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Elsevier hits the mark with ScienceDirect Topics

By: , Posted on: August 30, 2018

Research can take you down many winding roads. Reading a study usually means coming across terms and topics that need to be further explored to get a full understanding and accurate interpretation of the original article.

This user observation was uncovered by ScienceDirect’s User Centered Design and the Reference Solutions team. In subsequent explorations, they dug deeper and the use case evolved into a deep understanding of user needs around modern uses and expectations for reference content. To build a solution that encapsulated these needs required new ways of extracting knowledge and delivering it in more relevant ways. In response to this need,  the Reference Solutions group and ScienceDirect, in collaboration with the Operations team, built a feature called ScienceDirect Topics that was released into production in July 2017.

The team used an agile process of rapid prototyping and product development to build the feature, and the end result was a set of Topic Pages with a clean and simple design on the front end but a backend that combined a mix of both investigative and deep learning algorithms to power the feature.

“Applying artificial intelligence techniques to solve a natural language problem of this nature is itself an innovative approach, but the nuance of identifying instances where heuristic algorithms would subsequently improve on our initial results seemed an elegant way to solve a complex problem, and has led us to apply for a few patents for the technology we developed,” notes Senior Product Manager Rick Misra. As a testament to the novelty of the approach, ScienceDirect Topics was recently shortlisted as a finalist for the 2018 CODiE awards in the category of Best Artificial Intelligence/Machine Learning Solution.

With science becoming more interdisciplinary, the information [researchers] can now retrieve provides the sufficient contextual knowledge for them to make cognitive leaps and efficiently get up to speed on a topic of interest. The enhancement is optimized for research, teaching and learning, offering information seekers – from students to the most seasoned researchers – credible, accurate and relevant content, right at the point of need in their workflows.”

The ScienceDirect Topic pages are made accessible via hyperlinked key terms within journal articles. Clicking on the link brings up a topic page that provides the needed information for fuller understanding – for free!

From the ScienceDirect Topic page, users can access source articles for additional reading.

Though the initial use case and solution was centered around providing contextual information by hyperlinking Topic Pages to concepts identified within the article, this isn’t the primary place users go to seek such information; it’s search engines like Google. In order to maximize the impact of ScienceDirect Topics the team worked with ScienceDirect’s resident SEO expert, Chris Flammang, to orchestrate a strategy that would ensure that the feature could leverage the information it was providing as a free layer to improve its ranking in Google search. The approach paid off and Google now accounts for 90% of ScienceDirect Topics’ traffic and was the catalyst for its rapid and escalating growth trajectory.

Since July 2017, more than 100,000 ScienceDirect Topic pages have been created in a range of topics;

Life Sciences
Biomedical Sciences
Earth and Planetary Sciences
Environmental Science
Food Science
Materials Science and Material Engineering
Chemical Engineering

Customers are noticing too, and feedback has been overwhelmingly positive:

“In a typical comment, one respondent recounted how the ScienceDirect Topic pages helped her to quickly grasp a subject she had been ‘…having trouble finding information on. This saved me a lot of time because if I hadn’t found the ScienceDirect Topic Pages, I would have spent hours searching the university library.’ “In a typical comment, the Assistant Medical Director of an Ohio cancer center praised the pages’ ‘refreshing and up to date knowledge regarding immunotherapy in treating cancer’”.

The data supports the sentiment. ScienceDirect Topics is fast becoming one of the most utilized features on the platform, registering approximately 300,000 hits per day and millions of hits per month, with more than 50% of this coming from return users. Currently, users can access reference content via key term linking to 1.2 million journal articles which will shortly be expanded to 4.4 million. This ability paves the way for researchers to expand their topic area knowledge and cultivate knowledge of disciplines related to their own areas of study. It also drives the business as users are able to explore more resources within Elsevier or new customers are directed to the platform through Google searches.

So, what’s next? The teams will continue to scale the feature, expanding into other domains through the end of the year, and will start to collaborate with other platforms within Elsevier, linking access to the content at relevant points in the researcher workflow.


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