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Disseminating STM Information: Extended expectations need extended services

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The way scientific information was disseminated in print may hold lessons for the electronic age. Tom Wilkie examines the potential

More than a century ago, scientific publishers invented a system for disseminating scientific knowledge that made them a profit while meeting their customers' needs for regular, convenient access to the latest theories and experimental results. It was the printed subscription journal.

Only since about 1985 has the realisation grown that the subscription model may be the best way of providing information for end-users electronically as well as in print. According to Sjoerd Vogt (below), recently appointed Managing Director of Swets Blackwell UK, the ground was broken in the mid-1980s with CD-Roms as the new delivery medium.

Sjoerd Vogt

And Mr Vogt should know - he was in charge of Dialog's CD-Rom operation during the late 1990s. 'It was the first time that electronic information was being made available on subscription. Previously, all online services had only been available transactionally,' he said. By allowing institutions to take out a subscription, rather than to pay per item retrieved, Dialog opened up its services to many more end-users. Students, for example, could now access data secure in the knowledge that they would not have to pay when they made mistakes. 'The print world had used subscription services for more than a hundred years, but the electronic world was discovering it for the first time,' Mr Vogt said.

His conclusion is radical. While much of the rest of the world sees the Internet as the perfect medium for individual transactions - whether online book-buying at Amazon or cut-price travel through web-booked airlines - Mr Vogt believes the trend is in the opposite direction for the provision of scientific information: 'Electronic and transactional are mutually exclusive.'

If the Internet does permit direct, unmediated transactions between end-users and scientific publishers, then intermediaries such as subscription agents will inevitably get squeezed out. If Mr Vogt's analysis is correct, on the other hand, then companies such as Swets Blackwell will have a growing role in the future. Swets operates as an intermediary between publishers and librarians, providing subscription and information management services for academic, corporate, and government libraries.

Mr Vogt's analysis speaks directly to what he sees as the central opportunity for Swets in the UK. Among large commercial companies, he said: 'What we're seeing is that the information infrastructure of most organisations is rapidly changing. It's becoming more decentralised and moving services out to the end user. This means that there is a substantial opportunity for growth in delivering the information services, as long as partners and companies can effectively position and explain their services to the new band of users.'

Big companies have made large investments in their corporate intranets, and senior management sees enormous value in adding external content to intranets both to increase usage and to ensure a return on investment. Thus, managers are open to approaches made by information partners that offer such external information sources.

In many respects, the corporate world is following the trail already blazed by the academic world, which has always been at the forefront of bringing sources of information direct to end-users. For Swets UK, the academic market is in a mature part of the business cycle, and the task facing the company in this sector will be 'to get it right and to continue to exceed existing customers' expectations,' Mr Vogt said.

But he sees the corporate sector going through a much more traumatic process, in the sense that 'when you decentralise services to end-users, you're breaking the spoon-feeding mould, where researchers have been able to rely on trained information specialists to do the work for them, whereas now they are expected to do this information gathering themselves.'

In many respects, his analysis of the situation echoes that of GlaxoSmithKline's (GSK) vice-president for information management, Dr Melanie O'Neill, reported on page 26 of this issue. However, according to Dr O'Neill, GSK brought publishers' representatives in to the company to discuss the changes. Is this an instance where large corporations can take advantage of their size to deal direct with large publishers, squeezing the agent, the middleman, out of the picture entirely?

'We've been here many times before. Whenever new services or technology become available, there is a tendency for groundbreakers to go direct to customers,' Mr Vogt said. He cited the move in the early 1990s for database suppliers to deal direct with their customers. But eventually there was a countervailing trend as customers realised that the smaller database companies were not directly available, and so customers returned to the intermediaries to do the deals for them. Mr Vogt believes this is a general trend; individual customers realise that they need order and consolidation because it's inconvenient to maintain relationships with multiple suppliers - 'so they become open to a consolidation service such as Swets.'

The two dominant companies offering subscription and information services, Ebsco and Swets, are sufficiently large that they can keep all publishers on their toes, ensuring prompt delivery and chasing up any missing back issues - a collective benefit that individual consumers acting independently might not be able to achieve by themselves. 'You can never have a problem-free distribution service,' he warned. In the longer term, the convenience factor of having a truly stable partner, who can service all of a company's information needs, is enormous, he maintained.

While the corporate sector represents the business opportunity (and challenge) for Swets in the UK, Mr Vogt sees the convenience of the Web for individual transactions as another form of challenge. Users' expectations are formed at home, by the convenience of online shopping and Google searches. These expectations are carried into the workplace, where the demands made of professional information systems are of equally high order.

Customers are looking to service providers to give a complete solution, covering information discovery, location, research, and delivery. And the technology needs to be there too. It is important to integrate into other parts of the supply chain by partnering with other companies, integrating into customers' intranets and portals, and to have support services that cover a wider spectrum than was the case even five years ago.

In this respect at least, the two main companies, Swets and Ebsco, appear to be marking out slightly different strategies. Swets' parent company has just sold off a publishing subsidiary to concentrate the company more and more on the information services side of the business - it will specialise in information services but without pushing its own content. Ebsco, on the other hand, is taking a slightly more generalist path of providing content as well as the service side of the business.

From this December, Swets Blackwell is to be known as Swets Information Services. Partly, the name-change reflects this emphasis on the provision of information services to customers - no longer just a subscription agent but covering a wider spectrum of customer needs. Partly, too, the change reflects recent history, as the company was originally a joint venture between the UK company Blackwell and the Netherlands firm Royal Swets & Zeitlinger. But Blackwell withdrew, and the company is now wholly owned by RSZ. Although he has only comparatively recently joined the company, Sjoerd Vogt himself could serve as the personification of a Dutch-based but international company. He was born to Dutch parents in Zambia, where his father was an agricultural researcher. (Phonetically, his name is pronounced 'Sherd Vocht'.) With no suitable schools locally or in the Netherlands, he ended up at boarding school in Scotland. He retains the ability to play the bagpipes even today.

After a chemistry degree at Exeter, he spent two years in Sierra Leone, on VSO work - a vividly non-colonial experience of Africa. This was followed by an MSc in soil chemistry. He was approached by Dialog, which was looking for someone with a scientific background who had European language skills. Because he had been responsible, while at Dialog, for relationships with distribution partners such as Swets and Blackwell, and because a brief stint in Kuwait put him on the librarian/information professional side of the fence, he said: 'I do feel as if I know and understand where Swets services are coming from and what customer expectations are.' And as those expectations expand in response to new technologies, he concluded: 'It's our job to meet those challenges. That's the fun part of it.'