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Helping scientists navigate a complex research landscape

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Publishers need to be closely associated with academia to increase the impact of research, says Elsevier's David Neal

Science is dramatically changing. Technology is allowing deep examinations of biological, chemical and physical phenomena that are unprecedented in scale and precision. Funders are considering the social and economic impact of research and there is more emphasis on applied science. Today, researchers more often work in teams that may involve collaborating across disciplines and nations, to generate and share ideas and data.  There is also tremendous pressure for researchers to communicate how their work contributes to the betterment of society to policymakers and the public at large in order to encourage continued funding. This new environment presents challenges for researchers but also opportunities that publishers are uniquely poised to help them leverage.

This shift in how science gets done is also impacting the scholarly publishing industry which is reinventing its business to become providers of informatic solutions for researchers, clinical practitioners and academic institutions. They can assist scientists in carrying out their research at the outset, not just when they are looking to publish at the end. Not only do publishers provide the vehicles for disseminating innovative research findings, they now have a role in helping to ensure that results are practically implemented and communicated effectively to those making policy decisions that will affect us all. We are working to understand how institutions need to relate to a wide variety of stakeholders – governments, funders, universities, authors, readers and taxpayers – and will work closely with them to ensure that we support the priorities of the scientific research community.

Turning information into knowledge

The sheer scale at of the rate at which scientific output is increasing is astonishing – according to Scopus data, 60 percent more scientific research articles were published in 2014 compared to 2004. Keeping up-to-date on the latest research in a field and combing it for the most relevant findings can be daunting. At the same time, there has been tremendous growth in the volume of research data itself— some of which approaches "big data" in size and complexity – and it needs to be managed and vetted. Publishers can play a key role in ensuring that researchers find, access and use research data, particularly those that underpin scientific publications. They can also help to ensure data and findings are based on high quality and reproducible research that is carried out with integrity, and communicated clearly. All of this can help funders and institutions better understand the quality and societal impact of their research and to identify more focused ways to allocate funding. Mendeley – a reference manager and collaborative sharing platform social network — was developed with the idea of creating next-generation workflows, products and data services so researchers can perform their work faster, better and with greater flexibility. Mendeley is now being further developed to help to support researchers in a number of ways, including providing an improved social platform.

Collaboration across disciplines

An equally important challenge – and opportunity – lies in the multi- and trans-disciplinary nature of science today. Innovative research is being done at the boundaries of disciplines. Finding scientific results that are truly relevant to a researcher’s own discipline at the cutting edge boundaries can be problematic and it is becoming more difficult to synthesise discoveries into higher level overarching principles. We are developing an advanced recommendation system to help direct researchers to the best and most pertinent content in a particular field, particularly when people are moving into a new field.

Science has also become more 'networked' – articles by different authors are linked to banks of data sets, reference books, video, presentations and audio recordings.  Researchers from across disciplines can debate findings in online forums, opening up new avenues for inquiry and discovery. Still, finding the right collaborators is not easy, even within an institution. Given their vantage point and platform, publishers are well positioned to help to foster collaboration through their networks of authors, editorial boards and readers and to find new ways to help researchers and editors to identify leading experts in the field.  Whilst personal contact remains critically important, such tools can help people narrow down the field of potential experts and collaborators.

Elsevier's new social profile sites aims to link potential collaborators and may be used by researchers to solicit confidential feedback on draft papers and data before submission and publication through closed groups. Helping to bring together the right people will allow us to continue to push the boundaries of knowledge.

Maximising the impact of research in society

Ultimately, whether basic or applied, scientific research should be applied to the benefit of society. Through our existing and future collaborations, we aim to maximise the understanding and communication of research impact more quickly and to facilitate the creation of commercial applications from research, helping to improve the return on investment and to attract new investment from both private and public sources.  By pushing the boundaries of how we communicate science — through different media, to wider audiences — publishers are invaluable partners to researchers in making science understandable and relevant to policymakers and to the general public.

To achieve these goals, publishers need to be closely associated with academia. We are collaborating with top universities and global development partners. In September, Elsevier contributed £100,000 to Cancer Research UK’s “Create the Change” campaign to establish the new Francis Crick Institute for biomedical research, which will emphasise multidisciplinary research, training young researchers and engaging the public. When it opens in 2016, the Institute will be a new centre of global research excellence focused around a multidisciplinary approach to tackle challenging scientific questions underpinning health and disease. Our recent donation confirms our commitment to the principles of collaboration and engagement that will drive future science and marks the beginning of an exciting journey wherein we will be working more closely with universities and researchers. Publishing is no longer just about disseminating research findings but ensuring their use in practical implementation of new research, policymaking and engaging the public.

Publishers and researchers share common, and pressing goals and ambitions that could lay the groundwork for game-changing science.

Prof. David E Neal, is senior vice president for Global Research (Academic) at Elsevier Research Applications and Platforms