Industry considers RSS

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Web developers are excited by the way that RSS technology can alert users to new journal articles and other content without them needing to visit dozens of web sites each day but are the users so excited? Industry analyst David Mort investigates

Really Simple Syndication - or RSS - presents a very simple XML structure for packaging news, headlines and links, and delivering them to user desktops and handhelds. RSS allows steady, dynamic web content to be streamed into one location, freeing up time for users to do other things.

The initial attraction of RSS to scientific publishers and databases was that it could be used as an alerting service, typically offering new tables of contents as they were published. This is still the main function of many RSS feeds, but some publishers are now developing RSS feeds for a range of other news services such as jobs, product data, events and public announcements.

Table 1 lists some of the many publishers and organisations that offer RSS to illustrate the range of content available. Interesting recent developments include the range of RSS feeds from Nature Publishing Group (NPG), which include separate RSS feeds for jobs and news as well as tables of content. Meanwhile, Elsevier's Engineering Village 2 is one of the first abstracting and indexing services to allow users to view, group, organise and retain references (including article titles and hyperlinks) using an RSS reader. Subscribers are now able to define their own tailored searches for comprehensive engineering databases including Compendex and Inspec, and receive results delivered directly via RSS. Journal hosting services such as Ingenta and Highwire also offer RSS feeds for most of their journals.

But the applications of RSS go beyond textual information such as current alerts and news. For example, RSS is also being used to transmit complete scientific data sets. A recent article by NPG staff notes that RSS is being used to deliver chemistry data encoded as CML (Chemical Markup Language) and adds that 'biological databases such as WormBase and Reactome are beginning to issue RSS feeds for news and may also be expected to use RSS to deliver data sets'.

Table 1: Examples of RSS feeds from selected publishers

Publisher/organisationRSS contentAmerican Chemical SocietyGeneral news and news from NanoFocusBioMed CentralContents tables, articles, most viewed articlesElsevierEngineering Village article titles, Science Direct content updatesHighwire PressContents tables and abstracts for 225 hosted journalsIEEEContents tables, articles, proceedingsIngenta Latest journal issuesInstitute of PhysicsNews, events, jobs, latest papersNational Academy of ScienceContents tables, articles, news, events, proceedings, public announcementsNature Publishing Group (NPG)Contents tables, summaries, news, jobsNew ScientistBreaking news and news by subject/topicOxford University PressContents tables for medical, life sciences journalsScience MagazineContents tables, news, new research papers, recent literatureThomsonKnowledgeLink news on scientific information developments

Users need convincing

Like most new web-based technologies, RSS has been surrounded by considerable hype. The IT and internet trade press is full of column inches predicting that RSS, and associated developments like blogs (short for weblogs) and wikis (server software that allows users to freely create and edit web page content using any web browser), will revolutionise the way we use the web.

In the specific area of STM information use, however, there is little evidence yet to suggest that RSS has reached critical mass. Our regular monitoring of STM information professionals supports this observation. In our latest panel survey of senior UK STM information professionals (which had 28 responses), less than half (39 per cent) stated that they were using RSS feeds and only 25 per cent felt that end-users in their organisation would be likely to use RSS feeds. Of course, new technologies take time to penetrate the market and IRN expects this percentage to increase, particularly if RSS content extends to more titles and gives more opportunities to search packages of titles rather than individual titles. More users would also be encouraged to use it if RSS content moved beyond simple tables of contents to other content. In addition, the use of keyword technology allowing for more tailored feeds should help. The anti-spam laws regarding emails are a further incentive to move content that is supplied more regularly to the RSS format.

Most publishers are taking a cautious approach to releasing their content via RSS at this stage. This is because none of them can predict with any certainty the extent to which information professionals, other users, and other service providers want to make use of the range of content that could be included within RSS feeds. There is also the question of balancing how much information is given away via RSS feeds against any return on investment that can be generated by making RSS feeds available.

One of the pioneers of RSS in STM information has been NPG. Its view is that providing RSS is a natural means of expanding web-based interfaces into its content. The company has also identified the potential for third-party services to use its RSS feeds to develop more content-rich services. This could ultimately increase NPG's presence on the web and possibly also increase its revenues. Alongside basic RSS feeds, we are likely to see the development of some subscription-based feeds offering premium and highly customised content. Advertising on RSS feeds is another option, but user resistance could be high.

Inevitably, the future impact of RSS is likely to be linked to decisions made outside the specialist STM sector. More search engines are incorporating RSS tools while Microsoft has already announced that RSS will play an important role in 'Longhorn', the codename given to the next version of Windows which is due in 2006.

Technology is attracting investment

It will also be interesting to track the success of RSS Investors, a venture capital fund recently set up to finance RSS-related initiatives and which plans to raise $100 million. RSS Investors sees opportunities for RSS in infrastructure products, such as those that will allow better filtering, search, scalability and security. This company predicts that a major growth area for RSS will be in enterprise products and corporate websites. For example, an RSS platform could help employees collaborate on projects and it might even help collaboration with alliance partners and suppliers. The fund is also expecting RSS to boost the development of online communities. For example, a community of cancer specialists could use RSS to share their findings.

Over the next 12 months, it should become clear whether RSS and associated technologies will truly change the shape of the web and the way we use it. IRN will be tracking the growth of these new information products and markets and undertaking a major survey of their applications and use. We would be interested to hear from anyone with a view on these emerging technologies, or anyone interested in our forthcoming study.

Getting to grips with RSS

RSS (Really Simple Syndication) is an XML-based format for sharing and distributing web content, such as news headlines. Using RSS reader software (sometimes called news aggregators), you can view data feeds from various news sources, including headlines, summaries, and links to full stories. The reader checks RSS-enabled web pages and displays any updated content that it finds. This is a more convenient option than users repeatedly visiting their favourite websites, and users only see material that they have not seen before. This means that the user saves time but does not miss any relevant updates.

There are free and paid-for readers available for download (such as Newsgator and NetNewsWire). After installing the software, you enter the addresses of RSS files that you are interested in and the programme will regularly check each of them, alerting you to any new items it finds. This enables you to stay up to date with the content of a large number of sites.

Another feature of RSS feeds is that they can be easily read by computers so can be used to incorporate content from one site into another site. Webmasters can configure their sites so that the latest headlines from another site's RSS feed are embedded into their own pages, and updated. RSS use is also linked to the growth of weblogs (blogs).

There are also web sites such as and, which allow you to create a personalised web page incorporating your choice of news feeds. RSS feeds can be included on a Google personalised homepage and, in October 2005, the search engine unveiled a more sophisticated web based RSS tool - Google Reader. It is also possible to download RSS feeds to an iPod using software such as iPodAgent.

David Mort is a director of IRN Research (, a UK-based market research and information company specialising in the analysis of European information and content markets. He can be contacted at

Further information

Hammond T, Hannay T, Lund B. The Role of the RSS in Science Publishing, December 2004. D-Lib Magazine.(
IRN Research. STM Information Managers User Panel Survey, Autumn 2005.