Chinese Information Market

Current Electronic Information Market in China

by Marcia Lei Zeng

Beginning in the mid-1980s, the electronic information market in China has experienced tremendous changes and development. Three principal types of services have formed a framework for the electronic information market in China: international online searching services, domestic SDI and retrospective searching services based on imported foreign databases, and services for domestically constructed databases.

International Online Searching Services

In bridging the East and the West, nine Chinese ministries initiated a cooperative project which led to the establishment of the first online searching service in China in 1980. The actual searches were conducted in Hong Kong via a DTC-382 terminal. All pre-search preparation and administration were processed in Beijing at the Information Center of the Urban Construction Ministry of China (UCMC), which is over 2000 miles from the Hong Kong terminal. The service targeted sci/tech databases provided by DIALOG and ORBIT.

A typical process usually included three steps, though all were not electronically supported: (1) discussions between a remote user and information specialists in the UCMC regarding database selecting and query formulating, (2) communications between the information specialists in UCMC and in Hong Kong regarding retrieval process and search strategies, and (3) information delivery through non-electronic vehicles from Hong Kong to UCMC and then to the remote users. Although this process looked very unusual and less effective, it had the merit of being the only window for Chinese professionals to look for and find information from abroad electronically. The service contributed a great deal to scientific research and industrial development in China's economic reformation in the early 1980s.

During the next few years, linking Beijing directly with other countries and local cities for information retrieval purposes was one of the highest priorities of government information centers. In 1983, the Institute of Scientific and Technology Information of China (ISTIC), the largest information center of the Chinese government, established international online searching services though ESA-IRS and later DIALOG and SDC. Local search sites in other cities were established and online searches were done either through domestic microwave-specific lines or through the in-land public telephone network, via terminals at ISTIC. China Academy of Sciences' (CAS) Information Center started STN searching service in 1987 and DATASTAR searching in 1989.

From 1984 to 1991, nearly 200 international online searching terminals were put into use in nearly 50 cities throughout the country, with an average of 18,000 search requests each year. Total international online searching time was 648 hours in 1990, of which 605 hours were DIALOG searching, and 854 hours in 1991, of which 794 hours were DIALOG searching. Online services have been offered through a number of foreign vendors, listed by number of the service sites in descent: DIALOG, ESA-IRS, ORBIT, STN, BRS, WSR, DATASTAR, DMS/DRI, I.SHARPS, ECHO and Dun & Bradstreet. The most frequently searched databases through international online searches are: CA SEARCH, WORLD PATENTS INDEX (WPI), INSPEC, COMPENDEX PLUS, BIOSIS PREVIEWS, MEDLINE, U.S. PATENTS, NTIS, METADEX, CAB ABSTRACTS, EMBASE and PTS PROMI. Most of the searches focused on sciences, technologies, medical and biomedical sciences and agriculture.

High costs represent the major challenge of international online services. Search requests typically have come from government units and major academic and research units because the cost of online searching has been very high. For example, the average cost for each search was 300 Chinese Yuan in 1990, which could equal one-month's salary for a middle class person. Another challenge is the difficulty of obtaining original sources in a timely and economic way. In an investigation about biomedical science collections all over the country, data showed that about 70% of the materials found from Index Medicus, Excerpta Medica, CC/Life Science and CC/Clinical Medicine could be supplied in the country, but various geographical areas have different satisfactory degrees, from 25% to 89%. The high cost of foreign journals, lack of consistent acquisition for foreign materials, and unreliable access to foreign proceedings and technical reports all contribute to this problem.

SDI and RS Services Based on Imported Databases

Prior to the efforts in international online searching, ISTIC and several information centers of CAS and industrial ministries initiated SDI and retrospective searching services based on imported database tapes. Since the late-1970s, about 60 databases have been imported. Basing SDI and RS services on the imported databases has made it possible for the Chinese information centers to achieve two goals: (1) to set up China's own information retrieval services, and (2) to extend international information retrieval services to the ordinary users in the country.

None of the services are for-profit. Costs for database importing and service maintenance are much higher than the fees collected through services. For instance, the Information Center of the Ministry of Machinery pays about 150,000 Yuan for the tapes each year, but the income from services is only around Y30,000/year. Similar situations happen in other services: Chemical Engineering Ministry pays about Y600,000/year for tapes and gets back from services less than Y250,000/year; China Patent Office pays Y240,000/year and gets back Y100,000/year. Chinese Academy of Agriculture and Chinese Academy of Medical Science both obtain tapes at low cost through exchange programs. Beijing Document Service Center is the only one which can keep the balance. With its cost of Y100,000/year for tapes, it earns Y200,000/year from services. However, its cost for electricity for this service is over Y100,000/year. These services usually charge much less than that for the international online search through foreign vendors. For example, both DSI and RS services charge Y45 to Y100 per query.

Although SDI and RS services promise minimum satisfactory results with much lower prices than are attainable with international online services, they are restricted by several barriers. The most significant problems relate to hardware and retrieval features. Because of limited storage space, imported databases have very limited index files. Most abstracts are not searchable. Operations are carried out by search intermediaries, because of the complicated search commands, operators and interfaces. Other problems are related to the lack of facilities and human resources. In a large information center, RS services are provided at a pattern of one database per two weeks. If a user wants to search another database for the same topic, he might have to wait for two weeks. In another case, the service is only available every other morning. Over 90% of the services which provide SDI and RS searches are located in Beijing and Shanghai. Limited coverage and duplication could be counted as another major problem. For example, duplicate database tapes of COMPENDEX, JICST, WPI, NTIS and GRA were imported. In the mid-1980s, importation of INSPEC was duplicated, and then in 1989 it was dropped from all services. These problems have been recognized by major information services in recent years and strategies have been proposed and widely discussed to overcome the barriers.

