After a series of helicopter accidents in Christchurch, New Zealand, attributed to hydraulic jack stall, journalist Earl Swift spoke with aviators, scoured public libraries and consulted university professors for a single, concise explanation of the phenomenon.
He could find none.
So he sent an electronic-mail query to the Professors Network, a free information service for writers and researchers around the world, maintained by the State University of New York at Stony Brook.
Within a couple of days, Mr. Swift had a response from an expert on the subject: a former pilot in Britain's Royal Air Force. He learned that hydraulic jack stall is a weather-related phenomenon that appeared to affect helicopters of a certain design flying in mountainous areas with sharply channeled wind gusts.
The 2-year-old ProfNet makes 1,500 public-information officers at more than 800 colleges, universities, medical centers, federal agencies, corporate laboratories, foundations and non-profit organizations accessible through electronic queries. The publicists recommend experts on ProfNet, essentially an e-mail distribution list whose electronic address is profnet (at)sunysb.edu.
The project is an example of how the global web of computer networks known as the Internet is changing the way information is gathered, by eliminating boundaries of time and geography.
"I got only one response to the query, but that one was from a pilot who could provide me with the information I needed," said Mr. Swift, a reporter for the Virginian-Pilot in Norfolk, Va., who is in New Zealand on a fellowship.
ProfNet began as an adjunct to the public relations office of SUNY-Stony Brook in January 1993 after a six-week pilot run for journalists via Journalism Forum, a bulletin board on the CompuServe online service. It was conceived by Daniel H. Forbush, 41, an associate vice president at SUNY-Stony Brook.
"I saw the Internet as an extraordinarily powerful communications tool that we in university [public relations] were not sufficiently exploiting," said Mr. Forbush, who is also ProfNet's systems operator.
He had worked with a New Hampshire public relations firm that represented colleges and universities and that often received requests from reporters seeking experts. He saw the Internet as offering the chance to create "a vast international cooperative of public information specialists."
A majority of queries involve inquiries to institutions in the United States or Canada, Mr. Forbush said. The service handles 150 to 200 queries per week.
ProfNet has two components: a cooperative of public information officers linked through the Internet that serve as expert sources, and PIOs Online, a directory of academic public-information officers who can be reached by e-mail.
Most of the Ivy League and major state universities are represented, as are Stanford University, the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and Johns Hopkins University. Also represented are a variety of think tanks, government agencies and laboratories such as the Department of Agriculture and Argonne National Laboratory, and foundations such as the John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation.
ProfNet is scheduled to become independent July 1. Member resource institutions will be charged dues ranging from $153 per year for a small college to $750 per year for a trade association. Government agencies will pay $250 a year. The service will remain free to journalists and researchers.