Even the largest STM publishers face enormous challenges as new technology unleashes an explosion in customer demand. "The breadth and diversity of customer needs are a real shock," noted John Regazzi, president and CEO of Elsevier Science Inc., the world's largest publisher of scientific, technical and medical journals and part of Reed Elsevier (parent company of PW). "When it comes to the digital delivery of content, libraries and their patrons want everything—our content, their content, any content. No publisher can afford to be an island."

Trade and educational publishers have yet to feel this heat. But once it becomes possible to access all kinds of text-based content electronically, all publishers will need to respond to market demand for limitless access to content as part of a successful digital strategy. The struggles and solutions of STM publishing thus have important lessons for the industry as a whole.

A digital strategy for any kind of content producer involves the same three problems: creating a repository of properly tagged digital files, designing search tools so customers can locate the content they want and delivering that content to the user. "The antecedents of our digital strategy go back a number of years," explained Regazzi, who joined Elsevier through its acquisition of Engineering Information, where he served as president and CEO. Well before the arrival of the World Wide Web, journal articles and research papers were either encoded on a CD-ROM or available over the early Internet via the now-quaint procedure of file transfer protocol or FTP. "Already in the 1980s," Regazzi noted, "libraries were uploading commercial data, but using their own search and retrieval software." This strategy was successful initially. Before long, however, the amount of content began to explode, outrunning the capabilities of the homegrown search and retrieval tools. Over the past decade, libraries found themselves facing prohibitive costs from the need constantly to re-engineer the software. "Eventually, it became clear to everyone that a customized data set for each library was possible, in fact, desirable, but customized searching was not," explained Regazzi. In addition, libraries and patrons began to request access to more information than any single library could collect and manage. Understanding this dual reality has driven the digital strategy at Elsevier.

First Fruit

The first fruit of Elsevier's digital strategy was ScienceDirect, which now accounts for 45% of scientific journal revenues. Launched in 1997 on the World Wide Web at www.sciencedirect.com, ScienceDirect currently offers its users nearly 1.4 million articles from more than 1,200 journals, as well as navigation across 30 million records with links to 10,000 journal titles in all fields of science. "In other words, we are the distributors as well as the creators of journals," said Regazzi. "The days of journals being sold by agents to our customers are over. Directly understanding customer needs is our top priority and then responding by also providing them the most efficient software to manage the data."

Regazzi is quick to point out that Elsevier Science is not becoming a software company. "We buy the software, adapt and integrate it." Reflecting on the nature of the needs and wishes of scholars, students, researchers and librarians, Regazzi said, "Not only do they expect to be able to search our journals seamlessly, but as part of the same process, they also want to search their own local data, digital archives and collections. Plus, increasingly, they would like to search the materials from other publishers, as well as relevant pages from anywhere on the World Wide Web."

Notwithstanding the obvious benefits of Elsevier's size, there is the countervailing fact that barriers between separate publishers and distributors are falling. As Regazzi wryly noted, "Linking levels the field." The single most important question, said Regazzi, is, "Where do we add value to core content? This is the point of keenest competition."

Elsevier's answer to this question is, in part, what its Web site calls "Expanded Content Through Linking." ScienceDirect content is interlinked with referenced material residing both within Elsevier Science products and externally, on other publishers' and service providers' Web sites. The ultimate goal is to take the user to the article of interest, regardless of where that article is located, including non-Elsevier sources. Elsevier also offers access to an additional one million articles available from ScienceDirect Gateway Partners, including the American Institute of Physics, the American Mathematical Society, the American Physical Society and Cell Press.

Further, Elsevier offers an independent search capability that matches documents to citations from public databases that are not currently linking partners with ScienceDirect. Realizing that this is only the first step, Elsevier is actively seeking new alliances, which run the gamut from content linking agreements and hosting of primary or secondary content to sophisticated and highly tailored exchanges using Elsevier's XML Gateway technology.

The marketplace, however, has not always been friendly. On the issue of price—which many believed would be the governing factor in delivering content online—Elsevier has long had its share of criticism, dating back to the world of print journals. (An Elsevier journal with a $15,000 annual price tag is still regularly singled out in academic and library chat rooms.) But the experience has brought the company important insights. Regazzi explained: "In the library environment at least, information certainly needs to be used freely, without the meter ticking." The problem, as Regazzi analyzed it, is that "no set price for a print journal is ever exactly right from the point of view of usage. Twelve hundred dollars may be too high in cases of low utility, but too low in cases of high utility. The beauty of online delivery is that we can all—publishers and customers—know exactly what is being used. It will be possible to create new business models based on precise levels of use."

A major advantage of Elsevier's strategy of online delivery is that the addition of crucial search and retrieval tools as well as permitting customers access to a huge breadth of content provides significant new value to the content itself. This appears to have cooled the anguish that budget-strapped librarians feel about journal prices. Looking toward the future, Regazzi said Elsevier will offer more new tools, so that searching brings users to the exact copies of material that their own libraries already have purchased, as well as software that will permit libraries to carry out inventory management "virtually."

Unfortunately, there are still enormous obstacles to making digital content available. These include wide variation in file formats, bandwidth, computer systems, identifiers, tagging and access protocols, to name only a few. Anyone with experience online will recognize what an enormously ambitious goal Elsevier and other STM publishers are reaching for in their attempt to create a commercial market of all relevant content from all sources, by linking. The consequences of this attempt for traditional publishing business models are difficult to know at this point, but publishers would be wise to pay very close attention.