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More Journals to your desktop, courtesy of the British Library, Adobe and Elsevier

[updated] Article search and delivery services aren't exactly new, but one of the biggest and most respected, inside from The British Library, is to provide easy, direct-to-desktop access to its treasure trove of research. The catch? Substantial cost and use restrictions designed to keep the publishers on board.

The new eBook service is an extension to the British Library's 'inside' service: a database that currently tracks about 20.000 journal titles that can be searched down to article level as well as 100.000 conference proceedings. The whole thing goes back to 1993 and holds about 20 million records. By comparison; a popular service like OCLC's ArticleFirst has about 14.3 million records from over 12.000 journals since 1990. There is also a different service to get at the full journal holdings of the British Library.

While record searches are nice and all very well, what the inside service is really meant for is search and delivery of up-to-the-minute research. Customers have always had a choice of fast-ish delivery methods like faxes, airmail and couriers. But for sheer immediacy, there's little that beats on-line delivery. The traditional stumbling block for that sort of service has been the reluctance of major scientific publishers like Elsevier to entrust their IP rights to plain pdfs sent over the net. With Adobe's Content Server and eBook reader, Elsevier appears to have been persuaded, and a whopping 1700 of its titles have been added to the British Library's service in addition to 800 titles from other publishers. Delivered as downloads, issues from these titles go back to about 2000 in pretty much all cases, 1999 for quite a few and there are a handful older ones.

The resulting package is clearly of some considerable value: search 20.000 the most important current journals, 2500 of which you can download there and then. Nor is access to the service restricted to large institutions; it is overtly pitched at individuals and small/medium business as well. But that general value is unambiguously monetized. A single person's subscription to the service is 500.- a year. Not bad, but every article costs 4.50 to download, on top of which land the publishers' copyright charges. That varies quite considerably, but a well known Elsevier title like the Lancet is 15.- while more specialised titles are around 5.-

While considerable, these prices are probably par for the course in this line of business. Compared to electronic subscriptions to individual publishers' packages, it could be seen as quite a good deal for smaller customers. But the restrictions that come with Adobe's slightly notorious eBook technology have to be born in mind. Most of these restrictions are a matter of what the provider wants, which is then dialed into Adobe's software.

According to Andy Ekers of the British Library, the inside service allows patrons to keep eBooks on a single machine for three years. If
you upgrade that machine in a major way, so that it appears to be a different machine to the eBook software, you can unlock your personal
library of documents so that you can continue to read them. That means that, should you need to, for example, swap the harddisk or upgrade your operating system, then the eBook reader will present you with a challenge code upon reinstallation. With that challenge code, you call Adobe, who will then give you a response code, which unlocks your personal library of eBooks.

Also, inside eBooks are supposed to be printed only once, though you can have another go in case your printer fails first time 'round. The option of an end user loaning an eBook to someone else for a specified period is being looked at, but not implemented yet. The same goes for the ability to copy text from the ebook and paste it elsewhere. Lastly, the reader software works on various flavours of Windows and classic Mac OS, but not Mac OS X, GNU/Linux or any other unix- which is curious, as the separate technologies that make up the core of Adobe's eBook technology (pdf + RSA encryption) work just fine on almost anything.

Still, in Ekers' words, "Until now, publishers and document supply companies have had difficulty enforcing copyright and managing rights in the digital environment. Working together, the British Library and Elsevier Science have used Adobe's technology to answer publishers' needs - ensuring the secure delivery of articles."

So how you take all the restrictions depends entirely on your perspective. From the point of view of the customary freedom of electronic documents like this webpage, the eBook restrictions look positively draconian, and are potentially quite an impediment to the spread of the service. From a document distributor's point of view, by contrast, the eBook format is just one of a range of secure document delivery mechanisms offered to customers. The comparison here would not be with Word or html files, but things like photocopies in envelopes. Seen this way, eBooks are essentially extremely high resolution, colour faxes, and the residual electronic format advantages (text search, compact format etc.) are extra benefits.

On balance, then, the publishers will be hoping that their customers will take paper technology, and not the web, as the baseline of their expectations of eBooks.

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