Simplicity and complexity

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CABI, which is owned by the governments of 42 countries, will celebrate its 100th birthday next year. We asked Carol McNamara, executive director for commercial activities, about what the organisation has seen in the past and its plans for the future

What trends have you seen?

The ways that people search are changing. At one end of the spectrum, there is the desire for simplification with Google-type interfaces and quick and easy searches for end users. Google has had a major impact in simplifying searching and now many A & I databases have become much simpler for end users.

At the other end of the spectrum there are the expert high-level searchers who want to do text mining and post-text searching. They are doing much more with the data than in the past. It can be a challenge for publishers to serve both these user groups.

To make things simpler, the tools have to work harder behind the scenes. Our thesaurus, which experts have always used themselves, is now being used much more both in our own and our vendors’ products and platforms to help users get the best search results.

CABI has been adding keywords and metadata for 100 years (2010 is our centenary year). To be able to find the article you are looking for you need very good pointers. Even with Web 2.0 technologies that make free text searching and discovery easier, you still need effective indexing.

We have seen that technical and scientific terms change. For example, today avian influenza is usually called bird flu, but if you looked in a journal from 50 years ago you would not find the term ‘bird flu’. CABI tracks back and makes sure that such terms are linked, making 50-year-old research discoverable.

How does CABI differ from a free search engine?

It depends on how good a job you want to do. Something like Google can give users enough information and it is often quite good quality with the likes of Wikipedia, but it is not peer-reviewed so they have to be careful. Synonyms might not be discovered.

We are living in the ‘good enough’ society and there is information overload. Using an abstracting and indexing database would save users time, but they may not realise it. If you search CAB Abstracts you know you are getting everything, because we cover the world’s literature and select relevant articles from many different journals.

However, we recognise that there are good things about services like Google. We work closely with Google and have made selected abstracts from CAB Abstracts freely available through the search engine.

How do you deal with other languages?

We abstract material published in 58 different languages and translate them into English. Machine translation is good for some languages, but not so good for the whole breadth of languages that we cover. Around 98 per cent of CABI databases are translated into English. Where we can’t get any translation, the abstract is included in its native language. However, the keywords, title and authors are translated into English so that they are discoverable in searches.

What are the big demands from researchers today?

One of the big demands is availability of data. Users want information when they click – they don’t want to have to wait.

We see discoverability as key to full text. Libraries normally have access to easy-to-find full text from larger publishers such as Springer and Elsevier, but we have now started to include full text for hard-to-find articles from, for example, learned societies in Central and Eastern Europe. We digitise these full texts and make the material discoverable. This is included in the price of CAB Abstracts.

Users are also increasingly multitasking. For example, they might be using Google, CAB Abstracts, Facebook and YouTube all at the same time, as well as downloading tracks to their iPod. Users have to engage with all these tools at the same time.

Our Environmental Impact database has many different entry points for users. They might use e-books or events, for example. It also includes Google Maps so users can find hotels if they go to an event.

On Biofuels Information Exchange, a site set up for scientists interested in the biofuels debate, there is scientific social networking. Users can post questions, get expert opinions and have an informed debate about the issues.

Our VetMedResource product is intended for people who used our database in university and then go into practice and don’t have access to it. The resource includes news feeds and social networking, too.

The tools that are available in users’ social lives are now being used more to improve scientific research.

At CABI we are very aware of the impact of Web 2.0 on the industry and have three in-house innovation managers looking at how we can use new technologies in our products. CAB Direct 2, which is launching in Spring 2009, will incorporate many Web 2.0 concepts and tools.

Interview by Siân Harris