Content might still be king at global health and science publisher Elsevier, but the old definitions of content can't keep pace with the increasingly fast and faceted data needs of core audiences such as researchers, librarians, universities, and corporations. Taking some inspiration from consumer-driven sites such as Apple.com, Netflix.com, and nytimes.com, Elsevier is putting its content API up for grabs.
"Applications are going to be the new content," according to Rafael Sidi, vice president of product management for ScienceDirect, Elsevier's main online science journal platform, and leader of the company's new search and discovery solutions for academic and government products division.
At press time, Elsevier said that it would open content APIs to some of its biggest scientific and technical databases, includingScienceDirect, Scopus, and its new SciVerse Hub, giving users a way to build customized applications that offer intelligent discovery and search across Elsevier and web content, beginning Aug. 30. The content API will be available to limited users in Q4 2010.
The rest, says Sidi, is up to the research community, who can design, build, and fine-tune applications that best fit their data needs, no matter how broad or narrow. Developers will also have control over whether to distribute for free or charge a premium for their creations, Sidi said, and even nonsubscribers will be granted access to protected content if they are building applications for it.
The company has been staging contests among the developer community to build some applications in the year leading up to the launch, Sidi said. In 2009, Elsevier sponsored a contest called the Grand Challenge that invited researchers to submit prototypes of applications to utilize the fast-growing amount of online life sciences information.
The winner, announced in April 2009, was an application called Reflect. Designed by a team of German researchers from the European Molecular Biology Laboratory, the tool-which can be installed as a plug-in to Firefox and Internet Explorer browsers-enabled users to tag gene, protein, or small molecule names to any webpage with one click. Clicking on the tagged item will call up information about the item's important features, and users can navigate through the tool to commonly used source databases for more information.
The contest drew more than 70 entries from 15 countries, pointing to a real desire by the developer community to harness the potential of online technical knowledge, Sidi said. Already, Elsevier has deployed one app on its ScienceDirect platform and has several more in the works. NextBio aims to improve discoverability among health science, life science, and chemistry researchers.
The idea to open up Elsevier's content API came from 2 years of extensive interviews with researchers, librarians, engineers, and other members of the scientific community, Sidi said. Using information gathered from those interviews, the company then turned to the scientific community again to determine how to build more interactivity into their content, using apps not just to dice data, but to foster new connections between researchers, librarians, institutions, and technical experts.
"You want to provide solutions to researchers' problems," Sidi said. "The best way to do this is to turn the solution over to the community. They know much more than us in some cases, and they understand their problems best. Then, partner with the search community and give them our API so they can build solutions on top of our content. That way, researchers can expose their solutions to other scientists and create a collaboration environment."
He also saw a strong role for librarians in Elsevier's new project as well as corporations and universities hoping to find critical research or hunt for potential development partners or opportunities.
"Here's an opportunity for the librarian to connect [his or her] customers with the people who can build applications for [his or her] community," Sidi said. "As we create the marketplace, there will also be lots of opportunities for large companies or small companies to find some gem-engineers, developer-or some interesting application that can be built."
It's all part of what the company sees as a growing trend in the content marketplace toward allowing developers to come in and find innovative ways to package and use their content, to distinguish Elsevier from the competition, Sidi said. It's the same approach taken by The New York Times and the U.K. Guardian Media Group, both of which have recently opened their content API for outside use.
For Elsevier, putting scientific content at the center of such a dynamic network could help speed the pace of scientific discovery by allowing the research community to draw connections more quickly and search more comprehensively, Sidi said-all with Elsevier's content at its core. That helps to make Elsevier's content more useful to the community at large while enhancing the quality of information substantially for subscribers, he added.
"We're really building solutions with the community," Sidi said. "We're creating a platform where all the applications can be shared with the scientific community, so that people can really extract intelligent information from the content."