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Engineering underpins every part of our lives. Sian Harris finds out about the information needs of engineers today

Imagine you are developing a chipset for a new smartphone, working out the best material for encasing a reactor or designing the foundations of a suspension bridge.

These – and many more – are everyday challenges for engineers and the results affect all of us. But what information is available to help them address such challenges and how do typical research information sources fit into the engineering landscape?

Firstly, there is no single answer to either of those questions. The background research on mobile-phone technology is, of course, different from that of the rock types underlying the proposed bridge site. But there are differences beyond subject material too. There are also differences in the ways that different types of engineers prioritise information types, as well as variations depending on what it is they are working on.

As Karen Hawkins, senior director, product design at IEEE explained, ‘Engineers use information in different ways depending upon what type of work they do and where they are in a project’s life cycle.’

She pointed out that, early in a project, an engineer may do a survey of the literature to learn if a particular type of problem has already been addressed or if an idea is a new opportunity. But there are other information needs: ‘IEEE, in addition to publishing journals and conference proceedings, is a standards development organisation. Later in the life of a project an engineer may refer to standards to ensure interoperability of a product or system,’ she added.

In addition, engineers need to monitor new developments in technology and to find answers to specific problems.

There is also some general-interest reading: ‘Of course, some engineers read scientific literature simply because they have a personal interest in science and technology,’ noted Eric Pepper, director of publications at SPIE.

Ben Ramster, journals manager at ICE Publishing agreed: ‘Civil engineering practitioners will use scholarly information for continuing professional development, to stay on top of the latest developments in their field. They also enjoy reading project papers "in the bath"; large projects are often what first attracted them into the profession.’

However, as Daniel Smith of the Institute of Engineering and Technology (IET) pointed out, information behaviour varies by speciality. ‘The IT/communications area tends to use conference proceedings a lot more than anything else. These engineers also do almost all their research online but other specialities do less online. It’s easy to say "engineering" but every discipline is different.’

Academia and business

There are also differences depending on whether engineers are working in a corporate or academic environment, although the boundaries between these are often blurred.

‘Academic engineers usually have strong connections with the business engineering world via cooperative ventures,’ observed Steven Petric, senior product manager for Elsevier’s Engineering Village A&I database. He noted that the needs of engineers in industry include easier access to references, data tables, and figures; awareness of the newest technologies; accurate information for benchmarking existing technologies; and recent and historic pricing trends for certain chemicals.

According to Chris Forbes, CEO of Knovel, ‘In industry, the journal doesn’t see much use. Papers are seen as "interesting ideas but not commercially useful now". Engineers in industry are looking to solve problems, so they are not so interested in something at an experimental phase.’

Chris Forbes 

Ben Ramster of ICE Publishing agreed: ‘Practitioners are very interested in reading about lessons learned and challenges overcome on "real" projects. They are less interested in academic research where an author cannot demonstrate the impact of his work for the profession today. Academics are, to generalise, interested in reading broad and timely research delivered to their desktop.’

IEEE’s Hawkins observed that these differences have an impact on the role of information professionals working with engineers: ‘A wise corporate librarian once told me that he saw running a corporate library as a bit like running a convenience store. His users need the content that will help solve a specific problem when they are working on that problem. They may even pay a premium to get that information quickly, but they don’t need the library to stock a very broad range as long as they can reach out and get what they need in a timely way. Academic libraries on the other hand, particularly at major research universities, see themselves as the keepers of the full range of scholarly output in their topics of interest. They are very concerned with completeness, and protecting the legacy of scholarly information,’ she explained.

And academic usage also depends on whether the academic is using the information as part of teaching or research. Whatever the environment is, however, some issues are common across engineers and indeed across researchers more generally. ‘Ease of access and navigation are paramount. If researchers can’t get to content efficiently and ascertain its relevance quickly, chances are they’ll move on to something else. Therefore, searches, wherever they are conducted, need to yield highly-relevant results,’ commented Pepper of SPIE, who added that while PDFs are still the mainstay, technical information is increasingly available in HTML format.

