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xreferplus heats up ready reference race: this database provides wide-ranging content and exceptional cross-referencing. (Database Review).

This month I'll review a multidisciplinary database that contains the full text of dozens of short-entry reference books from British publishers. If this seems familiar, it's because in the June 2002 issue (p.14) I reviewed a multidisciplinary database that contains the full text of dozens of short-entry reference books from British publishers. The first article was on Oxford Reference Online (; this one is on xreferplus ( If this appears to be a new British invasion, then let them come, because xreferplus, like Oxford Reference Online, is an excellent database that can be useful in many settings. xreferplus does in fact have a great deal in common with Oxford Reference Online, and in some ways surpasses it. In effect, what we have is a Battle of the British Bands, online database style. So let the contest begin. (More on the battle later.)

xreferplus was founded in 1999 by a group of British publishing veterans with extensive online experience. (The service itself was launched in June 2000.) It features a roster of publishers that includes respected houses on both sides of the Atlantic. xreferplus assembles dozens of those publishers' most familiar and widely used reference books into a single, integrated database. And even though books like Debrett's Baronetage and Peerage echo Victoria and the Empire, xreferplus is the very model of a modem major database. It has a sleek Web interface, lots of powerful search and browse features, and flat-rate pricing.

Robust Ready Reference

xreferplus contains 120 full-text reference books from nearly 2 dozen publishers. Most are British and include prominent reference houses like Blackwell, Cambridge University Press, Macmillan, Penguin, Peter Collin, Routledge, and Thames & Hudson. Noteworthy non-British participants include Columbia University Press, Elsevier Science, and Houghton Muffin. The books themselves are all short-entry, single-volume dictionaries and encyclopedias.

The xreferplus collection is truly multidisciplinary, with at least cursory coverage of every major academic discipline and research subject. Language reference is particularly well-represented with numerous etymological, usage, bilingual, and standard dictionaries. All of the major liberal arts are covered, especially literature, history, and the humanities. There is at least one comprehensive reference source for other subjects, including business, health, science, technology, and politics.

xreferplus is exceptionally wide, but not deep. Its single-volume reference books provide information on almost everything, but the entries themselves are short. The longest articles in xreferplus are found in encyclopedias. This is quite acceptable for word-oriented reference or quick look-ups, but xreferplus does not provide in-depth coverage of any subject.

Nor is xreferplus a current-events service. Its books are updated annually or less frequently, so it does not cover recent news. The most up-to-date information extends to late last year; several titles make reference to 9/11. Finally, xreferplus does have a decidedly British flavor. Its spelling, usage, definitions, and subject coverage are British, which may befuddle American users. There are however a few reference books with an American focus.

Premier Cross-Referencing

xreferplus has a complete set of search features, including Basic and Advanced levels, Boolean operators, phrase searching, end and internal wild-card character, field searching, and relevanceranked results. The Basic level provides a single query panel that searches the entire database. The relevanceranking algorithm usually does a good job in bringing the principal records to the top. The Advanced level offers additional options, such as the ability to limit the search to separate subjects or individual books. Screen layouts throughout xreferplus are typically clear and uncluttered, with helpful on-screen prompts.

All of these search features are excellent, but not exceptional. They are what you'd expect from a modern fee-based research service. What is exceptional about xreferplus is its cross-referencing system, which unites content throughout the entire database in effective and innovative ways. Each article is accompanied by two sets of cross-references. The cross-referenced terms within the body of the entry are highlighted and linked to their own entries, and there is also a complete set of cross-references to entries in other books. These display not only the title and source, but also a few lines of text. This is highly useful when you're comparing definitions from varied sources.

Among its cross-referencing features, xreferplus also has "xreference mapper," which is innovative and completely distinctive. xreference mapper is a graphical depiction of the relationships among the cross-references from a given term. It creates a diagram of these terms, which are connected by lines into a spider-web-like network. Line length represents the degree of closeness to the original term. It's a marvelous tool for demonstrating the context of related terms and for suggesting new lines of inquiry. xreference mapper is exceptionally clever, and it's fascinating to watch the diagrams form dynamically. Even if you have no interest in xreferplus itself, it's well worth a trial subscription just to play with xreference mapper.

Fee and Free

Although xreferplus may find its greatest application in academic and public libraries, it has pricing structures for all types of clients. Its fees are flat rate and are calculated according to the population served, using different formulas. For a college or university with fewer than 2,500 full-time-equivalent students, the subscription for a single seat is $1,500 annually; prices for larger institutions increase proportionately. There are separate formulas for 2-year colleges, schools, public libraries, nonprofits, and business and government clients. Pricing is the area in which xreferplus and Oxford Reference Online differ most; the latter's subscription rates are substantially lower.

xreferplus also offers a free abridged version, simply entitled xrefer ( xrefer has 43 titles that cover the same range of subjects as xreferplus. Oddly, xrefer includes numerous Oxfordpublished books that do not appear m xreferplus (it's probably a licensing thing). xrefer's search system is also abridged and lacks many of xreferplus' advanced features, such as xreference mapper. Even though it's much smaller than the full-sized product, xrefer does perform very well for basic reference and also gives you a good sense of xreferplus.

xreferplus vs. Oxford

Now, back to the Battle of the British Bands. Let's compare xreferplus and Oxford Reference Online on the following major criteria:

* Content: Even--You can compare the respective merits of the individual books indefinitely (and I don't have that much space). However, in the big picture, the two content sets are very close, each having the same types of books that cover the same subjects. xreferplus has a slight edge in business and geography, and it also has four general encyclopedias, which Oxford does not. Oxford is stronger in language, literature, the humanities, and politics, and has somewhat deeper coverage of U.S. subjects. Oxford also has a good directory of subject-oriented Web reference sites.

* Searching: xreferplus--The two services' search capabilities are very close, but xreferplus gets the edge with its superior cross-referencing, which includes xreference mapper.

* Cost: Oxford Reference Online--Oxford's pricing structures are cheaper across the board.

Overall, the differences between the two services are slim, and the selection is difficult unless you're choosing strictly on price. Nevertheless, whether for specific content areas or search capabilities, xreferplus may be your choice. And you do have to choose because if you want this type of resource, there's no reason to get both. Remember that both services are excellent for short-entry reference content on most subjects, but they don't provide depth. For that, you'll continue to need other resources, whether full-text journal databases, full-sized reference works, e-books, or some combination of the three. But for quick look-ups, it's nice to have two such excellent options.



This service provides the full text of 120 single-volume, short-entry reference books. It covers virtually all subjects, including liberal arts, business, technology, and politics. Its broad content and excellent search functionality make for a wide-ranging and easily used reference resource. Short-entry sources, however, aren't meant to supplant more in-depth research resources.

PRODUCER, Ltd., Macmillan House, Paddington Station, London, W2 1FT, U.K., 011-44-20-7479-9200;

Mick O'Leary is the director of the library at Frederick, Maryland. and a principal in The Data Brokers. His e-mail address is
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Author:O'Leary, Mick
Publication:Information Today
Article Type:Product/Service Evaluation
Geographic Code:4EUUK
Date:Nov 1, 2002
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