Title: TRIS Online

Publisher: Transportation Research Board of the National Academies and the National Transportation Library

URL: http://ntl.bts.gov/tris

Cost: free

Tested: July 22-23, 2006


This recently redesigned implementation of the second largest bibliographic database dedicated to publications about transportation research issues is a perfect example to illustrate when an open access version of a government database can offer very similar and more current content than its fee-based versions on commercial information systems. The search component of the software is fine, except for some of the browsable indexes. There brutally inconsistent entries make browsing useless (also in the subscription-based version) and the index entries must be consolidated. Extending the search to two other databases of the Transportation Research Board and the National Academies from TRIS automatically would make TRIS even better.



Beyond the call of duty and the recent redesign of the software of the TRIS  database, I had a personal interest in getting educated about transportation research literature after I have traveled more in the U.S., across Europe, the Middle East and Asia in the past 4 months in cars, boats, horse carriage, jeepneys, buses, trishaws, and in economy and business class seats of miserable and superior airplanes between metropolises and small towns and villages than I typically do in 4 years.

To my excuse,  transportation is a particularly central issue in the U.S.A. not only because of the enormous distances, but also because Americans are the most mobile people. Americans spend incomparably more time in cars, trains, buses and airplanes than the average citizens of the world. No wonder that the National Academies of the U.S.A. has a special division dedicated to transportation issues, the  Transportation Research Board (TRB).

It is another question that these days the once glorious American transportation system is in shambles. For example, most airlines, excluding Southwest Airlines, but including legendary American  carriers like United Airlines and American Airlines keep cutting services and keep raising prices. This is  just the opposite of what the best traditional and new low cost carriers in Southeast Asia and in the Middle East are doing, such as EVA, China Airlines, JetStar Asia, Air Asia, Bangkok Airways, Air Mandalay, Emirates Airlines and Etihad Airways which I used in the past 4 months. Car, bus and train transportation in the U.S.A. grew equally depressing, irritating  and expensive - not only because of the increasingly prevalent road rage and ever increasing fuel prices, but also because of the rapid deterioration of all the public transportation  services.

There is significant research about all aspects of transportation issues in journals of materials science, metallurgy, construction science, civil engineering, electric engineering, science and technology (especially mathematics and computer science), as well as in multidisciplinary, medical, political, social science, business, and economics periodicals and in law journals.

Smart librarians specializing in transportation information sources and services can hop from Engineered Materials Abstracts, to ICONDA, Metadex, Compendex, INSPEC,  Web of Science, Scopus, PASCAL, Applied Science and Technology, ABI/INFORM, Trade & Industry, EconLIT, and to one or more of the legal databases as needed. For those who need government documents, NTIS must be also used. Those who must have conference proceedings, Inside Conference  is also to be searched. Then the results should be de-duplicated to save on the output costs. (Part of the NTIS database is also available as open access source, and so is the ASCE database of the American Society of Civil Engineers, but all the other resources mentioned above are rather expensive databases).    

Luckily, there is a large indexing/abstracting database dedicated to the literature  of transportation research (including also articles from general interest magazines to a modest extent) -  the TRANSPORT database. It is a subscription-based database available through the German FIZ Karlsruhe information system, as well as through  Ovid and SilverPlatter (which merged into Ovid earlier, but its software and product line is still maintained). 

It is a mega-database merged from three major databases: TRIS (Transportation Research Information System), ITRD (International Transportation Research) and the TRANSDOC database of ECMT, the European Conference  of Ministers of Transport. This latter is not mentioned in Ovidís database blurb, but was quite obvious when I searched for the topic of cabotage, where the TRANSPORT database had exceptionally higher number of hits than TRIS as cabotage rights and policies have been  key issues in the formation of the European Union, and the hot topic ECMA.

The largest component, TRIS has been available for a long time on DIALOG at $60 per hour or $2.70 per DialUnit and $1.30 per record displayed. ITRD in and by itself is accessible for subscribing members. To the best of my knowledge TRANSDOC is not available as a standalone database, and it may not be updated anyhow.

Even more luckily, there is an open access version of TRIS on the Web, hosted by the National Transportation Library, and that is the subject of this review. 



TRIS  consists of more than 650,000 records. It is far the largest component of the TRANSPORT database (ITRD has about 350,000 records, and TRANSDOC has about 35,000 records). These add up to more than the size of the TRANSPORT database itself (which has more than 800,000 records according  to my tests in Ovid). Apparently, duplicate records for the same articles in  the different databases are eliminated in the update process.

