Meeting mobile needs

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The role of mobile access to research information is growing. Siân Harris reports back from the SLA conference on what researchers and students want and what is being delivered today

Over recent years the idea of mobile access to information has gathered momentum. But what do researchers and students want from mobile tools, are they getting this today, and what is planned for the future? These questions were addressed in a series of talks at the Special Libraries Association (SLA) conference in San Diego, USA, in June.

First to speak was Neil Allison, an organic chemistry professor at the University of Arkansas, USA. He noted that mobile apps are ‘still in their infancy’ but that there are ‘some great products out there’.

For him, what makes a ‘great product’ is clear. Top of his list: ‘Accuracy is key for everything. If it’s not accurate we won’t recommend students use it,’ he said. ‘The problem with a lot of the apps available is that there is no review process. That really worries me,’ he continued.

He went on to show examples of mistakes that he has found in common chemistry apps. These include the use of the wrong terminology, compounds categorised wrongly and incorrect 3D representations of molecules. Great products also need to be easy to use and useful, he said.

Allison, along with his son, has developed his own iPhone app for organic chemists. Tap OChem gives concepts, reactions and molecules. It includes animations to help students – particularly those who are visual learners, to see how chemical reactions occur.

He said the app, which students can download for 99c, is an ongoing project and that new reactions are added regularly. To help ensure the accuracy he values so highly, he said he has a colleague who proof-reads everything.

Beyond his own app, he spoke about some of the other apps available for chemists at different stages in their careers. In the general chemistry space, he noted a range of chemistry drawing tools, including IMoleDraw, ChemJuice and ChemDoodle. However, he said that an app from ChemDraw, the ‘gold standard’ drawing tool for chemists, is currently missing and he noted that the usefulness of other drawing apps depends on their compatibility with ChemDraw.

He also referred to a couple of periodic table apps for the iPhone: EMD PTE and ChemTouch. ‘Both interfaces are very nice. EMD PTE is probably the stronger of the two,’ he said.

At a graduate tool level, he said he was impressed with ACS Mobile, from the American Chemical Society, although he noted that not being able to download the full-text articles is a limitation. However, he described the app of the CRC Handbook of Chemistry and Physics as ‘a bit disappointing’, calling it ‘basically a mobile version of the print book, with some inaccuracies’. Similarly, Organic pKa was a ‘pretty good app but has some accuracy issues’.

For undergraduate chemistry, he noted that Organic Chemistry Essentials is a popular app but he has found inaccuracies with this as well.

Mobile access changes things for librarians too, as Andrew Carlos, a librarian at California State University East Bay, USA, revealed in his presentation.

‘I see students using mobile apps but not much of this use is for research,’ he observed. ‘I do a lot of my research on my phone but I don’t see a lot of other people using it.’ He thinks that many students are not aware of what mobile resources they could use and sees a role for librarians in doing more to build awareness with this.

There is another challenge too: ‘I try to look at mobile more in my classes but not all students have smartphones,’ he said. ‘We serve a very wide community – some who can afford smartphones and some who can’t. This makes it hard to set assignments that are cutting-edge.’

Sara Rouhi, manager, library relations at ACS Publications made a similar observation: ‘We’ve found that lots of undergraduates have smartphones but fewer grad students have them – once Mom and Dad aren’t paying!’

Carlos identified two main types of mobile tools for research and education – database-specific and vendor-specific. He also noted the different approaches to access: ‘Some are IP based (personal account) and some use mobile pairing. I find personal accounts better because I can do things like access saved searches,’ he commented.

Another thing that he likes is the approach that some information providers take, offering trial access on mobile devices. ‘I love that a lot of the big ones have trials. The Scopus app is a really good deal – and having mobile access to it is awesome because lots of people can’t afford the full product.’

But there are some things that he’d like to see improved with apps. ‘I find that, if tools only give abstracts, students don’t like them and develop a hatred of the library,’ he remarked. He also bemoaned apps that are ‘just a skinned website and maybe not even mobile-optimised.’

Many of Allison’s and Carlos’s comments and concerns were echoed in presentations by developers of such tools for researchers.

The Royal Society of Chemistry’s NPU Alerts app enables users to search on natural products to find chemical structures 

Greg Aspin of EBSCO, explained that the company chose to develop mobile products to promote usage growth. Its approach is to have one code base. ‘This allows us to be very agile and get functionality out much more quickly. It gives maximum user-reach and flexibility for product-specific mobile solutions,’ he explained.

What Aspin was describing was a key theme in many conversations at the SLA meeting: the idea of responsive design, where websites are designed so that they fit the screen size and specifications of the device that is connecting to them.

‘Mobile is about movement and is therefore unpredictable. Whatever we deliver has to keep pace. There are vast differences between mobile devices. Every imaginable device connects to our system and we don’t want to alienate any users,’ he continued. ‘We don’t want to link people back to a standard site. It needs to be intuitive.’

And there are some other things that users want. A common theme in the presentations was that, if full text is available to them, users want to be able to access it from their mobile devices. In addition, as Aspin noted, localisation is important. ‘Users are worldwide and there are different languages,’ he observed.

And then there are differences in how people want to use content. ‘Some customers build their own custom mobile apps and they want to pull in our content. I help customers with this,’ said Aspin.

Mobile traffic is still relatively small. According to Aspin, mobile usage now peaks to four per cent of traffic to EBSCO content, with iPads accounting for half of this. However, this is significantly up from the company’s mobile traffic peak of one per cent in 2011 – and, in some cases, the traffic is much higher. In South Korea, for example, where there is very high mobile usage, the company says that mobile access counts for 10 per cent of its total traffic.

Despite EBSCO’s focus on mobile websites, however, Aspin still sees a need for apps in some cases too. ‘A lot of content needs to be used offline, for example medical resources like DynaMed, and here we offer a weekly download,’ he said.

The Royal Society of Chemistry (RSC) has encountered similar challenges and considerations in developing its mobile strategy. Its first mobile app was in 2009, although Steven Hawthorne, the company’s executive director, sales, marketing and strategic partnerships, joked at the SLA meeting that when the RSC began in 1841, ‘mobile’ meant ‘a piece of paper’.

The reasons behind the society’s first app, for the magazine Chemistry World, he said, were to get close to the reader, discover new audiences and in response to reader demand. ‘Apps puts research into the hands of chemists,’ said Hawthorne.

Since then there have been plenty more developments (see product focus section, pages 24-28) and plenty more are planned too. ‘We want to try and use all the functionality on mobile device to get the most of apps,’ he said. One example of this is an idea being developed, called ChemGoggles, which uses the camera on mobile devices to capture chemical structures in papers and then search for them in ChemSpider.

There is other functionality on the phone that can be used too. ‘We’ve not developing apps to make money, but to engage with users,’ Hawthorne explained. One way to do this is to take advantage of the geopositioning capabilities of the smartphone. ‘We’re developing an app of chemistry landmarks and we’ll provide photos and directions,’ he said.

If such projects are successful in engaging people, they could end up inspiring the next generation of students and researchers to study chemistry and to form their own opinions of, or even develop themselves, the mobile chemistry apps of the future.


Useful wiki for scientific mobile applications: