Smoothing the workflow

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Content databases are continually evolving to support research libraries and researchers, writes Sharon Davies

As researchers are presented with many more ways to find scholarly papers online, so content databases are being developed and evolved to ensure researchers have the best experience of sourcing research materials.

Wouter Haak, Elsevier’s vice president of research data management solutions, observes: ‘Those in the front lines of science – researchers, research managers and librarians – are acutely aware that they find themselves in an ever more demanding and fiercely competitive environment. Ultimately, members of this academic research community want to make a difference for the world. Success in achieving this goal depends on all of them being effective with their time and work to achieve and maintain a competitive edge.

‘For this, academics already rely on the existing platforms from information solution providers. But their fast-changing environment requires innovations beyond and on top of those platforms. In building these new research tools, we started by listening to the needs of researchers, research managers and librarians. Many invited us to observe their daily work and answered our questions. They participated in ideation workshops and encouraged us to develop concepts from these workshops. They then tested prototypes with us. The results of these collaborations have inspired a suite of new tools and platforms designed to serve their changing needs.’

Haak adds: ‘Elsevier is creating this suite to support researchers directly in everyday, real-life challenges. Researchers tell us that their ability to achieve their goals and be creative is under constant pressure through incredible demands on their time. They compete for grants, run projects or labs, conduct research, write, edit and review manuscripts, mentor and teach. To keep up in their fields, they have to search for and sift through a tremendous amount of information. Further pressures come from being encouraged to perform more interdisciplinary research, often with the requirement of building a network of collaborators both inside and outside their institutions.

‘We are working to help them connect our content, products, metrics and academic communities in more intuitive ways – basically through collecting the underlying data from our platforms and combining these to drive better decision support tools and features. It will not be a stand-alone product or single web destination.

‘Instead, it comprises tools that connect our existing databases and platforms in intelligent ways and complements them with new functionalities where needed, like social networking and linking to external content and platforms. It will support key individual and institutional objectives: smoothing the workflow, increasing collaborations, showcasing work, securing (more) funding and ultimately turning innovations into impactful outcomes.’

Haak provides examples of functionalities that are already available including: My Research Dashboard, connecting Scopus, ScienceDirect and Mendeley; Mendeley Data (Beta), enabling researchers to put their research data online so it can be cited, shared and secured; and the ScienceDirect Article Recommender, delivering more relevant reading recommendations based on the researcher’s online search behaviour.

Haak continues: ‘The suite will also offer advantages to academic community members beyond researchers. Research managers will have more tools to aid them in advancing the strategic objectives of their institutions, such as tracking and improving their rank and reputation, identifying funding opportunities and attracting world-class talent. Similarly, it will support librarians as they add services to support researchers’ data management needs, and as they implement research and institutional repositories.

‘So what we’re basically doing is combining our reputable networks with world-leading content and data that, powered with technology, harnesses behavioural and network “signals” to generate a more intelligent user experience across our products. This empowers the academic research community to turn information into knowledge more efficiently, helping them make a difference.’

The role of database providers

Explaining the important role that database providers play in providing a high-quality service, James Phimister, vice president of strategy at ProQuest says: ‘Content databases form repositories of information that are invaluable to researchers and research libraries alike. When serving the need of researchers, a well-curated database ensures a level of comprehensiveness, while also screening and filtering out less pertinent content.

‘As such, content databases inherently accelerate a researcher’s workflow, eliminating the need to search across multiple destinations, or waste time on content that has not been reviewed or appropriately vetted.   

‘For the research library,’ Phimister continues, ‘content databases are valuable for the breadth of patron needs that are served. For the aspiring but inexperienced researcher, aggregated content databases provide a natural starting point for enquiry. For example, ProQuest Central brings more than 20,000 periodical titles, in addition to news sources, dissertations, video and more spanning 160 subject areas. Users can begin their enquiry across this vast and diverse content set, while successively narrowing search results with facets and search tools.

‘In a parallel vein, research libraries also value content databases for their specific focus. ProQuest has hundreds of databases that, while not all having broad interdisciplinary appeal, are essential resources for research, teaching and libraries. For example, researchers of American civil rights history, often find ProQuest’s Historical Black Newspapers, and ProQuest’s History Vault Civil Rights Collections to be essential resources. These collections cover not only well-known events, but also unheralded events nested deeply in association records and government documents. By bringing diverse content into one environment, new hypotheses and insights can be formed. 

Recent database trends

Highlighting some of the recent database trends, Ross MacIntyre, head of library analytics at Jisc, observes: ‘No-one would deny the importance of keeping a watchful eye on emerging trends in research databases, but it would be senseless simply to future-gaze and neglect tried-and-tested solutions that have long proven themselves to be the bedrock of resource discovery.’

Talking about Jisc’s Zetoc monitoring and search service for global research publications, MacIntyre added: ‘The Zetoc service has been supporting the research community in current awareness of quality-assured, comprehensive journal papers for 15 years, and is widely recognised as one of the world’s most comprehensive research databases.

