizations was of greater importance. Today, the information business is so pervasive, it seems strange to recall that the “information conscious society” was considered a futuristic theme when I organized the ASIS1 conference in Philadelphia, 24 years ago. But Derek de Solla Price, who forecast the future of science regularly, was the technical program chairman. Perhaps that accounts for the mistaken notion that I am qualified to discuss the future of the information industry. While Derek was essentially correct in predicting that science would level off by now, he did not foresee the Information Superhighway. Today, you can read in any newspaper yet another story about the future Information Superhighway.

The theme of this meeting seems to me a bit archaic. The scientific information business was international even before I entered it in 1951. Four years earlier, the Royal Society Information Conference was organized by J.D. Bernal. In 1958, the International Conference on Scientific Information was held here in Washington. So, 36 years later, what is new or different about internationalization?

The Institute for Scientific Information® was started in 1954 primarily as a consulting service for the American pharmaceutical industry. Within a few years, the international potential of ISI products became readily apparent. One of the earliest bulk orders for Current Contents® was from Japan. Takeda, Shionogi, and many other firms in Japan have remained important ISI® customers — 1500 of our total revenue. Two years ago ISI® was acquired by Thomson and I am here once again a consultant. As a Thomson company, ISI shares an office in Tokyo with our erstwhile competitor, Derwent. Its founder, Monty Hyams also recognized the international character of the patent information market. He used to fly from London to Tokyo and back in 48 hours. I do not know whether that was because he did not like Japanese food, or because his wife would not let him stay away longer. I also regularly visited Japan for several decades. But ISI’s foreign sales exceeded 50% over twenty years ago. That trend will increase when the rest of the undeveloped world becomes able to afford information products.

Most American industries today have international commitments and, as I implied earlier, the scientific research market has been international for over a century. I will never forget my first visit to India. I was stunned to learn that over 100 institutions were buying Chemical Abstracts®. These places had been receiving CA® for decades. I do not know how many customers CA still has in India but I imagine it is considerably reduced since those days. The establishment of centralized facilities in India and elsewhere has impacted the market for print products. Centralized operations, as at INSDOC are ultimately well suited for electronic delivery of information when their communications infrastructure is modernized.

Eventually, the end-user market in India and elsewhere will increase, provided that international copyright laws are enforced. Piracy is quite common today. In China, there is government sponsored piracy of books, journals, and databases on a wide scale. Our government is pressing China to enforce copyright, hopefully more forcefully than it did on human rights. The potential market in China is enormous and is made more accessible by electronic gateways. Nevertheless, a country with over a billion people and hundreds of universities will still need huge quantities of basic scientific tools.

You often hear librarians talk metaphorically about “reference tools”. It always amazed me that scientists were willing to pay $10,000 to $100,000 for a laboratory instrument or tool — even if it was only used sporadically. I remember telling Irv Sher and Art Elias at ISI®, that we should put the Science Citation Index® in a metal box and sell it as a searching instrument. If we could get the SCI classified as an instrument, rather than as a book or serial, we could overcome archaic purchasing policies which do not recognize that information tools, like centrifuges, microscopes, and computers, while used intermittently, need to be at one’s fingertips to be of real-time value.

2. Real-time access

The basic informational needs of researchers for awareness and retrieval is what drives them to use products like CC® or SCI®. Both are now available for real-time access. But the researcher is like a crossword puzzle enthusiast — a dictionary needs to be at your fingertips, it is almost useless if you have to wait minutes to access it or boot-up access software.

Similarly, my Bitnet link to the library catalog at Penn is not yet suitable for realtime access. There is an inherent delay in access. During the preparation of a manuscript, I may be willing to wait but generally I ask my assistant to wait while I go on with what I am doing. Real-time access to information is a key factor to the end-user market. And that is why, e.g., chemical information databases provided by ISI® and others are sold primarily to intermediaries at industrial firms who mount these files on local area networks for real-time access. This trend is now increasing at larger universities. In Europe that also leads to regional or national networks like JANET in the UK.

3. Third World

Any discussion of internationalization must take the Third World into account. While Rwanda may be a new word to most Americans, it has been a Current Contents® customer for many years. And there are over 100 similar small countries that obtain ISI® products for research or educational purposes. The funding may not be local — international agencies often provide the money. The need to improve education in the Third World is universally understood. In spite of setbacks like Rwanda, the G-7 nations will inevitably have to help these nations build an infrastructure that includes access to international information resources.

The potential impact of satellite communications combined with the Internet is significant. As NSF’s2 Steve Goldstein stated recently, for about $500,000 a satellite Internet station can be installed anywhere in the world. That figure includes the cost of all hardware including a computer server, LAN and 20 PCs. So, for $50-100 million dollars, perhaps funded by the World Bank, Unido, or WHO, almost all of the Third World countries could be linked together, via the Internet. Unesco is already investigating the preliminary steps needed to implement such programs in Africa. Initially, the emphasis would be to service research institutions involved in malaria and other health, environ mental or agricultural research with international implications. But hardware will not be enough.

In Thailand, the AIDS epidemic is spreading rapidly. Free access to Medline’s AIDS database will be meaningless, unless there is an adequate infrastructure inplace to provide relevant information. We still do not have the ability to deliver clinically useful information to practitioners in real-time. New research information needs to be rapidly reviewed and condensed for real-time use by doctors or other health practitioners. An AIDS Handbook, whether electronic or in print, ought to be up-dated every three months. And, similar compendia are needed for diseases like malaria, schistosomiasis, and tuberculosis. Sadly, research on these diseases is badly underfunded. A fraction of what we spend on cancer and AIDS research would reduce mortality from tropical diseases by a factor of one or two orders of magnitude.

4. Russia as a Third World nation

Before the Perestroika, we would never think to include the USSR in a list of Third World countries. But the reality is that most scientists in Russia today (formerly the USSR) are no better off than scientists in the Third World. The Soros Foundation has provided some interim aid. But the amounts of the grants are only a fraction of what is needed.

5. Conglomerates as new phenomenon

There is one facet of internationalization which was not yet evident twenty years ago. When the IIA and NFAIS were founded, there was a good deal of tension between the non-profit and for-profit sectors. Conglomerates as we know them today, did not exist. But many of the early commercial firms were already marketing internationally. Today, we not only have organizations like STN, and OCLC, but also conglomerates like Thomson, Reed-Elsevier, Springer Verlag, among others. We have witnessed the fusion of traditional book and journal publishers with electronic database firms. Undoubtedly, these mergers will continue. It would not be surprising to see Microsoft, IBM, AT&T, among others, enter the information game. Microsoft is already in the encyclopedia business. The borderline between software and hardware is also eroding.

Other speakers will have covered other facets of the future information business. While we hear a lot about multimedia on the Internet, do not forget that the traditional newspaper industry still has larger sales volumes than the TV industry. We can expect some rapid transformations there. While that has begun with on-line access for retrieval, we do not see truly electronic newspapers. The newspaper I publish, The Scientist® has been available on the Internet free of charge for two years. This is an experiment with NSFnet. But it will soon be available in a Mosaic version on the World Wide Web.

1 back to text American Society for Information Science.

2 back to text National Science Foundation (U.S.).