Human interaction

Conference proceedings are highly-regarded sources of information on the latest developments in engineering. ‘They provide very current research progress reports and results in active and emerging technologies, much of which can’t yet be, or may never be, found in the journals literature,’ explained Pepper of SPIE, which has an extensive programme of conferences and proceedings.

IET’s Smith agreed: ‘Current awareness information is more likely to be found in conference proceedings. Engineers do publish journal articles but unless they are in academia that is not really the top priority. Conferences are where people are at the point of revealing where they’ve got to with their work.’

A big trend with conferences recently has been the growth in filming of conferences. ‘We have, with the presentation video and slides side by side, and I expect we’ll integrate this into our offerings going forward. We could possibly also include post-event discussions to help people to collaborate,’ said Smith.

Trust built through personal interactions is important. ‘Research we’ve done in the past revealed that the place that engineers go first for information is to talk to their peers,’ he added.

With this in mind, IET has started its MyCommunity social network. ‘I think social tools are going to become quite important. There is a lot of information that is relevant to engineers that has no formal process of peer review. Engineers want to use it but they also want to know if it has value by finding out what their colleagues think,’ he said.

ICE Publishing’s Ramster has observed similar behaviour: ‘Word of mouth between practitioners and academics is still an incredibly important way to find information. Larger civil engineering companies have strong in-house mentoring programmes and engineers will gain information (knowledge of codes, standards etc) this way. Companies like Arup also have their own in-house magazine,’ he noted.


Patents also form part of the information landscape for engineers. As Hawkins of IEEE noted, ‘depending on the type of engineer and their professional responsibilities, engineers, particularly those with responsibility for applying for new patents, will cite patents as prior art. Some engineers also make extensive use of information on electronic components and application notes explaining how particular parts or components work and can be incorporated into other products or systems.’

‘One of the key objectives [of using patents] is looking at the commercial landscape,’ added IET’s Smith. To help engineers use patents better and to help patent experts use literature for prior art research, the IET and Minesoft have begun to work together on the new Minesoft Inspec platform (see box: ‘Mixing scholarly literature and patents’).

‘The product with Minesoft is about the research leading to patents. Making that information available is key,’ explained Smith.

Such tools help engineers search for and find information more quickly, an important requirement for their research. ‘A significant proportion of research begins on search engines such as Google or Google Scholar. Other resources such as Microsoft Academic Search are gaining ground. It behoves publishers to ensure that our sites are well covered in these resources,’ observed Pepper of SPIE.

Generally, however, engineers move on from such mainstream resources to more specialised engineering resources. One such tool is Knovel, which pulls together engineering materials from a range of sources, including books, magazines, standards, patents and journals. ‘We gather information from a very wide range of sources and try to think about it from an end-user perspective,’ explained Forbes.

Knovel can be searched either in a Google-type way or with a numerical search. ‘The information being searched is very complex, in a number of different forms. Someone might search with units in feet but the actual result is in metres. We do conversion on the fly so the search results will return both,’ he said.

Eric Pepper 

Knovel also does live maths. This means that engineers can use equations in Knovel to do calculations with their own data.

‘I think there’s recognition on the part of engineering managers that engineers need information to solve problems and that they need to ensure that teams have easy access to information that is right. Google and Wikipedia don’t satisfy that,’ said Forbes.

Integration with other tools is also important. ‘The number 1 piece of software used by engineers is Excel. We have content directly exportable into Excel and have also just introduced an Excel plugin. This allows people to work directly in Excel but use our content,’ said Forbes, who noted that the company is also looking at integration into tools, such as CAD software.

Engineering mobile access

Engineers are also impacted by wider trends in scholarly information and the internet generally. One such trend is the rise of mobile access to information. Some engineering companies provide staff with tablets, while others say they will support any devices their staff bring into the office. This brings the desire to access engineering information on such devices.

‘The use of mobile technology for accessing engineering information can be expected to grow at the same rate as the overall increase in mobile usage, as tablets in particular provide more tools to manage this graphics-rich information,’ predicted Pepper.

