Keeping an Eye on The Big Three: EBSCO, ProQuest and Gale

By Norman Buchwald, Chabot College

Introducing the Matrix Behind the Products We Provide for Our Students’ Research

Having served on the EAR Committee the last decade as a regional representative and this decade in a leadership position, I have probably proven to be a “nerd” when it comes to paying attention to content and interface.  And look where it has taken me.  I have now put together a matrix to point out some aspects of the character, history, and content of the Big Three vendors: EBSCO, ProQuest and Gale.  This matrix will hopefully improve our understanding of these vendors and the importance of their relationship with California Community College libraries and our CCLC consortium.  By having a matrix we can all consult and refer to as it evolves, I am hoping we can make better decisions on products to acquire. As it is 2020 and we have passed the two decade milestone of library web databases, this matrix will also mark that milestone as well.  Most of us across the state usually have products from multiple vendors and for good reason.  We tend to have a mixture of products as each has its own strengths and weaknesses. For example, an institution may choose to have EBSCO’s Communication and Mass Media Complete, Gale’s Opposing Viewpoints In Context and Proquest’s Ethnic NewsWatch, each for its unique or rich features.

The Matrix

These three big vendors also each have a large aggregator multi-subject periodical database for community college libraries such as Academic Search Complete (or Ultimate), Academic OneFILE and ProQuest Central.  A major university with a large budget might have all three of these while for a community college this would be too costly, especially with major overlaps, if not of titles, most certainly of subject areas that are necessary for a course.  Then there are specific subject databases, reference databases, career resources, archives, and other tools that all three vendors provide. Once again, each has its strengths in certain products and if a community college library had the “fantasy budget” it would get them all.

A Brief History and Understanding of our Three “Giants”

It is important to understand the history and foundation of “the big three” database vendors.  Knowing who these vendors were before there were web databases can give insight into how they emerged and developed into the web market and provide understanding for why they are mainly “known” for certain areas (such as Gale for reference) and may even give insight for why vendors had  exclusive arrangements with publishers based on previous relationships.  If we note that historically EBSCO was a periodicals/serials service, Gale was a leader in print reference, and ProQuest (then UMI) was dominant in newspaper and dissertation microfilms, then we can better understand why EBSCO has exclusive arrangements with publishers (including magazine publishers), ProQuest with newspaper publishers, and Gale provides their own materials in reference subject databases (e.g. Resource Centers/In Contexts) with some periodicals attached.

There also needs to be an understanding of each vendor’s acquisitions through the years. By acquiring HW Wilson and CINAHL, EBSCO achieved exclusive ownership of key subject indexes, ProQuest acquired Softline that had the full-text databases of small press newspapers and magazines (thus the “Watches”) and later when the US Census Bureau cut funding and indicated that they’d no longer continue the Statistical Abstracts of the United States, ProQuest took over that title.  Gale acquired Infotrac and RDS to get into the periodicals databases business to add to their renowned reference materials,  and then later on got themselves acquired by major textbook publisher, Cengage.  Regarding ebooks, EBSCO and ProQuest both acquired ebook databases to add to their docket of periodicals databases (where Gale already had on its own Gale Virtual Reference Library as a platform).  Knowing vendor histories can help us understand the content they have today, why they are better known in certain fields and why, at least historically, they have products that librarians think of first for students’ research needs.

It’s The Quality, Not The Quantity that Matters

One effort I made with the matrix, was to focus not on numbers (i.e. how many per subject, how many peer-reviewed and current, etc.) but on the most prominent journals for particular disciplines.  And I have to tell you something: If you are hoping these titles are in your selected aggregated database, you may want to do a publication search. Even if the title is listed, the coverage may not be current, like even from this decade.

Back around 1999, aggregated databases became very important especially for community college libraries when the inflation rate for journals skyrocketed.  It became difficult to have that key discipline title that faculty expected their students to read, but when these or comparable titles became available in the aggregated database, community college libraries could focus on these resources.  By 2020, though, a great majority of these titles have disappeared from the multi-subject aggregated databases, with some being archived in a JSTOR collection.  I found these titles are often available only through associations (such as the American Psychological Association), some universities, or through four main publishers who only provide that title from their own platform: Elsevier, Sage, Taylor & Francis, and Wiley/Blackwell.

Community college libraries may want to explore what can be licensed directly from a publisher, especially since aggregators, in spite of their supposed “growing numbers” are losing important titles that are mainstays for certain disciplines.  This may be easier said than done, but sometimes numbers of “padding,” “fluff,” public domain, titles that have had not had issues for over ten years, or even resources from questionable publishers (i.e. Nova Science) may not be as important as having resources from a renowned publisher.  In the meantime, to get an idea what  key titles are still there for now, take a look at the Exclusive Journals list for each vendor to get an idea.  It is perhaps better to see EBSCO and ProQuest having a sample (sometimes a decent sample) of titles exclusively with a publisher, but as each year goes by, these same publishers often stop coverage for new issues in the product, preferring libraries to subscribe directly with them.

We Do Not Shut Our Eyes After, We Open Them All the More and Will Return

So it is my hope that others will join me in the future to write regular columns related to “Keeping an Eye on the Big Three.” I have written three

Keeping an Eye on the
Big Three
articles on Gale, most notably the “suppressed text” issue of ebooks they have for sale on their Gale Ebooks (formerly known as Gale Virtual Reference Library) platform. ) Former EAR Committee member Jeff Karlsen wrote an excellent article last December on what’s happening with the EBSCO statewide package to see if quality has been affected during a ten months period of add/drops in 2018. But as time goes by, I am also providing a matrix of the “big three” so one can easily compare one product to another. That matrix is here: It is not static. It will be a continual evolving resource (though obviously not at the same frequency as vendor lists change).

Please feel free to provide suggestions or corrections to me, Norman Buchwald or via your EAR Committee representative. If you have any ideas for suggested articles or updates you think we should write pertaining to EBSCO, Gale and Proquest for the future, please contact your representative or the current EAR Chair Steve Hunt, or to CCLC Consortium Director, James Wiser.