Earlier today Elsevier announced a pilot project in which the American Chemical Society, the Royal Society of Chemistry, Taylor & Francis, and Wiley will syndicate selected content to the ScienceDirect platform. The articles will appear in search and browse listings.

In the pilot, more than 70,000 articles in 35 journals in organic chemistry and transportation will be integrated with Elsevier’s content on ScienceDirect. The choice to focus on two discrete fields is an interesting one, even for a pilot, which tells us something about how Elsevier might be able to make this program work. 

Panel from a table carpet showing the Four Continents, the Seasons, and Four Planets
Panel from a table carpet showing the Four Continents, the Seasons, and Four Planets

For purposes of the pilot, the display and access to full text will vary from the Elsevier content. Abstracts of the pilot content will be viewable on ScienceDirect. When the pilot content is open access, the text will be available on ScienceDirect; however, the user will be linked to the original publisher’s website for the formatted PDF. If the content is only available by subscription, users will be linked to the original publisher’s website with no display of full text on ScienceDirect. Users who are entitled to the subscription content, as determined on ScienceDirect through GetFTR functionality, will be linked directly to the full text on the original publisher’s website. Other users, who either lack entitlement or for whom entitlement status cannot be determined, will be directed to the landing page for the article on the original publisher website.

This is not Elsevier’s first foray into enhancing the offerings of ScienceDirect by linking to other publishers. Of course, Elsevier and other publishers all avail themselves of Crossref linking. But, those who have been in the industry for some time may sense some echoes of the ScienceDirect Gateway linking program, which allowed libraries to enable external linking from ScienceDirect to partner publishers if they were subscribed to content from those publishers. At the time, Pat Sabosik, Elsevier’s Executive Vice President, Electronic Publishing, ScienceDirect observed: “These reference linking agreements underscore the power a true multi-publisher platform such as ScienceDirect can provide to its end users.” With this pilot, Elsevier is clearly still trying to advance a model in which ScienceDirect is more of a content hub than simply a publisher-specific content delivery platform. 

A Developing Supercontinent?

Fast forward two decades-plus to today and the infrastructures for full text hosting, linking, checking entitlements, and authentication/authorization have evolved significantly, many developed with significant support and contributions from Elsevier as well as other major publishers. Through this pilot, we can begin to see what ScienceDirect as a “multi-publisher platform” might be. In some ways, this seems to signal a move to develop as a supercontinent, to use the term coined by fellow Scholarly Kitchen Chef Roger Schonfeld. If successful in doing so, ScienceDirect would position itself to compete with ResearchGate and Google Scholar, among other supercontinent contenders. While at one point it seemed that Mendeley was to be the locus of the Elsevier strategy to aggregate discovery and access, this pilot suggests that ScienceDirect could serve this role instead, particularly in competing with ResearchGate, a company that Elsevier has ongoing lawsuits against in Germany and the USA.

Contrary to Schonfeld’s notion that a supercontinent would provide content without the user leaving the supercontinent platform, however, at least in this pilot, ScienceDirect is not serving the full text for subscription articles to the user and is not serving the PDF for either subscription or open access articles to the user. While the user has an integrated search, browse, and display experience on ScienceDirect, content access and delivery remains distributed across multiple platforms. This is reflective of what Gaby Appleton, Elsevier’s then Managing Director of Mendeley and Research Products, termed a “connected galaxy of knowledge that researchers can travel through at light speed” in a Scholarly Kitchen guest post

This ScienceDirect pilot provides a better user experience than the one that results from publishers providing their content to Google for indexing, as there is no entitlements checking in Google Scholar, even when authentication is facilitated. In contrast, content syndicated to ResearchGate – by Wiley and Springer Nature, among others – is served to the end user in PDF on the ResearchGate platform, with access authorization determined by ResearchGate rather than through the GetFTR service. 

Given the expense of hosting and serving content on platform, this ScienceDirect pilot will be an experiment to learn if those costs can be offset by GetFTR removing friction in navigating entitlements across platforms. If so, it may be possible to bridge across “archipelagos of content” without negatively impacting the researcher experience. It may be possible for discovery to be delivery without centralization of content. For this reason, user satisfaction and user experience will be equally important to monitoring the effectiveness of the pilot in increasing traffic to the partner publishers’ content.  

Content Delivery Strategy

We can also see in this pilot that the industry’s investments in infrastructure to enhance content discovery and delivery – e.g., GetFTR, Distributed Usage Logging, persistent identifiers, Seamless Access – are beginning to cohere into a more robust and integrated user experience. 

For the partner publishers, this ScienceDirect pilot offers an opportunity to further develop their content delivery strategy through juxtaposition of their articles relative to others in the same disciplinary field. Rather that relying on users going to a subject-specific database, the literature in these two fields – organic chemistry and transportation – will be indexed within the larger scope of ScienceDirect database, with all of its benefits of structured metadata, controlled vocabularies, linked identifiers, etc. that are minimal or lacking in Google Scholar and ResearchGate. In essence, this pilot reminds us that ScienceDirect is already a freely available discovery tool and a user of ScienceDirect gets all of the benefits of a subscription database, whether they are only able to access the open access publications on the platform or if their entitlements enable access to subscription Elsevier – and now other publisher – content as well. 

