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The wealth of free information on the web is attractive to engineers but Siân Harris discovers that peer-reviewed literature and databases can still have a vital role in the research process

If you are developing a new piece of technology, what are your key information needs and how do you address them? This is a question that both commercial publishers and learned societies have to answer in offering information tools to help engineers do their jobs and in convincing them to use these tools.

The first thing to consider, according to Ross Graber, director of marketing and strategy for Elsevier Engineering Information (Ei), is that engineers are, by nature, practical. They are looking to solve a wide range of problems and are not exclusive about where they go to for the solutions. 'The answers to their problems are often not easy to find,' he said. 'They turn to a wide range of sources such as trade magazines, colleagues, peer-reviewed literature, conference proceedings, the news, technical standards, patents and even product details from vendors'.

They are also more interested in information that is tailored to their stage of the engineering process - which could be anything from blue-sky research to fixing a problem on some equipment that is in commercial operation - than they are in dividing up the different subject areas within engineering.

Ei's Engineering Village 2 research and discovery platform provides a range of resources that the company sees as valuable for an engineer to do his or her job. 'One of our greatest strengths is making content retrievable and meaningful. We help engineers find content that is relevant and reliable,' said Graber. 'Some users go in and set up topics to be alerted about on a regular basis. Others come to us when they have a specific problem.'

One way in which the platform helps, he said, is by having faceting technology to analyse data. This means that an engineer could, for example, search for what IBM has published in artificial intelligence in the last five years and move from that to discover who the company's competitors are in this area.

'The use of the platform is all about intelligence,' explained Graber. 'Engineers can be very involved in the competitive aspects of their businesses. They want to have a good idea of who their competitors are and what they are doing.'

The resources available on the platform include technical handbooks and technical material in government documents. In February 2006, the company is also introducing patent information databases with data from the US and European patent offices. 'We will make it searchable in conjunction with the other resources on the platform,' promised Graber.

In addition to these resources, the platform hosts Compendex, Ei's bibliographic database of peer-reviewed journals, trade magazines and conference proceedings in the field of engineering. Each year, around 500,000 new documents are analysed by engineers and indexers and added to this database. This analysis, said Graber, is an important part of providing value beyond what is offered on the open web. It ensures, for example, that all documents on laser optics are tagged the same way.

But Graber points out that lessons can be learnt from the way things are done on the free web. 'Most researchers are used to a web-type approach which involves entering keywords.' Engineering Village 2 has taken this observation to heart in the way that it enables searches. 'We offer an intelligent way to display search results to show researchers what the most relevant keywords might be and how many documents they might find for those keywords. We allow searchers to combine the keyword approach with the field restricted search approach (with pull-down menus),' explained Graber.

And it is not just about letting abstracts be a route to full-text articles. Tremendous value can be gained from analysing the search results themselves. 'The more that we can present to users the more value they can get,' pointed out Graber. 'We are putting considerable effort into helping users to analyse their results.'

International resource

Another important consideration for the resources on the platform is the issue of language. 'In Compendex we aim to cover important engineering publications without regard to the language it was originally published in,' said Graber. The majority of documents covered in the database are written in English. In 2004, for example, about 500,000 of the 580,000 were in English and many of the others have abstracts in English to help readers evaluate the importance of the research. 'Publishers and editors understand that the article has the best chance of being widely read and accepted if it is published in English,' said Graber. Nonetheless the database does have material published in other languages, particularly Chinese, Russian, German, Japanese and French (in that order). The number of references to Chinese documents added in 2004 was 39,000 and that rose to 44,000 in 2005. Abstracts are translated into English if no English-language versions are supplied.

Another resource that can be accessed through Engineering Village 2, as well as through many other vendor platforms, is Inspec, the bibliographic database for physicists, electrical engineers, manufacturing engineers and computer scientists that is produced by the UK's Institution of Electrical Engineers (IEE). It contains nearly 10 million bibliographic references and its newly digitised archive dates back to 1898.

Jeff Pache, electronic product and service development manager at IEE Publishing, told Research Information how a considerable amount of effort is required to make sure that the information in the database is comprehensive. 'Some of the material is provided from electronic feeds from publishers but with some we have to start from the print version,' he explained. 'If the journal is supplied in electronic form it can be processed very quickly - within a couple of days - but material in paper form takes longer.'

