Reinventing reference

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Putting reference titles online can take publishers a long way from the traditional concept of a book, as Tom Wilkie discovered when he spoke to Elsevier's Suzanne BeDell

How ironic it is that, to get a routemap to the future of ebooks, it may be best to consult an atlas.

Elsevier’s BrainNavigator is a standard reference work for neuroscientists. Once it was a traditional print-on-paper atlas, with lavish coloured maps showing anatomical structures in the brain. The latest version, published to coincide with the Frankfurt Book Fair in October, is an online, interactive combination of data with 3D software that greatly extends and advances the application of atlases, maps, and images of brain anatomy.

By an interesting coincidence of timing, its publication came just three weeks after the company announced that it had appointed Suzanne BeDell as managing director of Elsevier Science & Technology Books. Although virtually all the development of BrainNavigator had taken place before her appointment, her excitement and enthusiasm for the project – and for its potential as one example of how ebooks might develop in the future – was evident when she spoke to Research Information in Frankfurt.

Suzanne BeDell has more than 28 years of experience in the publishing industry, working in STM publishing and digital information companies such as Thomson (now Thomson-Reuters), McGraw Hill, and Mosby (now Elsevier). Before she joined Elsevier, she had spent nine years with ProQuest, most recently as general manager of Dialog, which provides online information services for research-intensive organisations.

In her new role, she will be one of the most influential people in the development of ebooks for a scientific and scholarly readership. BrainNavigator ‘is a path forward, but it will take a lot of experimentation to figure out if this is the way forward,’ she said. ‘Books are being read on new devices. The next step is to take content and transform it into something different.’ One of her considerations is how to make the production process for such ebooks efficient. BrainNavigator is highly sophisticated, she pointed out, but asked: ‘can we emulate it in a production environment with other titles?’

BrainNavigator helps locate the position of structures within the brain, allowing neuroscience researchers to save time and improve the quality of their research, while making visualisation and communication of scientific findings about the brain easier and faster. The content has been integrated with sophisticated software tools – the 3D imaging is beyond what most publishers can do, she remarked. But the intent is more ambitious still: that BrainNavigator should be a workflow solution and act as a hub for brain and neuroscience research, allowing researchers to search ScienceDirect and Scopus – to text mine journals – without having to come out of the application.

Other titles are slated to follow the BrainNavigator model, including a new version of MethodsNavigator, which helps labs find protocols for use in different experiments. Another one, intended to be deployed on mobile ‘platforms’ is Hazmat, a compendium of information about hazardous materials that, for example, the emergency services could access on mobile devices while they are actually attending an incident.

But faced with the excitement of these new technologies, BeDell retains a clear sense that they need to prove themselves commercially as well. Speaking of BrainNavigator, she remarked: ‘You can’t just sell it like a book any more. There is always a risk that we will get too involved in creating the product and forget how to sell it.’ BrainNavigator is a complex product that has its own complex sales process: ‘It is difficult to get the neuroscientist who knows its value to persuade the librarian who had the budget to pay for it,’ she said.

Another similar title is Geofacets, which presents the visualisation of geological and geographical data. The process of revising and upgrading this may offer a case study on the way forward. ‘We need to step back and see how we can publish the highest quality content we have but also have the mark-up and the intelligence in the data to make it as useful as possible. Look at what we’re doing with SciVerse [Elsevier’s new integrated portal for content and applications]’.

For Suzanne BeDell, the future of ebooks is about integration of different technologies and different ways of presenting information, or, as she put it: ‘what books can do using the content we have access to’. But it is also about working out how to produce them economically: ‘We need to get this thing to scale – that’s the challenge.’