The strength of the organic chemistry collection is particularly notable here as the Wiley portfolio includes Chemistry Europe, an association of 16 chemical societies from 15 European countries. Given that the Royal Society of Chemistry has not implemented GetFTR, which Wiley and the American Chemical Society have, there is also an opportunity here to look at the impact of the entitlements signaling on ScienceDirect on user information behavior. This could also inform other publishers as they consider the relative value of investing in GetFTR implementation as a support for content delivery.

Where Next?

It seems inevitable that, should this pilot evolve into a permanent ScienceDirect offering, the specific details will evolve. I will be particularly watching to see whether it remains a mutual data sharing model between Elsevier and its partner publishers or develops into a paid service that charges the partner publishers in addition to the bilateral data flows. I am also reminded that user privacy questions in the scholarly publishing landscape are increasingly complex and that library licensing practices are struggling to keep up

Industry observers may be surprised by this pilot for any number of reasons but in particular that three of the other top six publishers would be willing to even consider syndicating their content to the platform of one of their biggest competitors in the publishing space. What this collaboration among competitors portends long-term remains to be seen, but with Springer Nature syndicating content to ResearchGate, all of the largest publishers except SAGE and, well, Elsevier, have answered Schonfeld’s question – Will Publishers Syndicate Their Content? – in the affirmative.

Lisa Janicke Hinchliffe

Lisa Janicke Hinchliffe

Lisa Janicke Hinchliffe is Professor/Coordinator for Research Professional Development in the University Library and affiliate faculty in the School of Information Sciences, European Union Center, and Center for Global Studies at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign. lisahinchliffe.com


20 Thoughts on "Elsevier’s ScienceDirect as Content Supercontinent? "

Couple of thoughts come to mind about this, to my mind, very welcome development. 1. It’s what Elsevier tried to do when it launched ScienceDirect, but at that time other publishers wouldn’t play ball. 2. It’s pretty much exactly what we’re doing with Policy Commons: in our case, we’re bringing together around 3 million policy research reports and other documents from 7,500+ self-publishing IGOs, NGOs, research centres and think tanks into a discovery ‘supercontinent’ (I like this term) before routing users back to those websites to download the full text/serving up the full text ourselves depending on entitlements. So, our best wishes to Elsevier on their experiment.

The $64,000 question here though is user behavior. Will they see ScienceDirect as the portal to go to?

That’s a $64 million question. Maybe more. Decimal points matter.

More accurately it’ll be whether Google see’s it as the place to go to.
Users search for articles/topics not platforms. If google ranks science direct first then that’s where users will follow

Bravo Elsevier! Bravo to the participating publishers! This offering is long overdue as the individual research is exhausted in conducting multiple searches across many platforms to find the articles that support their research hypothesis.

As Toby Green mentioned in his comment, Karen Hunter, former SVP Strategy at Elsevier and the Godmother of TULIP, EES (Elsevier Electronic Subscriptions) and ScienceDirect offered the entire publishing community to load their content on ScienceDirect at no cost and they would maintain commercial control of their content. Only a few small publishers (Anderson Publishing LTD- Applied Radiology) signed on to ScienceDirect. Wow that was 24 years ago. Karen’s hypothesis is that Publishers would save considerable technical investment while maintaining commercial control of their business.

This new pilot is brilliant as it allows a researcher to conduct one search that will lead to the full-text content on the publisher’s platform. I believe that these publishers will see significant increases in their abstract and full-text searches.

As the industry is concerned about their information being accessed on non-approved platforms and researchers are seeking more effective and efficient search solutions, this pilot provides a lot of promise and goodwill.

I spent a lot of time trying to track down the early days of ScienceDirect this past weekend! I found some (as mentioned in the piece) but I couldn’t document that any had taken up on the hosting offer nor that it had been offered, though I had a vague memory of it. It was interesting to read about TULIP from the perspective of a couple decades in the future. It is really amazing how discovery and access have developed from those initial days!

Somewhere, I’ve got a copy of the report Elsevier produced about TULIP. I’ll find it, digitise it and upload it to Policy Commons.

Back in the early days of CatchWord I remember that Elsevier/ScienceDirect was a competitor and did offer hosting services to other publishers. I can’t quite remember which publishers signed up, but I do vaguely recall there were about three of them. I recall also that even then one of the elements of librarian feedback on the TULIP project was that until JAMA and NEJM were available online it was unlikely that end users in medicine at least would search a database that didn’t include them. I remember that coming out in a presentation given by Karen Hunter at ALA Mid-summer in 1994. Springer had a similar experience with their Red Sage product at the time. Back then the debate was ‘Content is King’ versus ‘Context is King’. If Science Direct is about to become the super-index then maybe the pendulum is swinging back towards context, and context the true battle-ground of the future.

