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ScienceDirect: Enabling Efficient Research for 21 Years…and Counting

By: , Posted on: June 21, 2018

Elsevier has always had a symbiotic relationship with scholars, an interdependency aimed at advancing science and health worldwide. That relationship took a giant leap forward in March 1997, when Elsevier launched ScienceDirect, its platform of peer-reviewed scholarly literature. Today, some 21 years later, countless university libraries and institutions offer ScienceDirect access to their communities of researchers. Although Elsevier has enhanced and expanded ScienceDirect  many times throughout the years, the platform still achieves the same goal: improving the way that researchers, teachers, students, healthcare and information professionals search, discover, read, understand and share scholarly research. Let’s take a look at how this valuable information solution evolved.

Elsevier-Universities’ Collaboration Laid the Groundwork

In the early 1990’s, Elsevier invited nine research universities to help design and implement a pilot project aimed at better understanding the technological, economic and social implications of digital access to scientific publications.[1] Known as The University Licensing Program, or TULIP, this cooperative research project, tested systems for networked delivery and use of journals at the users’ desktop. The participants had three primary goals: determine technical feasibility; understand pricing, subscription and market models; and study reader usage behavior and patterns. [2]

Due to the mix of researchers comfortable with computers and those who were less technically sophisticated, materials science became the targeted discipline. This was an area in which Elsevier also had a large core collection of journals, and the participating universities had common strengths in the physical and engineering sciences.[3] The results of TULIP, as well as their implications, helped form one of the cornerstones of ScienceDirect, from technological foundations to user experience.

ScienceDirect Evolved to Empower Smarter Research

When it was commercially launched in 1999, ScienceDirect contained only journal content. That situation changed in 2003, when thirty of Elsevier’s Major Reference Works became available on ScienceDirect, its initial book content. In 2006, Elsevier introduced a major overhaul of the ScienceDirect user interface, the first such upgrade since the platform’s inception. Here’s a closer look at the ScienceDirect evolution:

The Value of ScienceDirect is Undeniable

Now one of the most popular sites on the internet, ScienceDirect offers more than 15 million articles – 250,000 of them open access – from 3,800+ journals and 37,000 books. Researchers use ScienceDirect to explore a wide range of subjects within the Physical Sciences and Engineering, Life Sciences, Health Sciences, and Social Sciences and Humanities. From basic science to current developments to novel research, STEM researchers worldwide are downloading two million PDFs each day from ScienceDirect.     Many documents in ScienceDirect include embedded multimedia and supplementary content.  For example, MathJax is used in ScienceDirect to display mathematical and chemical equations properly, and PlumX provides article metrics. Other types of available multimedia content include Google Earth, audio/video files, and image/graphics files.

Topic pages now further extend the value of ScienceDirect, with in-content document links.
A topic page contains up-to-date foundational information relevant to a key concept or term in a ScienceDirect article. Compiled from Elsevier encyclopedias, reference works and books, topic pages are generated automatically using modern machine-learning techniques.  There are nearly 63 million topic page links already embedded in ScienceDirect articles, linking to 113,000+ different topic pages. These topic pages receive more than 450,000 customer hits daily.

Smart Article Recommender Casts a Wide Net

ScienceDirect users provide constant feedback, both positive and negative, that Elsevier uses to improve the platform with the most relevant features. For example, researchers using ScienceDirect now receive personalized recommendations, generated by processing six billion data points every day. Collaborative filtering and learning techniques rank the recommendations, using methodologies similar to those employed by Amazon and LinkedIn. According to Rasheed Kelani, a graduate student at Universiti Teknologi Petronas in Malaysia, the Personalized Recommender “helps me narrow down my searching, uncover materials in related disciplines and nudge me to think differently.”

Another faculty member of an educational institution said: “This morning’s recommendation was relevant to my lecture last week, so we were able to start class by reviewing and adding a new perspective.”

ScienceDirect is Addressing Changes in Research Needs and Behaviors

From easy readability to the simple search box, researchers consistently give ScienceDirect high marks. But Elsevier is also committed to improving the platform so users can stay informed in their fields and work more effectively and efficiently. Since 2012, Elsevier has undertaken more quantitative research on ScienceDirect, including A/B testing. Together with the results of user interviews and other qualitative measurements, Elsevier uses this information to determine the value of ScienceDirect features, which ones are most useful to researchers, which should be eliminated or changed, and what else could be added to maximize the research experience. ScienceDirect book and journal home pages have been redesigned to address key use cases, combining richer information, clearer design and faster download times – more on those changes in future articles. As far as Elsevier is concerned, ScienceDirect will always be a “work in progress,” with many of its enhancements the result of direct input from researchers who use it every day.

The next ScienceDirect article will focus on the technology behind ScienceDirect. Staying ahead of the technological changes that have occurred during the past 21 years has been a major undertaking for Elsevier. Elsevier’s Technology organization collaborates with product, marketing and customer service to constantly maintain and enrich ScienceDirect. It’s a journey that researchers will appreciate, one of patience, planning and perseverance. Watch for it in the next edition of SciTech Connect!


[1] Katherine Willis et al., TULIP- The University Licensing Program: Experiences At The University Of Michigan, Serials Review, Volume 20, Issue 3, Autumn 1994, Pages 39-47.

[2] Jaco Zijlstra, The University Licensing Program (TULIP): A Large Scale Experiment In Bringing Electronic Journals To The Desktop, Serials, Vol.7, no2, July 1994, Pages 169-172.

[3] Jaco Zijlstra, The University Licensing Program (TULIP): A Large Scale Experiment In Bringing Electronic Journals To The Desktop, Serials, Vol.7, no2, July 1994, Pages 169-172.

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