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.
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.
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.