The Institution of Electrical Engineers: Inspec

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Committed to providing a quality service for scientists

The truth may well be out there, but unless it is properly indexed there is very little chance of most scientists being able to find it. Inspec, the Institution of Electrical Engineers' bibliographic database, lives or dies by its ability to index the vast amount of research information that is published every year.

Inspec can trace its history back to Science Abstracts, one of the first bibliographic publications, which the IEE first produced in 1898. Since then it has grown to cover physics, electrical engineering, electronics, communications, control engineering, computers, computing, information technology, mechanical engineering, and manufacturing and production engineering.

Generations of scientists became familiar with using it to track papers. In the 1970s libraries the world over took its card indexing service to keep abreast of new developments. In the late 60s Science Abstracts started an electronic service called Inspec, which has grown to more than nine million indexed articles and conference proceedings. Records are being added at the rate of 450,000 per year. It tracks 3,400 scientific and technical journals and 2,000 conference proceedings, together with numerous books, reports and dissertations. Inspec is used by scientists tracking the latest developments in their field, companies looking for competitive intelligence and patent examiners, among others.

The first database was created in 1969, initially to make the production process easier. As online services started to evolve, customers were able to access the database directly. The technology has advanced considerably from the early days when information was distributed through online networks, such as Dialog, or even as magnetic tapes to large institutions. CD-ROMs became available in the 1990s and by the late 1990s online database vendors started offering access through site licences via the Internet.

Full linking and XML

Inspec has been designed to work with existing access software and last year was upgraded to XML, making it totally flexible. More than a million Digital Object Identifiers (DOIs) have been added to records so that users can move seamlessly from the index to the full text of articles; either under an existing access licence or on a pay-per-view basis.

Inspec is not a primary publisher: it sells its material through 15 commercial information services. Where it adds the value is through the high-quality indexing performed by its own team of scientists. Recently it obtained ISO 9001:2000 accreditation for the standard of document control and record quality. Its latest development has been to digitise its records right back to the first issue of Science Abstracts in 1898, which means that as well as current papers it is possible to track the classic publications of the likes of Einstein, Rutherford and Marconi.

Diane Richards (left), director of the EMEA region and of global sales administration for Inspec, explained: 'We have done this partly to preserve the information, because many libraries are becoming short of shelf space. Another reason is that searching using printed journals is extremely time consuming. Being able to search these archives electronically is particularly advantageous to people studying the history of science and very useful for patent-related searching.'

She believes that such searches were typically performed in less detail prior to the digitisation of the material. 'We believe that this is saving our customers an awful lot of time,' she said.

Unlike primary publishers, databases do not own the material they distribute. They are intermediaries and are thus impelled to provide a quality service that adds value for their customers - who will otherwise find alternative routes to the material.

This means that Inspec cannot afford to cut corners and must constantly keep ahead of the game, especially regarding new database technologies and features. 'We receive information feeds of metadata and text from the major publishers and we have teams of information scientists specialising in specific subject areas indexing that material,' Diane Richards explained.

Specialised indexing

'Everything in our process is human rather than automatic; we pride ourselves on the quality of our indexing. Other databases have access to the same source material so we have to index better and add value in lots of other ways. We have a large thesaurus, which has been growing since the early 1970s, and a detailed classification scheme used for searching. We also have specialised indexing for chemical substances, numerical data and astronomical object indexing. We use scientists to do the indexing, to make sure we have a quality product that is accurate and that scientists looking for information can find it fast.'

Inspec prides itself on the quality, comprehensiveness and timeliness of its information. Its focus in recent years has been on making its coverage more comprehensive so that all areas of the marketplace - which comprises large corporate, government and academic libraries, which in turn form a part of a complex triangle with customers and vendors - are getting the information they need and the features they want. Inspec has added to its coverage in production and manufacturing engineering and this year also in mechanical engineering.

The trend of growing research budgets, which means that more academic material is published, coinciding with library budgets failing to keep pace, has presented a particular challenge for services like Inspec, Richards said. But this situation keeps them on their toes. 'We understand the constraints of library budgets,' she explained. 'We are constantly striving to become more efficient and provide more for less, to stay ahead of the market.'

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