I’m not seeing the goals here. Setting aside business practices, Elsevier delivers excellent products. I realize it doesn’t have to fit into an existing product category, but I don’t understand the strategy and value. Is ScienceDirect now a publisher (Elsevier) DB with some chem papers indexed from other publishers — with the addition of a GetFTR layer? Is it trying to provide the value of a subject-specific index (e.g. Inspec, PsychInfo) for users who want a curated collection w/ controlled vocabs to increase search relevance and save time? Or is the plan to add more domains (and publishers) to become a content supercontinent, which would basically make Scopus obsolete?

Is it all about ‘leakage’? Then I can see how it relates to Pure or even Chorus w/ their VoR focus and directing users to the publisher site rather than, say, an institutional repository, PubMed Central, or any green location.

(I’m not confused as to why ACS and Wiley want to increase the discovery points for their content — the more access points the better for them if it directs traffic to their sites.)

I don’t really have much more to offer at this time on what I think the strategy is for Science Direct beyond what I’ve offered in the piece. But, I don’t see that Science Direct becoming a supercontinent makes Scopus obsolete at all given its value-add is the selectivity, which is what drives the metrics offerings (that power the university rankings industry).

Thanks, Lisa! Elsevier has a good grasp on user needs and workflows, so we shall see if the pilot is successful :).

Scopus is still reliant on subscribers. If an ERL’s overlap analysis reveals that there’s not enough coverage differentiation between ScienceDirect and Scopus, I could see subscribers dropping Scopus and opting for SciVal if they need analytics. SciVal seems better positioned to compete w/ Clarivate in the univ rankings horse race.

Someone with a subscription would need to confirm this but … based on looking into bundling questions … I believe you need a subscription to Scopus in order to add SciVal on top of it?

That’s correct. SciVal is an add on not a standalone – it’s an analytics layer that runs on top of Scopus. I’m an RI librarian, not an ERL librarian, and so from my point of view ScienceDirect would not be a substitute for Scopus. We definitely discuss the value of these subscriptions with our ERL librarians though. Many researchers also use the Scopus database via the API for various use cases that SciVal would not compensate for. To get API credentials I believe your institution needs a Scopus subscription. Although Google Scholar can provide some similar functionality in terms of forward and backward searching and identifying related work, you can’t harvest data from Google Scholar without significant manual intervention (researchers have tried). The curation in Scopus is also better and Scopus also has the embedded altmetric platform PlumX metrics which means you don’t have to go to another platform to figure out things like geographic reach, policy mentions etc in relation to an article. So I don’t see SciVal substituting for Scopus for a number of reasons. What seems more likely is for Elsevier to bundle the two in the future – no longer offering Scopus as a standalone and adjusting the price (please don’t Elsevier).

Thanks for the super helpful clarification about SciVal, Willa and Lisa! I had access at one of my former jobs and they did indeed also subscribe to Scopus (and ScienceDirect). I don’t work in academia and I have to admit that it was great to have access.

Given the discussion here, I wanted to share what David Tucker of the Elsevier Global Communications Team sent to me: “Scopus and SciVal are available to purchase separately – there is no requirement to own Scopus in order to purchase SciVal. They are separate solutions which provide different benefits to customers. Scopus and SciVal do share some data sources and enabling technology, but they provide different benefits to customers through distinct features. They are part of a portfolio of solutions called the Research Intelligence Portfolio. Each of the solutions in this portfolio can be purchased and used separately, or in combination with one another. They share some common data sources and benefit from some of the same technologies. In short, they work well together. They can certainly be used separately, they also play well with other institutional solutions, be they open source, third-party, or institution-specific.”

I’ve personally not encountered any place that has SciVal and not Scopus but David also did confirm for me that they exist. Perhaps someone who is a reader here has that experience and can share more about it.

I’ve been thinking about this some more and I’m wondering if we’re looking at the wrong question. It’s not that is ScienceDirect turning into a publisher or aggregator, but more, is google still effective for finding content? And if it isn’t, how will researchers/students find content in the future? Nearly every big scholarly publisher has been trying something like this (Atypon with Scitrus) but no one has found the magic source yet. I also (in physics) see this as an opportunity for arXiv, assuming they could get the necessary investment.

There are lots of interesting big issues, but I’m going to throw out a little one, that’s within my wheelhouse to understand well. Usage data, specifically COUNTER data, and more specifically item investigations and requests. Elsevier and its partners will need to untangle (if they haven’t already done so) how they’re going to count user views for the partner content on SD, and then if/when the platform takes them over to the partner platform, what gets counted there. Making sure nothing is improperly double-counted could be complicated.

An interesting question. It would be great if someone expert in the Distributed Usage Logging project could weigh in on whether DUL has a mechanism to handle this.

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