It seems like every week there's an announcement about yet another Internet mainstreamer like Google or Amazon making a foray into the world of scholarly content. What's going on here? Why are broad-based, general-purpose companies moving into the rarified atmosphere of academic search? Perhaps they see an opportunity to help users in an area that many of the proprietary online services have not done well with: facilitating browsing. Our friends at Google and Amazon figured out long ago that consumers don't just search—they also love to browse. By providing lots of links, well thought-out taxonomies, and other ways to encourage serendipity, millions of searches on services like Amazon or Google end up taking people in unlikely but useful new places that go far beyond their original query. However, many proprietary services, in a quest for precision combined with a reliance on Boolean techniques, fail to inspire users to look beyond the first set of results.
But there's hope. Some of the latest incarnations of scientific and scholarly research products sport fun and interesting ways to expose users to unexpected information. Recently, I had the pleasure of test-driving a handful of science and technology services to get a sense of how the products handle browsing.
One of the easiest ways to help users find additional information—particularly well done via the Related Records Summary page on Thomson Scientific's ISI Web of Knowledge product—is to create hyperlinks within a search result that point directly to a list of articles whose cited reference lists include at least one of the sources cited by the original (parent) article. Another useful approach, used by Elsevier Engineering Information in its Engineering Village 2 product, surfaces a taxonomy of related terms in each search result. The Engineering Village 2 search results include hyperlinks to other articles by the author and to the main heading terms as well as controlled terms, uncontrolled terms, and classification codes.
I found the new interface powering CSA Illumina—built with input from customers at universities, research organizations, and corporations—to be a real stand-out. In one particularly interesting nod to Googlesque ease of use, CSA Illumina has a Quick Search tab in which you need only enter search terms and choose a database and date range to hit the ground running. This is much easier than clicking a bunch of radio buttons before you can even get going (an advanced search tab is also available). Like the Engineering Village 2 interface, CSA Illumina also reveals descriptors as links to take you to places you might not think about when you first execute a search. I started by searching for "tsunami AND earthquake" and ended up clicking through to descriptors including "Tectonophysics" and "coastal sedimentation."
For some great ideas on the direction that academic information can go, check out the Computing Reviews, a site that takes serendipity to a new level. Computing Reviews, in partnership with the Association for Computing Machinery, aims to provide access to current research, theory, and applications in all sub-disciplines of computing via the review medium. The volunteer reviewers write expert, unbiased critical reviews of current publications in the computing field. What's particularly cool about Computing Reviews is that the site has adopted a print publication-like model on top of its search engine structure. Editors create "Today's Issue" with a highlight review and a synopsis of each of the 150 or so reviews of books and articles posted that day. Scanning Today's Issue provided me with a more interesting experience than just jumping into the search engine. I also like how the editors offer "Highlight Reviews" and even an interesting quote. On the day I wrote this column, the quote was from the 1923 English translation of Karel Capek's play Rossum's Universal Robots.
Computing Reviews takes it a step further with a "Hot Topics" feature of interest that's updated on a regular basis. Recently I checked out "Overlay Networks: Networking on Top of the Network." Surprisingly, I found the article very approachable (even for a Liberal Arts graduate) with pretty diagrams to illustrate the points. In other words, they know how to help you stumble upon something useful. This approach makes editorially important content simple to find and easy to use and understand.
As general search engines like Google and search-based content-savvy retailers like Amazon continue to innovate, smart scholarly content providers will watch each and every move with interest. Injecting serendipity-power into academic search products isn't easy, but I'm confident the efforts will be rewarded by customers who spend money on the products that are successful in allowing users to look beyond search.