Reference Modules can change the way researchers – and publishers – work

Elsevier creates continually updated reference works, starting with earth sciences and chemistry

Scientific and technological research is becoming increasingly interdisciplinary, placing higher demands on researchers to get up to speed quickly on topics outside of their expertise. Researchers typically rely on reference works for such foundational content, yet publishers are challenged to provide  that content in a way that fulfills the real needs those researchers have for currency.

The key challenge is that traditional reference works are published every few years and their content can be very out-of-date.Other common starting points for research are traditional search engines or online wikis, though each has its limitations. Search engines compile relevant and irrelevant results, making it hard to find the useful content. Online wikis lack rigorous review from subject-matter experts and are often not trustworthy or cited.Chemistry, Molecular sciences and Engineering Module on ScienceDirectEarth Systems and Environmental Sciences Module on ScienceDirect

To address this need, Elsevier employees aimed to merge the reliability of traditional reference works with the regular updates an online solution could offer. They developed Elsevier Reference Modules on ScienceDirect, which combine thousands of related reference-work articles into a single source of information that is continuously updated by experts. They unlock foundational content that has yet to be updated  in print, giving researchers access to updated reference content as science progresses.

The first modules available to researchers are Chemistry, Molecular Sciences and Chemical Engineering and Earth Systems and Environmental Sciences.

Helping researchers keep pace with the speed of science

Reference Modules, which launched today, organize reference articles from across interdisciplinary scientific fields. The modules feature advanced search  and browse tools. They are designed to be a trustworthy, citable reference that quickly gets researchers up to speed and connects them to more advanced content.

[note color="#f1f9fc" position="right" width=400 margin=10 align="alignright"]

Elsevier Reference Module at a glance

Chemistry, Molecular Sciences and Chemical Engineering:
  • More than 4,300 articles from 4,100 contributors
  • Content from 22 Elsevier Major Reference Works
  • 50,000 images
Earth Systems and Environmental Sciences:
  • More than 3,800 articles from 4,000 contributors
  • Content from 17 Elsevier Major Reference Works
  • 9,000 images [/note]

Most researchers are under increasing pressure to win funding and obtain valuable research outcomes in shorter amounts of time. And as research becomes more interdisciplinary, they must explore topics outside their areas of expertise.“

I am being asked to stretch myself further and wider into fields that are not my immediate expertise,” said Dr. Kate Lajtha, Reference Modules Subject Editor and Director of the Environmental Sciences Program at Oregon State University. “(With Reference Modules), I can read  a general overview of a new area, and then follow trails into more and more specific chapters as my research demands.”

The reference work articles are kept current by experts as science progresses. To show researchers just how current they are, there is a time stamp on each article indicating the date of last review or update. In the past, updated reference work content would have been unavailable to researchers until  the typical five-to-seven year publishing cycle was complete.

Learning from users

[caption id="attachment_26561" align="alignright" width="144"]Cory PolonetskyCory Polonetsky[/caption]Cory Polonetsky, head of marketing for the launch of Reference Modules, spent three days last  week with dozens of chemists discussing their research needs at the American Chemical Society’s exposition in Indianapolis.

Polonetsky noted some of the key challenges faced by researchers, including the chemists he met at the exposition: “Many struggle to determine whether an article they find is still ‘good science,’ ” he said. “Others worry that the content they purchase will be quickly  out of date.”He learned that those who teach often cringe when their students use online wikis for research, sacrificing expert review for ease of use. “Researchers want a trustworthy reference work that is comprehensive but easy to use and never gets old,” he said.

Several chemists at the conference told Polonetsky that Reference Modules will solve these problems. He thought Reference Modules were well-received at the exposition because “researchers value solutions that save time, can be cited, lead to significant research outcomes  and help them secure  funding.”

A sea change in publishing

To publish this new type of foundational content, the team at Elsevier was required to completely change their approach.[caption id="attachment_27299" align="alignleft" width="130"]Lisa TicknerLisa Tickner[/caption]“It’s a massive change,” said Lisa Tickner, Director for Continuity Publishing at Elsevier.  “We’re leading the way in a new approach to publishing book content. We’ve been publishing electronic reference works for a while now, but it’s still been the case that you publish an e-book, wait a few years and then do another edition.”

She said this is Elsevier’s “first foray into modular publishing and continuous updating” and it took a lot of hard work and creative problem solving by many teams within Elsevier to bring Reference Modules to market.

To make Reference Modules a continuously-updated product on the ScienceDirect platform, they needed a completely different workflow than the one used to develop traditional reference books. This change presented new technical and production challenges.The platform team had to figure out the right presentation of content  and navigation on ScienceDirect, a full-text scientific database of more than 11 million journal articles and book chapters. There was also the challenge of changing the production workflow to handle continuously updating content at a rapid pace.

Meanwhile, the Continuity Publishing editorial team – the group that oversees the content in Elsevier reference works – completely revised the way they create, review and publish foundational content.To ensure the content in Reference Modules is trustworthy, they built editorial boards  – teams of accomplished subject-matter experts – to select, organize and the review the content in each of the modules. There is an editorial board for each of the Reference Modules led by well-respected researchers:[caption id="attachment_26361" align="alignleft" width="150"]Scott A. Elias, PhD Scott A. Elias, PhD[/caption][caption id="attachment_27312" align="alignright" width="150"]Jan Reedijk, PhD Jan Reedijk, PhD[/caption]Dr. Jan Reedijk, Emeritus Professor at Leiden University in the Netherlands, is Editor-in-Chief for Chemistry, Molecular Sciences  and Chemical Engineering.

Dr. Scott Elias, Professor of Quaternary Science at Royal Holloway, University of London, is Editor-in-Chief for Earth Systems and Environmental Sciences.

These editorial boards organized content from Elsevier reference works into intuitive, interdisciplinary subject hierarchies. Once the content was sorted into these hierarchies, the editorial boards reviewed all the content for currency. The articles were either confirmed to be current, updated, or  removed and replaced. This is the time stamping process, which assures researchers that they are using the most current information to inform their research.

With the first Reference Modules available, the editorial and production teams can take a breather – but not for long. Reference Modules are “living products,” as Tickner noted, and the work is never truly finished. The work of continuous updating goes on for the first two modules,  while the team prepares to build new modules in the coming year.[note color="#f1f9fc" position="alignnone" width=800 margin=10]

Editor Scott Elias on Elsevier Connect

Dr. Scott Elias, Editor-in-Chief of the Earth Systems and Environmental Sciences module, wrote these articles for Elsevier Connect:
Ian Evans, Communications Business Partner in Elsevier’s Global Communications department, also contributed to the article.

Watch the promotional video


The Author

[caption id="attachment_24582" align="alignleft" width="144"]Michelle McMahonMichelle McMahon[/caption]Michelle McMahon is the Publicity Manager for the Science and Technology Books group at Elsevier (@SciTechBookNews) and is a member of the Reference Modules Launch Team. She is based in Waltham, Massachusetts.

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