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Celebrating twenty years of STN

Twenty years ago two forward-thinking organisations in Germany and America realised that the future of scientific and technical research was online. They also anticipated that anyone wanting to provide researchers with sci-tech information would have to offer an international solution.

The result was The Scientific and Technical Information Network (STN) International, an online service devoted to sci-tech information.

The two parent organisations were US-based Chemical Abstracts Service (CAS) - a division of the American Chemical Society - and German producer of scientific and technical information, Fachinformationszentrum Karlsruhe (FIZ Karlsruhe). Both of these already had experience of running their own online services: FIZ Karlsruhe launched its INKA service in 1978 and CAS ONLINE was launched in 1980.

'STN International grew out of an idea that was boldly ambitious for its time � a global network that would provide seamless access to a disparate collection of leading scientific databases stored on different continents with local service and support by scientists,' comments Robert Massie, president of CAS.

STN was launched in May 1984 but its aims of being a global service were enhanced three years later when the Japan Science and Technology Agency (JST, formerly JICST) was invited to fill the Asian gap in the venture.

'We recognised early on that at least one additional service centre would be needed before STN would accurately reflect the original image of an international service,' explains Sabine Brünger-Weilandt, managing director of FIZ Karlsruhe. 

It was to be a winning formula. STN has become the world's premier international scientific and technical host, with a customer base that now spans the globe. This success took time, however, and STN has faced the same challenges as all professional online services over the past 20 years.

Its first priority was to assemble a compelling and comprehensive portfolio of 'must-have' data and the partners began with their own content. CAS loaded its most important databases, including CA, a bibliographic file providing access to the abstracting and indexing information published in Chemical Abstracts, and REGISTRY, which enables users to search and identify chemical substances. FIZ Karlsruhe contributed its PHYS (Physics Briefs) file, a bibliographic database covering the literature in all fields of physics and related topics.

But the STN partners understood that, to provide a comprehensive service, they would need to offer third-party databases and become the leading neutral platform for sci-tech information.

This was successful. STN now hosts more than 220 bibliographic, factual and full-text databases � with some 400 million individual documents. Its portfolio includes Engineering Information's engineering and technology database, Compendex; IEE's physics, engineering, computing and information technology database INSPEC; and the Beilstein database, which contains organic chemical information such as structures and reaction details. STN also hosts the US National Library of Medicine's MEDLINE file and the Institute for Scientific Information's SCISEARCH file.

The jewel in STN's crown is its collection of patent databases. In 1993 Derwent Information agreed to load its Derwent World Patents Index (DWPI) file on STN. DWPI currently offers more than 27 million patent documents and details of over 13 million inventions from 40 countries around the world.

Now, STN hosts some 20 patent-related databases, including CAS's CHEMLIST, CHEMCATS and MARPAT files; and the European Patent Office's international patent file, INPADOC, which provides bibliographic and family data on patents and utility models from 71 patent-issuing organisations.

STN is also the only online service today to offer CAplus, making it the sole platform on which users can search CAplus, DWPI and INPADOC together, and it is the largest repository of publicly available sequence information, offering CAS REGISTRY, GenBank, Derwent Geneseq, and the World Patent Application Biosequences (PCTGEN).

Improving the technology
Beyond the portfolio, what really distinguishes one online service from another is the quality of its search and discovery tools. Achieving excellence means more than providing powerful first-level search commands; it is also vital to offer high-quality specialist tools that can search database-specific information fields such as chemical structures, biosequences or numeric values.

A key priority for STN since its launch has been to fine-tune and improve its search platform. In 1992, for instance, it added a function to allow multiple databases to be searched simultaneously and to identify and remove duplicates. It also created a number of file 'clusters' that facilitate comprehensive, subject-based, cross-file searches in around 50 science, technology and medicine subject areas, including patent information.

In 1993, SmartSelect was launched. This powerful new command set helps users to conduct real-time statistical analysis, rank search results, and generate tables. SmartSelect also allows users to export data and search expressions from one file to another. A user could, for instance, automatically import patent numbers identified from searching the CA file and use them as the basis for a new search in DWPI.