He sees full-text linking to articles as a vital feature of a bibliographic database. 'There is no point in finding out about an article if you cannot get it,' he explained. The Inspec team - made up of graduates around the world and in-house quality-control staff - use digital object identifiers (DOIs) to provide the linking for nearly two thirds of the material in Inspec. Some of these DOIs are provided by the publishers and some are obtained using the CrossRef system. As more publishers put their archive material online, additional DOIs become available and IEE does regular CrossRef checks on the database to ensure that as many full-text links as possible are available. In addition, abstracts are written if none are available and they are translated if their original language is not English.

Inspec has a thesaurus with around 8,000 keywords to standardise the index vocabulary. It also has a classification system for indicating the broad field of the paper and a system of chemical indexing for indicating the materials involved. In addition, there is numerical indexing for the ranges of parameters such as wavelength, temperature, and power output and treatment codes to indicate whether a paper is, for example, theoretical or experimental. Other relevant keywords from the document are also indexed if the concept or device name is too specific to be covered in the thesaurus.

Such detailed indexing enables the database to be used in a number of ways, ranging from putting in just a few keywords to very complex searches using parameter ranges that a librarian might do on behalf of a user.

Peer-review process shows quality

'Some years ago studies showed that the first call for information for engineers was colleagues - but that may now have been superseded by the web,' said Pache. Nonetheless, he believes that peer-reviewed literature is still very important. 'It has a quality stamp on it so it can be trusted in a way that is not necessarily the case for everything that can be found on the web. Peer-review is the definitive output for researchers,' said Pache. The IEE's own peer review journals are available on the IEE Digital Library as well as on the online journal platform of the Institute of Electrical and Electronics Engineers (IEEE), an organisation with its base in the US but members all over the world.

Barbara Lange, director of publications product line management and business development at IEEE, also feels strongly about the value of the peer review process for engineers. Since the late 1990s the organisation's 125 or so magazines and journals have been available online and Lange said that most of the content is now delivered online rather than just in print. 'The move to online is what we want,' she said. 'It extends access to more users.' But she points out that the move towards online publishing brings about new challenges.

IEEE's journals can be accessed via its online platform IEEE Xplore and the organisation is looking at ways to enhance this platform with different types of content and search methods. One example is the addition of multimedia elements to online articles so that authors can add, for example, demonstrations and data sets. A major challenge with this has been incorporating these elements into the peer review process and selecting referees who are able to review such materials. Uptake of the use of multimedia elements has so far been quite slow among authors, according to Lange. She attributes this to the fact that many authors may be working in disciplines that do not suit this capability - robotics and signal processing, for example, may lend themselves to multimedia features more than other areas of engineering. She also points out that some users may not yet have the tools to provide these elements.

Improving the speed of content delivery is another important goal for IEEE. 'With many of our journals we now publish individual articles as soon as they are ready, rather than waiting for a complete issue to be ready for printing,' she said. And in the future she hopes that IEEE will further exploit the opportunities of web technology. For example, there may be new ways to display articles beyond simply using PDFs and to make more use of multimedia features. 'People are very web-savvy now,' she pointed out.

Elsevier's Graber agrees that engineers expect to see more web-type technology in their research tools. 'We know that scientists and engineers don't just use scientific research tools and we hope that they don't just use the free web,' he said. 'We will continue to keep an eye on the best features of the web.'

One example of this for Engineering Village 2 is the recent creation of a way for users to cite its search records on their blogs. 'We are going to see more use of the types of features that will allow users to collaborate,' said Graber.

The use of Really Simple Syndication (RSS) is another way in which web technology is being adopted in specialist research tools. 'We piloted RSS with a few users last February and saw a very fast uptake amongst development customers - so much so that we had to ask them to hold off while we rethought how to offer it,' said Graber. He believes that the benefits of RSS lie in enabling users to self-aggregate the information that they want from a wide range of sources.

But the influence of the web is not entirely positive. Graber concedes that the biggest source for engineers now is the free web, even at institutions that already have licences to tools such as Compendex. 'One of our challenges is to make sure that our customers understand what information is available to them and where to go for different types of information. There is a certain perspective that the free web can answer everything,' he pointed out.

Nonetheless Graber does not see the free web as a threat. 'Products like Google offer different things from specialist tools like ours,' he said. 'Do you want to give the same credibility to information found in a product promotion website as something in a peer-reviewed journal? End-users are more likely to go to free web sites as the first source but those may not be the best places for them to end up.'