The Business of Search and Discovery

04/02/2014 04:14 pm ET | Updated Jun 02, 2014

March 22 was World Water Day, and while the date has passed, the topic is still very much part of the news cycle. California is seeing its worst drought in a hundred years, while mudslides from intense spring rains are washing away great tracts of land in the Pacific Northwest. Climatologists are doing the rounds of news programs talking about why this is happening; politicians are divided over what to do about it; and engineers are being tested to develop ways to manage too much and/or too little water. Once again, we turn to science to come up with answers.

Given that there is no substitute for water -- we can't create an alternative -- and solutions are going to be costly, the issues of water, water management, and how to find a solution require a global perspective and a lot of out-of-the-box thinking. Just about all science is cross-discipline, and water very much so; hydrology, geology, climatology, environmental science, engineering and chemistry are just a handful of the disciplines involved. Delivering trusted, foundational data that provide a comprehensive perspective on a broad range of water and water management research is vital if this most urgent of challenges is to be met.

Today's "Internet generation" of researchers has an expectation that the Internet and its content providers will deliver what they want when they want it. Type in the words "water research" and "water management" on Google and you get no less than 256 million results! Such a proliferation of destination sites clearly demonstrates the need for a lot of filtering to determine what research is already being done and, more importantly, the outcomes. Enter the business behind science.

Regardless of the research setting -- government, academic, private, or NGO -- the most effective science research begins with effective processes combined with productivity-enhancing applications, and this is where scholarly publishing plays a crucial role. In the Internet world our job doesn't end with publishing articles in journals; it actually begins there, and a significant part of our role is to bring this content to the right audience. So how do we do that?

Let me take a step back before I answer that question. Twenty-five years ago, scholarly publishers filtered, curated and published in traditional print peer-review journals, which were shipped out to academic libraries worldwide. Researchers looking for foundational content typically spent hours in a library sifting through hundreds if not thousands of pages of scientific data recommended by their peers, which would have required a further labor-intensive effort to pull out salient points to share with colleagues. It was an almost linear way of conducting search and discovery. The publisher's job was pretty cut and dried and had very little influence on getting the right information to the right person.

Since the advent of the Internet, that game has fundamentally changed. Over the past 15 years search engines have enabled researchers to get their hands on a multitude of the articles that they used to find through their offline search efforts, resulting in a tsunami of information. But spending days wading through 256 million possible sources of data is not the best use of anyone's, least of all a researcher's, time. If we're asking science to solve our global challenges like water, our job on the business end is to come up with the best tools and processes to make that job easier.

This is where we find ourselves at this moment: entering a new era in which our online interactions on social networking sites lead to information being pushed toward us, as opposed to us having to actively search for it ourselves. As consumers, we find that information is pushed our way in the form of recommendations by online retailers such as While the likes of Facebook will never replace Google, Bing or other search engines, our presence and activity on social networks brings new ideas and resources to our attention that might otherwise have escaped our notice.

Such tools enable those of us in scientific publishing to open up new avenues of opportunity by influencing the trajectory of published works. We now have the ability to proactively play "matchmaker" by recommending and promoting relevant research and related information from a broad range of sources around the world. Especially to the early career researcher, such a process potentially opens many doors of opportunity. Technology that drives content based on behavioral patterns means that published articles by younger researchers can potentially share the spotlight with the work of senior and more broadly published authors, a potentially career-changing opportunity.

All this social interaction has had enormous impact on the scholarly publishing business, how we bring content to the market, and by which methods. Like any other business, scholarly publishing is not just about giving our customers what they want; it's also about anticipating their needs and facilitating a dialogue between authors and their audience once an article has been published. Social networking sites offer new ways for researchers to discover information and allow publishers the opportunity to better manage the dissemination of content in a much more targeted manner.

As in any technological transition, there are still some challenges to overcome. For example, in just about a decade Facebook has become a dominant search engine player, and even the most casual of users will find that product messages and recommendations appear based on your interactions and how you use the network. But it raises the delicate question of how to balance customer service that anticipates and recommends product with respecting the boundaries of privacy. The same goes for researchers receiving recommendations based on their online behavior.

We cannot escape the power of the Internet over our lives, nor should we. The almost limitless resources and capabilities to connect to the global society make the Internet one of the greatest contributions to the advancement of scientific discovery since the invention of the printing press. Scholarly publishers like Elsevier can, and do, match content to researchers leveraging the user, usage and social signals as part of our professional responsibility to advance science. Researchers have the responsibility of their profession to weigh its benefits against the liability of the privacy tradeoff.