And with more users now searching from PCs, STN has developed and continuously upgraded its point-and-click front-end software package, STN Express. Among other things, this allows users to save money by preparing searches and drawing chemical structures off-line, and then logging in to search on them.

The software, now called STN Express with Discover!, also comes with wizards to provide users with a range of search assistants and post-processing tools. And, following the launch of the Analysis Edition last year, users can now visually analyse information too.

Embracing the Web
As a proprietary online service, STN pre-dated the internet. Its distributed architecture, however, meant that embracing the web was a logical and straightforward next step. STN can now be accessed via a variety of web interfaces.

In 1996, as more researchers ventured online, STN introduced a new web interface called STN Easy � enabling occasional users to search on approximately 100 of the most important STN databases through a web browser. And for professional searchers wanting to exploit the full command set and functionality of STN via a browser interface, STN on the Web was introduced in 1999.

Finally, in recognition of the growing importance of the organisational intranet, STN Easy for Intranets was launched last year. 'STN Easy for Intranets allows us to deliver the high-quality STN content to the desktops of individual researchers via their own intranet,' explains Brünger-Weilandt. Alerts, predefined searches, custom categories and custom links are all available.

The development of the web has also seen increasing demand for access to original documents. In the early days bibliographic files were mainly used to identify documents. Users then went off to their library, or a third-party document supplier, for the original document. Now they want a more seamless process.

To meet this need STN has, over the years, loaded more full-text files. In 1999, in order to facilitate researchers in locating the relevant original literature identified in the search of STN databases, it launched the STN Full Text Solution. This gives direct access to over 5400 electronic journals. FIZ Autodoc in Europe, CAS DDS in the USA and the JST documents delivery service in Japan then provide convenient document delivery. In short, while many predicted that the web would prove the death knell for traditional online hosts, STN has demonstrated that, by adopting a flexible and innovative approach, it is possible to combine the power and depth of a proprietary online service with the usability and breadth of the web � giving users the best of both worlds.

The future
Over the past 20 years, a great many online services have failed or been acquired. Indeed, recent years have seen such a welter of consolidation that few online hosts remain. STN's success, says Brünger-Weilandt, was based on three important factors. 'Firstly, we formed an international network of premier scientific databases; secondly we developed a very sophisticated search system; and thirdly, we created an effective one-stop shop for sci-tech information with high quality service and support by scientists.'

What is perhaps most distinctive about STN, however, is not that it is one of the few remaining independent services, but that it has managed to become the leading online sci-tech service competing against companies with far greater resources.

'Nevertheless, today's new competitive landscape raises new challenges, and demands new approaches,' says Brünger-Weilandt. 'Given the rapid technological development we have seen in recent years, the products of most information providers are now of an equally high technical standard. This means that customer buying decisions depend on more than technology alone. Moreover, due to consolidation, we increasingly have to compete with large international players able to deploy professional marketing techniques. Marketing is an essential ingredient to survival.'

In appointing Brünger-Weilandt as its new managing director last year, FIZ Karlsruhe deliberately chose a candidate with a strong marketing background. 'Ms Brünger-Weilandt brings a fresh perspective and new energy,' says CAS's Massie. 'She speaks the language of competitive global businesses, and has a clear focus on results.'

So how does the future look for STN and for the industry? 'We expect continuing consolidation in the industry,' replies Brünger-Weilandt. 'We also expect a continuation of the trend for content owners to become increasingly important players in the industry � not just commercial organisations like Thomson and Reed Elsevier, but patent offices too. STN's USP is its continuing ability to offer its customers databases from competing information providers on a neutral platform, with a uniform design and accessible via one common interface.'

But perhaps the central thread running through STN's 20 years of success, says Brünger-Weilandt, is that it has always listened to its customers. 'The best celebration of STN's 20th anniversary is for us to renew our commitment to continue working hard to meet our customers' needs for the next 20 years.'

contact details

Rüdiger Mack, FIZ Karlsruhe, STN Europe
Tel: +49 7247 808 555
Fax: +49 7247 808 259