Why are there so many business databases?

Browse The University of Manchester Library website and you will find a large number of business databases. Researchers have to chose which of these is best for their research and this can be influenced by various factors. To guide this decision it is important to remember the factors that lead to academic libraries having many business databases.

Commercial products

Business databases roundabout
There are many specialist financial and business databases available to researchers at The University of Manchester

The best known business databases are commercial products: for example, Bloomberg Professional, Datastream (Thomson Reuters), and Capital IQ (Standard & Poor’s) .  They are available to universities for non-commercial use but their main market is finance professionals. These systems are similar but not equivalent. The companies developing these systems are constantly trying to improve them to maintain or increase their market share, and often this includes providing data that is not available from competitors.

The big advantage of commercial products is that it gives students the chance to get experience of the very systems that they will be using when they get a job in the financial sector.

There is some information freely available on finance websites but this does not have the quality, range and history needed by researchers. There is no incentive for free websites to have accurate historical information on companies that are inactive (have been taken over or gone bust) and this is vital for research. Researchers therefore depend on commercial products as an essential source of research data.

Research interests

Researchers are always looking for new opportunities – being able to investigate new questions or test out theories in a wider context. Recently there has been increasing interest in executive compensation and related corporate governance data. In most cases there are specialist databases that provide data in this sort of area and these are the first choice of researchers as they offer fertile ground for novel analyses.

There are established research databases that only cover the American market. These are well known by reviewers for the better journals so are the preferred choice for researchers studying this market. If you wish to study global or emerging markets there is no single best choice. Some alternatives are global and others are more local and each has its own strengths and weaknesses. This means that research that looks at extending existing research results from one market to another often involves adapting the research methods to suit different databases.

The buyers of the best-known commercial databases are banks and investment companies interested in recent information on current public companies, or ones that they think might become public in the near future. They spend large amounts of money getting the quickest access to the latest information, not on getting the highest quality information for the longest historic time period. This has led to the creation of specialist databases that cater for researchers who want to study markets over a 20, 30 or 50 year time span.

In summary, researchers who want to do novel research and get this published in a good journal have a different criteria for choosing databases than an investment bank. As a result almost every university has a slightly different collection of business databases. There is significant overlap but the full list will reflect the research interests of the staff, and as a result can change over time.

Easy to add – hard to remove

Partial approximate time line of acquisition of business databasesThere are inevitable pressures that make it much easier to add a database to the offering than to remove one.

Research papers can take years to publish in a top journal, and if academics have found an interesting topic they usually want to publish more than a single paper. It is difficult to remove a database if there are any current or prospective papers in progress since researchers need a current licence to allow them to use the data and submit their results for publication.

If a database has become established as part of a taught course then staff build up a wealth of experience in guiding students to the specific information they need and steering clear of potential difficulties. As a result it is a big step to move to another database even if it offers access to the same information.

The main reason databases are removed is because companies supplying them want to replace them for commercial reasons. It is not uncommon for universities to ask for continued use of a database, which is no longer being actively developed, because there are “in progress” research publications or because time is needed to check that their replacement is tested for student use.

Selecting a database can also be challenging, but the Business Data Service is available for consultation and advice. Another blog post in the near future will look at the methods and support available for deciding which databases are best, and how the Research Services team is looking at providing innovative ways of presenting such information.

By Mark Greenwood

[till Oct 2014] Data Specialist at The University of Manchester Library - member of the Business Data Service (Research Services), editor of Business Research Plus blog.

4 replies on “Why are there so many business databases?”

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