Helping RSS help researchers

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Roddy MacLeod reveals how universities, publishers and funding bodies have come together to improve how researchers are informed of the latest journal content.

Scholarly journal publishing is a major business. It is worth more than $5 billion per year and around 2,000 STM publishers are estimated to publish between 20,000 and 25,000 peerreviewed scholarly journals worldwide(1).

With most of these titles, newly-published articles form the cream of the journal publishing cake. These new articles reveal the results of recent research, often for the first time, so it is important that researchers know about them as soon as possible. This is particularly true now that many research funding bodies require submission of research output to institutional or subject repositories within a few months of publication in scholarly journals. If researchers do not hear about new papers when they are first published then they could choose to go straight to the repository and bypass the publisher altogether – a situation that could cause concerns for the publisher’s accountants.

Despite the issues at stake, however, discovery methods for new articles appear to be underdeveloped at present.

Traditionally, keeping up with the literature meant physically browsing journals in a library or scanning cross-publisher clipping services. More recently, it has involved saved searches in online databases or the delivery of Tables of Contents (TOCs) by email. Many publishers provide email TOC alerting facilities, and private research has shown that such services are very popular. However, the process usually involves additional registration processes, and can result in administrative overheads.

The project will allow researchers to select Tables of Content from journals of interest from an easy-to-use online directory of thousands of feeds

RSS (Really Simple Syndication) has emerged as another delivery mechanism for journal TOCs, with many journal publishers now offering this option (a good list of publishers providing RSS feeds is available at the University of Liverpool Library’s website:

However, exploiting RSS today can involve a certain level of understanding of the principles of feed syndication. It may also require the downloading of a desktop feedreader or registration with a web-based feedreader, although internet browsers are becoming increasingly RSS-friendly. There is also the issue of finding out what journal TOC RSS feeds are available. At the present time this can involve considerable effort.

These barriers to easy-to-use journal TOC RSS are being addressed in a new project known as ticTOCs (see box). The project has been named ticTOCs because part of the service will involve the ticking of selected TOCs of interest, from an easy-to-use online directory of thousands of feeds.

The main goal of this project is to develop a freely-available service that will make it easy for academics, researchers and anyone else to find and display scholarly journal tables of contents from multiple publishers, without having to understand the technical or procedural concepts involved in the process. In addition, it will facilitate the aggregation of TOC feeds and their reuse at other sites, and enable items in feeds to be exported to bibliographic management software, from within a simple web-based environment.

The intention is to encourage showcasing of the latest research output at numerous websites. This will happen by enabling the reuse of TOC content by gateways, subject-based discovery services, library services and others. Another aim is to make it easy to subscribe to journal TOC RSS feeds, with one click, through seamless linking to the ticTOCs service.

Tackling standards


Finally, ticTOCs is producing recommendations for good practice for TOC RSS feeds. These are important because an analysis of the current practice of publishers with regard to the provision of TOC RSS feeds has revealed a wide variety of different processes. There is a need to encourage the production of more standardised journal TOC RSS feeds, thereby facilitating their interoperability and improving the quality of their data.

The project is being hailed as a significant development in journal current awareness. The intention is to demonstrate how the innovative application of simple technologies enables the easy delivery of valuable services. A prototype service is expected to be running by April 2008.

Roddy MacLeod is senior subject librarian at Heriot-Watt University, UK.

1. UK scholarly journals: baseline report. RIN, RCUK and DTI, 2006.

The people behind the project

The ticTOCs project, which is being led by the University of Liverpool Library, began in April 2007 and is scheduled to run for two years. The UK funding body JISC is the primary funder of ticTOCs and Crossref, ProQuest, RefWorks and Emerald have also invested in the project.

Other consortium partners include Heriot-Watt University, where most of the technical development is being undertaken, and Cranfield University, Nature Publishing Group, SAGE Publishers, Institute of Physics, Inderscience Publishers, MIMAS, Directory of Open Access Journals, Open J-Gate and Intute.

More details about ticTOCs can be found at and a ticTOCs news blog is available at: