Tuesday, January 29, 2008

Elsevier Goes Online-Only for Key Reference Titles with a Social Media Twist

Major book pubishers have not been known in years past for their innovation in adapting to online audiences, but after years of investing modestly in the future of online content many print publishers are stepping up their efforts to capture a new generation of audiences who grew up with online content as a given. Elsevier is one major scientific publisher that seems to have picked up their pace of online innovation significantly as of late, Their announcement last week of 10 major reference works being made available online this year was trumped today by the announcement of a new Wiki-based platform that will enable practicing physicians to update evidence-based medical information online. In both instances Elsevier is betting that some titles will do best as online-only reference materials.

Having seen a major response to its making chapters of its Major Reference Works availableonline Elsevier is indicating that two reference titles - the Encyclopedia of Neuroscience and the second edition of Encyclopedia of Ocean Science - are to become
online-only references. Elsevier indicates that other reference titles will be available in print for some period of time, but clearly the trend is to move towards online access that's likely to move people into recurring revenues rather than chancing the publication of expensive reference materials. Knovel showed the way years ago to Sci-Tech publishers with its Knovel Library of online reference content, but now the major scientific publishers are beginning to see that electronic additions are going to become the core of their revenues moving forward it's not just a game for aggressive startups.

Today's announcement of WiserWiki underscores not only the awareness that Sci-Tech publishers have for the value of online reference but also how best to make use of social media technologies to make it valuable to specific audiences. WiserWiki is seeded with The Textbook of Primary Care Medicine, a reference book covering problems, conditions and diseases encountered in the practices of primary care physicians. No longer in print, what better way to keep this grass-roots information about the real world of medicine than to let the physicians encountering these phenomena to update it themselves? This is a great online product strategy, combining authoritative content from peer professionals as a core that can help to build an online community rapidly. Just as Wikipedia did not spring from thin air - it took more than 100,000 articles from an earlier project to get it going - Wikis built for specialized online communities will work best when there's a core of content to help people feel that they don't have to wait for their contributions to be part of something that has collective merit.

Print titles are going to be with us for quite some time to come, but as printing, shipping and stocking expenses fall prey to rising energy and raw materials prices the need for better margins with less risk is pushing book publishers of reference materials inexorably towards "digital native" audiences who have become used to search engines as primary tools for accessing reference content. Obviously other types of titles benefit from this move but for reference works the move is essential if publishers are to keep these products growing and profitable. In the end scientific publishers have much to gain from tranforming their business from one of delivering tomes to delivering content in higly valuable contexts that can drive scientific research and applications forward more rapidly.
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