‘For the future SPIE is planning to enrich the conference experience further for our attendees by offering real-time mobile access to the material being presented during the event, including on-site mobile access to proceedings papers, live and recorded videos, and additional as-yet-to-be-determined enhancements,’ he added.

Of course innovation in information delivery is not simply about the information. Delivering high-quality, relevant information more quickly to engineers helps to fuel the invention of the future: the reactor casing, the bridge and even the smartphone that future engineers might use to access their conference proceedings, patents and other essential information.

Mixing scholarly literature and patents


Katy Wood 

Engineers are experts at turning ideas into practice and so the bringing together of scholarly papers and patent information makes good sense. This is just what the engineering society publisher IET and patent search tool company Minesoft (which provides the PatBase global patent database) have done with the recent announcement of the Minesoft Inspec platform.

As Katy Wood, Minesoft’s marketing manager explains: ‘We recognised the value of the Inspec database for the patent searching community. Inspec is an invaluable non-patent literature source for prior art, state-of-the-art and current awareness searches, as well as for retrieving publications that may help to oppose or challenge the validity of new patent applications. The inclusion of Inspec Archive in Minesoft Inspec means that patent searchers have direct access to over 100 years worth of quality prior art literature in the fields of engineering and technology.

‘Inspec includes the International Patent Classification (IPC) – a coding system to facilitate quick retrieval of relevant patents according to the area of technology that they address. Minesoft Inspec allows users to search by IPC code, and to visualise results according to an IPC breakdown.

‘Inspec is a great source of competitive intelligence for patent and intellectual property professionals, used to identify new players in the marketplace or find a new application of an existing technology. The Minesoft Inspec platform builds on this by offering the ability to monitor competitors or new technologies through regular alerts to keep updated on the latest developments.

‘The aim has been to use our expertise to provide an enriched search experience for Inspec, through intuitive user interfaces and features such as text and cluster analysis tools and a collaborative folder system. Specialised indexing and precise search filters enable fast and accurate searching of Inspec for both professional researchers and end-users working in engineering and technology.’

In addition to providing direct links to the original full text journal articles from across the engineering and technology worlds, Minesoft Inspec also offers the ability to monitor competitors and new technologies. Weekly alerts can be sent to users to keep them informed on the latest developments and ensure that intelligence is being shared.

Some developments for engineers to look out for
  • IEEE has recently worked with MIT to launch the MIT Press eBooks Library – Computing and Engineering Collection, which includes more than 400 e-books. The society is also converting much of its back files to HTML. Almost 200,000 HTML articles are expected to be available by early 2013. The new HTML presentation format allows users to engage with and better utilise elements such as figures, equations and multimedia files; quickly scan article contents via a new "Quick Preview" feature; navigate through article sections; and see related articles. 
  • In January, SPIE is launching a new programme that provides gold open access upon publication for a journal article for which authors or their institutions pay modest voluntary page charges. The society plans, during 2013, to add an additional 20,000 new conference proceedings and journal articles as well as 15 to 20 new e-books to the more than 375,000 entries already in the SPIE Digital Library. SPIE also plans to continue to develop and upgrade its mobile technologies including several SPIE apps.
  • Knovel has just ‘rewritten all its code from ground up,’ according to Chris Forbes. The company will be releasing a new platform that is completely API driven, which will help it be integrated into workflows.
  • ICE journals will further investigate mobile technologies in 2013. The society is also launching two new ICE Science journals. The titles to join the journal portfolio will be called Green Materials and Surface Innovations.
  • When the next release of Engineering Village (EV) from Elsevier comes out in July 2013, this engineering abstracting and indexing database will be on the same access systems as Scopus and ScienceDirect. This is expected to increase interoperability between the products and give users the ability to have a single sign-on when accessing the products. The publisher will also continue to add content in all engineering disciplines. One of the main content projects is to add more engineering conference proceedings. The company is currently testing functionality that will use both the EI Thesaurus and cumulative search data to auto-complete searches on EV. The team believes that this will make EV more useful to users of all levels.