TRIS covers every aspects of transportation from engineering to maintenance, traffic planning & control, economics, management, safety  and even psychology. A simple test search in the still powerful Dialindex database on traffic flow, clearly illustrates the one-stop searching advantages of TRIS (especially in the open access version which is close to what DIALOG has. (There are differences as the open access version has no records from the IRRD (International Road Research Documentation) database, and neither from the Research in Progress database  which, however, is  searchable for free on the Transportation Research Board site.

The geographic and language coverage is unusually broad and substantial. This is surprising for a U.S. government database, or most databases produced in the U.S. which label  themselves international if records for some articles published in a Canadian journal appear in their database. This attitude is not unlike that of those  teenagers who consider themselves globe-trotters just because they went to a drinking binge weekend to Tijuana in the Spring Break, said hasta la vista, then recovered from it in the summer in Puerto Rico.

TRIS  includes records not only for journal articles but also for a significant number of conference proceedings. The choice of sources is very good, the most important journals and conferences are all covered. Looking up  the list of journals, however, would not support my opinion. There are only 376 titles listed by TRB. The list abruptly ends at the letter S, so for example, none of the journals starting with Traffic or Transportation appear, such as the highest impact factor Transportation Research series  of Elsevier which has 26,612 records in TRIS. There are serious problems also with the computer generated index of the journal names as I discuss below.

Almost 80% of the records have informative abstracts (mostly from the journals), which is a big advantage over databases where records with abstracts are the exceptions, such as GeoRef. Out of the 24,435 records with the root word of transport only 4,529 have abstracts in GeoRef.

The open access version of TRIS is more current than the commercial one. In the former there are 402 records for publications from 2006 with the phrase traffic flow, while in the commercial version the number of hits is just 177 for the same.

The biggest content advantage of the open access version is the availability of full text documents through links to the PDF and/or HTML file(s) for more than 20,000 documents. I could not verify this number but my test searches make it a realistic number. There are 803 full text documents for the search on traffic flow, and 520 of them were published since 2000. Be warned, however, that the links to several records in my test led to nowhere. There should be regular automatic checks for detecting link-rot in order to keep the faith of the users in successful linking.



The search and output modules are  flexible and powerful enough for an indexing/abstracting database, but the browsing part is confusing. You can use truncation and Boolean operators either explicitly or implicitly through the search template. There is a simple and an advanced mode query template.

The component databases of TRIS (the digital document depository, and the annotated corporate web-site directory in  addition to the bibliographic database) can be searched in one fell swoop, or all of them together. The latter is a better approach as the result list can be limited to one of the subsets after the search by a simple click. The results can be sorted by year, relevance and component database.

The only time when you may want to search TRIS online alone is when the search is to be limited to items which are available in full text. The check-box for the limit function is not displayed  when all the databases are searched as the Digital Repository and the results from the web sites directory obviously are linked to full text.

Browsing is an essential step in savvy searching. TRIS offers some browsable indexes but they are  greatly disappointing. For example, the spelling of the journal names is terribly  inconsistent and simply sloppy. Entries with  volume and issue number in the journal name index brutally scatter it, and make browsing and searching by journal name a painful and practically useless process.

Of course there are no 20,658 serials covered as you may be lead to believe from the top of the browse list. It is a side effect of the scattering of the entries. The same inconsistency is true for the author name index as well, which adds insult to injury by showing identically spelled names as different entries, and neither brings up any records. This totally discombobulates even the experienced users.

The language index is even worse, but at least it is not visible in the open access version. (In the commercial version you may look it up if you really really  like scary movies) It is useful that by clicking on the information logo which appears next to journal names you can see information about the publisher (although it has rather minimal content  and is not always current).

TRIS has a faceted thesaurus (not implemented in the commercial version, but modestly developed in the open access version). At least you can look up and navigate in the descriptor index, and in the broad subject classes. It would be nice to show in the indexes the posting information to give a sense about the extent of coverage of the topics described by the thesaurus terms. (This is true for all of the browsable indexes).


In spite of the deficiencies mentioned (which are primarily the consequences of poor quality control at data entry), this is a valuable open access database. It should incorporate the records from the currently separate RIP (Research in Progress) database or automatically run the queries in it, as well as in the splendid full text  searchable open access book and report digital collections  of the National Academies Press. This would significantly enhance the search results, and introduce users to the not yet perfect but innovative interface and search engine of the latter. For one of my test queries about traffic flow, RIP added 125 hits, and NAP yielded 279 hits (true, by loosening the query extending the  search to  the full text). TRIS Online has a lot of potential also for the well-off libraries which can afford using the subscription databases dealing with transportation topics.


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