Librarians are continuously evaluating the sources we use, as well as coaching our patrons on how to use and analyze these sources. EBSCOhost and ProQuest are two of the most well-known publishers of online databases that libraries subscribe to, and it behooves us to take a closer look at their offerings and search interfaces, and examine them from a user experience (UX) perspective.
EBSCOhost and ProQuest are both publishers of many electronic databases including some full text access, spanning a wide variety of subjects that can be searched online using Boolean logic.
Both EBSCO and ProQuest databases collectively cover a large time period with some databases going back to the 1800’s, and show this information in different ways. When viewing the list of EBSCO databases that the University of Kentucky subscribes to for example, some databases include the years of coverage in the description, and other’s don’t. When viewing the analogous list of ProQuest databases, they are grouped into helpful subject areas listing all relevant databases, however the years of coverage are not shown at that level, and users must click on a database title to view that information.
As mentioned, both cover a wide variety of subject areas from the sciences & social sciences to the arts & humanities, newspapers and theses & dissertations. EBSCO arguably seems to cast a wider net with interdisciplinary databases such as Academic Search Complete and Historical Abstracts, although ProQuest databases also cover a wide variety including databases focused on more specific subsets of research including Ethnic NewsWatch, and Career & Technical Education Database.
EBSCO and ProQuest are two of the “major commercial publishers of indexes and abstracts” (Smith & Wong, 2016, p. 456)(1) which essentially places them on an even scale in terms of authority.
In this comparison accuracy is not considered, however with more time, accuracy of each database should be scrutinized, including the subject index, author index, controlled vocabulary, and cross-referencing.
Cost also cannot be directly considered here, as most often libraries are quoted an individual price that is not made public, based on a combination of factors including size of user population, number of databases subscribing to, whether the institution is part of an existing consortia, and the longevity of relationship built between the vendor and librarian.
Notable differences of EBSCO include the advanced features on the initial search page, including options for related terms, equivalent subjects, linked full text, date, language, and geographic location. ProQuest on the other hand offers a simple interface with predictive searching, which helps users select subject terms and offers the ability to limit to peer reviewed results.
Ultimately, when evaluating these specific criteria, the two providers prove to be quite comparable, and therefore the specific subject area(s) and/or databases will often be the determining factor as to which are subscribed to, or both. For small institutions and larger institutions alike, this may be determined by the research faculty’s specific work and/or user demand, along with the quoted price, and user interface preference.
AGRICOLA on ProQuest vs. EBSCO
Going one step further to examine the user interface of both EBSCO and ProQuest, Agricola was explored on both platforms. At initial glance they look very different; ProQuest offers a simple search box on a visual homepage offering a short description of the database including its coverage, with the option for advanced search; EBSCO shows a much more advanced set of search options from the beginning including publication type and geographical location, but does not offer any information about the database or materials it holds.
Once the initial search is performed, both platforms display a list of search results with limiting facets on the left sidebar including publication, date, source type, and language. Searchable fields are similar across platforms and include field codes for common searchable fields such as title, author, subject, publication title, etc. and full lists are available in the help files for both search interfaces.
Advanced search in both EBSCO and ProQuest offer the wildcard symbol ? for missing letters and alternate spellings, * for truncations, as well as the operators AND, OR, NOT for Boolean searching; ProQuest also offers the operators NOT, NEAR, and PRE. Only ProQuest has the option to limit to peer reviewed from the advanced search page, while only EBSCO has the ability to limit to linked full text articles. Both have options for language and document type; ProQuest gives a list of options to select from for these search facets, but EBSCO requires the user to type in the language, and only gives three options for specific document type while ProQuest offers many options. From the results page, only EBSCO allows the user to sort results differently, defaulting to relevance with options for date newest, date oldest, author and source, while ProQuest only sorts based on relevance with options to limit the search further.
Controlled vocabulary in each database is harder to determine, as neither offer a direct link to the database thesaurus from the basic search page or advanced search page, and the help files are for ProQuest and EBSCO platforms in general, not for database-specific help. ProQuest however offers predictive search terms, showing subject terms included in the controlled vocabulary to give users help selecting appropriate terms.
ProQuest gives the option for command line searching, with drop down menus to select operators and field codes, which contains a long list. For example, the search query (AU( s*) AND SU( Holistic Management)) provided 5 search results. While EBSCO does not advertize command line searching as an option, the experienced user can search with command line logic using the basic search, if the format and field codes are known or can be determined. The same query was used in EBSCO and returned 3 search results for example. Command line searching can be very advantageous to advanced users looking for specific subsets of information such as date ranges, specific authors and publication types, because it provides a more direct approach to surface the most relevant results and hone in on the specific information needed.
Searching by record type in each platform returns quite different search results; for example when searching from the advanced page for ‘holistic management’ in any field, with the document type ‘journal article’ selected, ProQuest returned 758 results, while EBSCO returned only 155 results. Looking at the results, they all appear to be from scholarly journals, however the results on the first page of ProQuest are much more relevant to the subject area of holistic management in agricultural practices, than the results appear in EBSCO which include articles on waste management. This is curious as both platforms are searching the same records and subject terms, but surface quite different results, and more investigation would be required to determine the criteria each publisher is using to limit their results. However, this outlines the importance of critically examining the results when searching by document type, which may suppress relevant information.
Ultimately, there are many factors to consider when comparing two major database publishers like ProQuest and EBSCO, especially when choosing between platforms for the same journal or publication title; search interface, advanced search options, and how records are described and surfaced using those search options should be considered. The content should be the same, however the examples provided above show that search results can vary across the two; therefore the user population and their needs, experience level, and preferences should be taken into consideration. If presented with the choice between two publishing platforms for the same research, libraries should consider these factors, as well as UX testing to determine the best choice for the end users.
~Jacqueline L. Frank; linkedin.com/in/jacquelinefrank1
- Smith, L. C., & Wong, M. A. (Eds.). (2016). Reference and Information Services: An Introduction. ABC-CLIO.