CD-ROM imports are growing rapidly. Today, more than 100 CD-ROM titles and over 300 copies have been imported. However, in 1986, only three titles and five copies were imported. The distribution of imported CD-ROMs is shown in the following data: academic libraries 51.4%, information centers 27.8%, research institutes 11.1%, other libraries 4% and hospitals 4%. Geographically, CD-ROMs again reside in a few large cities. For instance, Beijing and Shanghai own approximately 70% of the imported CD-ROMs. On the other hand, the number of duplicates remains high. In 1990, among the total 125 CD-ROMs, there were 39 MEDLINE and 10 NTIS copies. In 1992, more than 50 MEDLINE CD-ROMs were imported; 10 different units imported copies of COMPENDEX PLUS and INSPECT. Moreover, about one-third of the CD-ROMs duplicate the databases for which tapes are imported. Nevertheless, CD-ROM imports have expanded to a much wider subject coverage than that covered by the imported tapes. This is demonstrated by a number of social science and humanity databases. Besides CD-ROM searching services through individual workstations or local networks, some CD-ROMs are also used in experiments for reproducing databases through downloading. The results are very encouraging. It shows that CD-ROMs may eventually replace the heavy work involved on serving imported database tapes.

Domestically Constructed Databases

In response to the unprecedented growth in the quantity of information, China has become number one in the world in publishing. In addition to the large number of formal publications, a similar size pool exists of non-commercially published materials, data and gray literature of all kinds. The construction of databases based on Chinese sources or in Chinese language is becoming more and more important in China. Meanwhile, control of the quality of domestic databases has become an issue. With the increase of Chinese databases, a set of procedures, guidelines and standards has been developed. Any databases which would be put into public service are required to have technical approval by a group of selected experts.

From the early 1980s to 1994, nearly 100 thesauri were developed by information centers which produce databases. By the end of 1991, over 800 databases had registered at the Information Bureau of the State Science Commission. Among these databases, 84 had over 300,000 records, 32 fell into the range of 100,000-300,000 records, 29 in the 50,000-100,000 records range and 158 in the 10,000-50,000 records range. Nearly 100 databases claimed to be ready for CD-ROM products. China Academy of Sciences has organized its more than 20 research institutes to develop science databases. Industry ministries of China also developed numerous specialized technology and industry databases. As a result, science and technology databases represent a majority of the total Chinese databases. Business databases are catching up quickly. Currently social sciences and humanities databases remain underdeveloped, though a few general databases for dissertation, conference papers and university journal papers are available.

An internally published 1992 directory listed 134 databases which have over 100,000 records: 28% numerical databases, 27% bibliographic, 25% factual and 16% mixed data types. There are also a few full-text and directory databases. Of these, 80% have been built based on domestic sources, 11% based on both domestic and foreign sources and 9% based on foreign data. In terms of languages, 78% of them are produced and are searchable in Chinese, 11% in Chinese and English and 9% in English only. As for service dates for public searching, only one database was available in 1983; by 1985, four more had emerged. But the spectacular growth followed that: by 1989, 51 databases were already available for public searching and, in 1992, the directory reports 134 databases in regular service. Many of these databases are never published in other languages nor made available through any other sources in the world.

Issues relating to domestically constructed databases followed the arrival of services available to the public. Many databases were created to manage internal reports, archives and documents, with the initial purpose to serve internal users within the organization, or with the purpose to accomplish some management projects for credit. When these databases are opened to the public, classified and unclassified documents are mixed together, and no clear boundaries or rules exist for what documents can be open to the public or to specific kinds of users. In addition to concerns about document security, public databases raise questions of who will have the authority to control the access to the data and to maintain the databases and services. While the first step of creating a database involves a large amount of time and effort in collecting data, the updating of data is another burden. Inconsistent service quality is also a serious problem. Since almost all of the databases are produced at a non-commercialized and non-industrialized base, there is a lack of interface between the production of a database and the service to the public.

Five major information services have been the leaders of the information market, and they have set up some models for information services in China. These services provide all three types of database searching as discussed above. Beijing Documentation Service has 150 terminals all over the country and provides 16 Chinese and Western databases to the public; ISTIC has 80 terminals and provides 12 Chinese databases and seven Western databases; Ministry of Chemical Engineering has 210 terminals and nine databases; Ministry of Machinery has 20 terminals and eight databases; and the Institute of Sci/Tech Information of Shanghai (ISTIS) has 40 terminals and eight databases. The average number of search requests between 1985 and 1990 was 18,000 per year, of which 40-45% were for international online searching, another 40-45% were for searching imported databases and domestically created databases, and 10-20% for searching imported CD-ROMs, depending on each year's situation. It was expected that search requests between 1991 and 1995 would increase to 20,000 per year and reach 22,000 to 24,000 requests in 1995.

Marcia Lei Zeng is assistant professor in the School of Library and Information Science at Kent State University.