Portals enable national access

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Managing the information requirements and access for one university or corporate library can be complicated enough but the issues are increased when the researchers are spread throughout a country and beyond. Eric Goettmann and Marie-Catherine Gunet explain how portals have helped provide information access at the French national research centre CNRS

For several years now, the information society has been moving into the digital age and this has brought some drastic changes. Scientific and technical information, particularly scientific publishing, have been deeply affected by the changes with this new digital environment. Today, with the prominence of the internet, the scientific and technical information landscape has been totally remodelled.

Foremost in those changes has been the concept of the 'document', which has evolved from a one-dimensional static print page that includes figures, tables and sometimes photos, to the concept of content or 'materials' where the text can be linked to 3D figures and structures, sound, videos and dynamic images.

The traditional boundaries between primary and secondary information have also become blurred. The bibliographic references of secondary information providers (the A&I services) link directly to full text articles from primary information providers (the publishers) and to other relevant materials (additional materials, preprint archives, etc.).

Alongside this, the users' behaviour and habits have changed, and the end-user now seems to take a more prominent role. Today, instead of going to the library to leaf through journal issues, scientists can browse their favourite journals on their computer screens, search online bibliographic and factual databases and use search engines to find information on the internet. Users can do this easily from their desktops because the resources are now available in electronic form. This new electronic environment also means that end-users are becoming more demanding. They not only want trouble-free, seamless access to the information they need, but they want to be able to manage the documents or information they retrieve themselves. However, researchers and other end-users should not forget that they can do all this thanks to librarians, information specialists and computer specialists who, behind the scenes, are busy negotiating licences with publishers, setting up the technical access parameters, and managing the overall deals.

In France, the scientific and technical information environment has not escaped these changes and this has been especially true for the French National Centre for Scientific Research (CNRS). Its environment is complex: the research covers most disciplines from biomedical sciences to the humanities; the research units are scattered all over France; and some CNRS researchers work in other research establishments in France and abroad. But, wherever they are located, these researchers all need to access scientific and technical information resources such as bibliographic or factual databases, full text journal articles and other materials.

From its creation in 1989, CNRS's Institute for Scientific and Technical Information (INIST) has striven to find ways to answer the various information needs of the CNRS units and their researchers in the most cost-efficient manner. Networks and the web made it possible to develop online information services that federated resources. This enabled costs to be saved but allowed information to be freely accessible to CNRS researchers through a unique entry point.

Unique entry points
INIST turned to the concept of the portal or gateway to provide CNRS researchers with a unique entry point to a variety of scientific and technical information resources. In 1999, INIST launched 'Bibliosciences', a multidisciplinary portal that provides access to a whole range of general and specialised bibliographic databases, including PASCAL and FRANCIS, the databases produced by INIST. Developed with SilverPlatter (which is produced today by Ovid Technologies), BiblioSciences uses WebSPIRS technology to search across the available databases. Each CNRS unit has a login and password and can freely access the portal resources for which INIST has negotiated access rights and licence costs with the publishers. However, whether researchers can go from the bibliographic record to the full text depends on whether or not the unit subscribes to the electronic version of the journal.

BiblioSciences is the first illustration of INIST's commitment to bringing together online content and aggregating it through portals designed to serve the scientific community. Even though BiblioSciences was a success and is still used regularly, it soon became apparent that researchers from specific scientific communities were not quite satisfied with a multidisciplinary portal. They did not want to have to select the resources specific to their disciplines from resources that did not concern them. Instead, they wanted to have a unique access point to their own resources. This meant that there was a need to develop subject-oriented portals to federate resources targeted at specific scientific communities.

INIST therefore turned to the specific needs of CNRS's different scientific departments. It first developed 'BiblioVie' (see below) for its life sciences department and this was followed by 'TitaneSciences' for chemical sciences. Most recently, 'BiblioSHS' was developed for the humanities and social sciences department. As well as being subject-specific, these new portals differ from BiblioSciences in that the full text of articles is directly available. As with BiblioSciences, INIST is in charge of negotiating CNRS's access to databases, electronic journals and their archives with the major scientific publishers.

Besides these portals, which are targeted to researchers looking for documents to support their research projects, INIST also provides access to research assessment tools. This is through the EvalSciences portal, which is targeted at the members of the CNRS committee in charge of research assessment. With EvalSciences, they have access not only to the ISI citation indexes (Thomson Scientific), but also to assessment tools such as BioMed Central's Faculty of 1000.

But although 'community-oriented' portals are undoubtedly better suited to the information needs of the various CNRS scientific communities, the need for broader multidisciplinary information remains. PASCAL and Current Contents are by far the most heavily used databases offered through the BiblioSciences portal. And it is this need for multidisciplinary information that prompted INIST to launch a new database in the market. The International Science Database (ISD) is a resource for current awareness and in-depth research for any academic institution. ISD provides references to more than 8,000 internationally recognised sources detailing the latest advances in science, technology, medicine, humanities and social sciences. CNRS units and documentation centres have free access to ISD but Ovid Technologies manages its commercial distribution.

New trends in publishing
This range of services generally covers the information needs of CNRS's researchers as far as access to databases and electronic journals is concerned. However, new needs are emerging in today's scientific and technical information environment, primarily in what is called 'scholarly communication'. The open-access initiative, which calls for free access to the results of scientific research, encourages more researchers to take part in the scholarly publishing process, from publication to distribution. New electronic journals require a technical and editorial structure, while institutional repositories enable authors to self-archive their articles.

CNRS is contributing to this new scholarly communication environment through various approaches. Firstly, at the institutional level, it supports the October 2003 'Berlin Declaration on Open Access to Knowledge in the Sciences and the Humanities', which favours free access to research information. CNRS participates in the promotion of new publishing business models by informing the French scientific community through a portal dedicated to open access which was developed and is maintained by INIST. Secondly, at the operational level, it supports researchers wishing to adopt new publishing approaches by helping them define practices tailored to each disciplines.

This is exemplified by the CNRS-BioMed Central partnership. Researchers from CNRS's life sciences department can now publish, free from any constraints, in the electronic journals of this British open-access publisher. As an institutional member of BioMed Central, the CNRS's membership fee covers the article-processing charges for the researchers of its life sciences community. A final example of CNRS's support of scholarly communication trends is INIST's new elctronic publishing structure, which supports research communities in setting up new electronic journals or converting existing print journals into electronic journals.

CNRS is aware that scientific and technical information is of the utmost importance and that the new communication technology has brought along tremendous challenges. It will therefore continue to participate actively in the remodelling of the scholarly communication landscape.

Eric Goettmann and Marie-Catherine Gunet work at CNRS's information institute INIST