Product review: Lexis-Nexis Universe: not universally useful

Lexis-Nexis is a vast network of online databases containing everything from newspaper and magazine articles to legal briefs, financial reports, and public records. But until recently, access to it via the Web could be confusing; and only law offices, libraries, and other institutions with hefty research budgets could afford subscriptions, which cost at least $US150 per month. Lexis-Nexis's new Universe service offers cheaper subscriptions and access via a standard Web browser.

For single users, fees start at $US55 per month for access to articles in the News database going back 90 days. The $250-per-month account that I tried out provides unlimited access to News, People, Companies, and Countries databases going back at least 25 years.

Results were mixed. On the plus side, Lexis-Nexis clearly did its Web design homework. The Universe site is simple, pleasingly elegant, and dead-easy to navigate; I could even e-mail my search results directly from the browser.

But the mix of sources can produce unsatisfactory results, at least for general subjects. A search on "Microsoft court" brought up 72 articles on the Microsoft antitrust trial from such diverse sources as the Irish Times and the Seattle Post-Intelligencer--but nothing from the New York Times or the abstracts collection of the Wall Street Journal, both of which are listed in the index. Some major magazines aren't represented at all.

Universe might be the way to go for legal documents and public records. But for general research, you'll be just as well off (and a lot richer) sticking with a free search engine like HotBot, Lycos, or AltaVista.

Lexis-Nexis Universe

PRO: Very easy to use, can easily e-mail search results.

CON: Results can be irrelevant.

VALUE: Better for financial and legal research than for general news and people profiles.

Price: $55 to $575 per month for single users; volume discounts apply.

Lexis-Nexis: http://www.lexis-nexis.com

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