‘With more than 1,000 new papers being published daily, keeping on top can seem like an unmanageable task. Zetoc’s continued popularity is due to researchers being able to personalise alerts that are relevant to their interests straight to their inbox, helping them keep abreast of the latest papers, as and when they come available, without spending lots of time and effort having to search manually themselves.’

Unsurprisingly this function was the most valued Zetoc service, cited by more than half of respondents in our latest survey.

MacIntyre adds: ‘While the highly-valued core service remains much the same as always, we are starting to see it being given more credence. A welcome trend we’re noticing is that electronic databases are starting to be cited in some research papers as the data source. While it’s still not prolific, and currently seems to be limited to science disciplines, the more this happens, the better picture we’ll have of where such databases have played a preliminary role in research.

‘Interestingly the service is not confined to academics and library staff. There are also large numbers of PhD students using Zetoc – accounting for almost one third (30 per cent) of respondents in our survey. Zetoc clearly has benefits for anyone starting a research project, and it’s encouraging to see that use is extending.’

Continuing on the theme of emerging trends, Phimister at ProQuest observes: ‘For the researcher, content databases are evolving to remove many of the barriers that could inhibit database usage. A recent trend has been for information providers to ensure that content is discoverable from as many starting locations as possible and, once the user arrives at content, it is rendered in a way that supports their workflow.

‘Today, users increasingly come to ProQuest databases through multiple routes, such as a library’s discovery service, or from Google or Google Scholar. Once reaching the database, authentication steps are made as seamless as possible. Once a user interacts with content in a database, trends have been to ensure engagement – for example, with added workflow tools including document and citation management and recommendations for related content, while at the same time providing a simple, uncluttered search interface.’

Phimister continues: ‘For research libraries, trends have been toward helping librarians make informed purchasing and renewal decisions. At ProQuest, we hear that many librarians have become overwhelmed with the plethora of products that are available. While some distinct databases may best support specific research groups, libraries often seek to purchase collections, or premium collections, which provide access to multiple databases, ensuring that a wide range of research groups are served.

Latest developments

A number of recent developments have been made in content databases. EBSCO has released a number of databases that expand on existing topics, including Communication Source and Philosopher’s Index with Full Text, plus databases that provide broad coverage to support academic research in new geographic areas, such as Arab World Research Source and Chinese Insight. EBSCO has also brought existing resources to the EBSCOhost platform, such as MathSciNet, and introduced new digital archives for Forbes and Businessweek. EBSCO has also expanded its partnerships with the American Medical Association and MA Healthcare to offer academic institutions access to the JAMA Network and MA Healthcare journals.

In addition, Phimister explains: ‘We are continually seeking to enhance existing databases, or launch new databases where there is established or emerging research and teaching interests. This year we will launch more than 20 new databases, including the UK’s House of Lords Parliamentary Papers, Women’s Magazine Archive, and Regulatory Insight – a rich resource that contains US administrative law histories, supplemented with tools that foster targeted search and learning.

‘At the same time, ProQuest continually enhances its existing databases with the most recent or available publications. For example, this year we have partnered with BMJ and the RCNi for inclusion of their titles in our aggregated databases, as well as REPEC and NBER economics working papers. These titles are in addition to the more than 7,000 periodicals added over the past few years.’

Benefits and challenges

Highlighting some of the benefits and challenges faced by database providers, ProQuest’s Phimister says: ‘One of the primary benefits of content databases is access to a diverse set of content types that are used throughout the research process, in a single location. ProQuest’s team of specialists and subject matter experts curate the breadth of sources required to achieve research and learning success in a given discipline. This often means stepping beyond traditional journal content to assemble diverse collections to include newspapers, working papers, dissertations, reports, surveys, raw data, and more, alongside secondary sources including scholarly and professional journals and monographs.

‘A challenge we share with many of our customers, is how to maximise the benefits of patron access. Content databases can be replete with tools that enable targeted, precision search, which benefits from content metadata. Associated workflow tools in the user environment can reward returning researchers who wish to stay on top of their research on an ongoing basis. These tools, if utilised, can profoundly impact discovery and learning. 

‘And yet utilisation can be a challenge. New users have expectations on layout and functionality built from experience of free resources. Their tolerance for learning new tools can be low. As such, at ProQuest we are continually evaluating how users interact with content. We test, in real time, small changes to the user’s environment, to glean insights into user behaviour and preference. In doing so, we can steer users, when it is appropriate, to new tools that can enhance their experience.’

So what does the future hold for content databases? Phimister concludes: ‘Perhaps 10 years ago, content databases seemed destined to join other technology anachronisms such as “floppy disk,” “mainframe,” and “Pong.” And yet, a funny thing has happened over the past decade. Databases are back, re-imagined, and fit for purpose. Some of the core tenets of content databases remain – they provide users with a degree of comprehensiveness, while removing irrelevant information. These tenets create a foundation for long-term growth.

‘And yet, importantly, some limitations of databases have started to dissolve. We no longer think of databases as being held in parallel silos, with impermeable walls that preclude information from enhancing content. Rather, today we think of content databases as a valuable part of an information ecosystem. They are resources that are continually enhanced and that support the user, anytime and anywhere. It is both by recognising why users valued content databases in the first place, and by using the latest advancements to improve them, that content databases are being revitalised.’