The peer-review process is part of the foundation on which academic publishing was built, and while Open Source publishing models are emerging along with alternative outlets for scholarly publication, it remains the most respected method for assessing the quality of published works. Venerable publisher Elsevier is no stranger to the traditions of scientific, medical, and technical publishing, but has not shied away from leveraging digital delivery options for its works. In November of last year, the company launched its Scopus project, which is a multidisciplinary navigation tool that contains records dating back to the mid 1960s.
In its first six months, the Scopus Project was able to amass 500 university and corporate library customers, which surpassed its own expectations. Since its launch, the product has been integrated with RefWorks for bibliographic management and been made interoperable with MDL to better search organic chemistry. Yet while it is a supremely digital undertaking, Scopus' roots are firmly planted in STM publishing—both through parent Elsevier and through the 4,000 other publishers represented in the project.
So at first glance, its most recent announcement—that it has formed a content selection committee—appears that of the STM publishing world; a natural extension of the esteemed peer-review process. The 20 scientists and 10 subject librarians on the committee represent a global group of scholars and researchers who will aid the selection of future Scopus titles, approve the title list annually, and contribute to Scopus' overall strategy. However, the committee's objectives are not limited to reviewing STM mainstays. In fact, a key goal of the committee will be to seek out and vet non-traditional and emerging sources, as well as customer requests for data additions. According to Amanda Spiteri, marketing director of ScienceDirect and Bibliographic Databases at Elsevier, "Up to now, we have focused on peer reviewed, primary literature. The committee will evaluate other types of information book series, conference proceedings, and advise us on what is relevant and useful in the database."
Shore Communications senior analyst Janice McCallum believes "the biggest challenge for Scopus is positioning itself in a marketplace that is crowded with ISI, several smaller players, and of course, Google Scholar." Interestingly, the objectives of the content selection committee appear to be broadening Scopus content—in the direction of open Web-based tools like Google's—while maintaining its core strength—providing hand-selected quality content. McCallum says, "If Google wants to be the largest, they will always have to be the lowest common denominator, whereas a product like Scopus can offer specific tools and features." And she points out that, with its launch of Scholar, Google initially included "whatever they could get." With Scopus, she says, "you get a lot more than just Elsevier content, you search many respected vetted sources, whereas with Google Scholar you don't know what you are searching. I think the fact that it is made up of pre-qualified, selected titles is a real asset. Less is more when you are dealing with certain types of information."
Scopus' Spiteri says, "There's been a lot of focus on search and algorithms, even with our own Scirus search engine. However, in considering Scopus going forward, we figured the best way to determine relevancy is human expertise. While you can do fancy things with algorithms, there's nothing better than having experts in the field."
With the institution of its selection committee, the Scopus project is also endeavoring to make its content inclusion process more transparent to the user. Many databases don't make it obvious why content is there," according to Spiteri. She says, "We want to make it very clear and have an external board evaluate our content and publicize who those people are so they can be open to public question about why things are included."
"We recognize that there are still challenges we face despite all of the technology," says Spiteri, "and we want to see how we can contribute to a solution." McCallum suggests that projects like Scopus must fully embrace the possibilities of digital content. "We have this Web, which is a multi-channel platform, and it is time for that level to come through," she says. "We need to encourage communication and interactivity between scientists and publishers because there's much more that can be done in an interactive world beyond letters to the editor and peer-review."
McCallum points out that all publishers today "are going through major transformations and it is tough. Some of the older stuff has to be phased out with stuff that is Web-relevant and digitally focused." With Scopus, Spiteri says, "We are trying to provide the best of both worlds: the longstanding heritage that comes from our history of primary publishing combined with best-in-class technology."