Helping small businesses succeed by finding the needle in the information haystack

For SMEs to be innovative, access to research is essential – but it’s not sufficient on its own

David MullenIn a recent article in Times Higher Education, I was quoted commenting on the specific needs of small and medium-sized enterprises (SMEs) to effectively access and find scientific information.

The interview took place in the context of the recently launched Access to Research project, in which publishers including Elsevier are providing free access to scientific, technical and medical (STM) content through public libraries across the UK.

Unfortunately, the article was structured in a way that my comments could be misinterpreted as being quite dismissive of the Access to Research initiative or open access in general, whereas the opposite is true.

The UK government is serious about open access, and so is Elsevier. Also, we are both serious about expanding access in other ways that are complementary.

The UK policy on access to research information is based on a report by the Finch Group titled "Expanding Access to Published Research Findings."This report set out the blueprint for all three of the highly complementary initiatives discussed in the Times Higher Education article: a transition to gold open access, the Access to Research initiative to provide access via UK public libraries, and SME access. It's really exciting to be part of such a substantial shift in the way research information is made accessible here in the UK and beyond.

Colleagues such as Dr. Alicia Wise (@wisealic), Director of Access and Policy for Elsevier, and Rachel Martin (@rachelcmartin), Elsevier's Access and Policy Communications Manager, explain the ways these and many more access initiatives here at Elsevier fit together in our Access to Research category on Elsevier Connect.

How we work with SMEs in Europe

In this article, however, I want to expand on my work with small and medium-sized enterprises in Europe.

In my division at Elsevier, we serve corporate researchers, ranging from people in large corporate R&D environments to small-business owners who are trying to develop their own intellectual property. Access to STM information is essential, but even more crucial than access alone is the ability to find the research they need and to use it efficiently in their workflows.

For researchers in large corporate companies, that help is all around; a whole industry exists that develops tools and services to help businesses navigate research information, helping them search for and quickly find the information they need to be innovative. Embedded workflow tools are an important part of this endeavor.

For example, Dr. Takahashi Nakai, Associate Research Scientist for Medicinal Chemistry at Ironwood Pharmaceuticals in Cambridge, Massachusetts, uses Reaxys to find chemical data related to drug discovery: "In Reaxys you can read the experimental section without having to request an article," he explained. "This is a major advantage compared to other information resources. It helps us in our endeavor to avoid the mistakes made by others."

But things can be much more challenging for researchers in small and medium-sized enterprises. We ran a pilot with SMEs in the Netherlands in which we provided them with 12 months of free access to our full-text article database, ScienceDirect. Despite this access, the researchers hardly used it simply because they didn't have the right tools to help them figure out what information they were missing and what exactly they should be looking for in their search for the right STM content.

This led us to think about how we could help smaller companies by focusing on improving their innovation outcomes. This time we decided to offer the same information environment that many of the bigger R&D based companies have while also providing training and measuring the outcomes.

Elsevier is running two six-month SME pilot projects in the UK, programs designed to have a quantitative and positive impact on innovation in the participating small businesses: the BioCity project in Nottingham and the Sci-Tech project in Daresbury. The projects involve about 30 companies, most of which have less than 25 FTEs (full-time equivalent positions); they are mostly start-ups involved in innovation and contract research projects. In these pilots we are providing the companies with the access to tools to make their searches more effective and precise, embedding them in the innovation workflow so researchers can improve the speed and effectiveness of their projects.

Dr. Glenn Crocker, CEO of BioCity, which serves more than 80 fast-growing life sciences businesses as the UK's leading bioscience incubator, said that he thinks the pilot is having a beneficial effect on these companies and the wider research environment:

Small biotechs often feel disadvantaged because they don't always have sufficient resources to access all research. The Elsevier initiative has been warmly welcomed by companies at BioCity, and appears to be generating a lot of usage. It seems certain to be highly beneficial, not just to the companies, but also to the UK wide efforts to discover new medicines.

The importance of helping SMEs

I'll conclude by explaining why it is important to help people in SMEs connect quickly to the right research information. A major component of the future growth of the UK economy, as well as other economies in the European Union, will depend on private sector growth.

Economists tell us that small companies and start-up businesses are the engine of economic growth, creating more new jobs than large companies. They comprise 99.9 percent of private sector businesses and employing an estimated 14.4 million people, according to a 2013 report by the UK's Department for Business Innovation and Skills.

Many of those new positions are in technology businesses that owe their existence to research carried out over a decade or more, often in universities. These universities and small companies often work together, with the local affiliates of multinational companies, in dynamic innovation clusters. So in supporting SMEs, we support universities and the broader economy too – a great responsibility.[divider]

Elsevier Connect Contributor

David Mullen earned degrees in chemistry and earth sciences from Staffordshire University and a Certificate in Business Administration (CBA) from the University of Salford in the UK. His early career was focused on developing high purity polymers and immunoassays for clinical diagnostic kits. He moved into product development and sales, spending 25 years serving the needs of researchers in corporate research environments. He joined Elsevier 10 years ago, spending the past four years as Director of Corporate Sales in Europe, the Middle East and Africa. He is based in the UK.

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