Elsevier launches free science definitions service

Publisher argues Topics platform will provide ‘breadth, depth and currency of knowledge’, and remove the need to leave its website

September 18, 2017
Man reading Wikipedia page on desktop computer (PC)
Source: Alamy

Publishing giant Elsevier is launching a new service that provides encyclopedia-style entries on key scientific topics.

Previously, researchers reading journal articles on the Dutch company’s ScienceDirect platform would have had to leave the site if they wished to find basic information about a term or concept – with many likely to end up on Wikipedia, the free, community-curated online encyclopedia.

Now Elsevier is hoping to keep researchers on its platform with the launch of a free layer of content called ScienceDirect Topics, offering an initial 80,000 pages of material relating to the life sciences, biomedical sciences and neuroscience. Each offers a quick definition of a key term or topic, details of related terms and relevant excerpts from Elsevier books.

Significantly, this content is not written to order but is extracted from Elsevier’s books, in a process that Sumita Singh, managing director of Elsevier Reference Solutions, described as “completely automated, algorithmically generated and machine-learning based”.

Although Ms Singh said that testing and curation is done by humans, it is the automation element that makes ScienceDirect Topics scalable. She estimated that it could eventually generate as many as 1.5 million separate pages covering every area of the sciences.

Previously, researchers would have had to spend time “trying to find the right and trusted information”, Ms Singh said; she argued that the new platform would give researchers “breadth, depth and currency of knowledge” without having to leave the platform and search elsewhere.

However, some academics have questioned the need for the service, arguing that Wikipedia was now a largely reliable source of basic scientific information.

Diana Laurillard, chair of learning with digital technologies at the UCL Institute of Education, said that when it comes to accessing basic information, most of her colleagues “recognise [Wikipedia] as being enormously valuable, rail against tiny inaccuracies in their own field but welcome it for everything else, and trust its approach to making sure that most entries are reasonably accurate and unbiased”.

“It’s largely community-owned, and that helps a lot,” Professor Laurillard said. “Commercialism should be kept as far away as possible.”

Neil Selwyn, professor of education at Monash University, said that he feared that ScienceDirect Topics was “little more than a commercial organisation leveraging off the expertise and authority of academic authors”.

“For all its faults, Wikipedia is one of the few big platforms on the internet that is a genuine digital commons,” he said. “If you want to ‘get quickly up to speed with a topic’, then Wikipedia is where most people first turn.”


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