v32#3 Library Analytics: Shaping the Future — Inspec: Precision Analytics for Research Excellence, Upcycling, Innovation, Relevance and Renewal: How Analytics Transformed our Business

by | Jul 15, 2020 | 0 comments


by Vincent Cassidy  (Head of Academic Markets, the Institution of Engineering and Technology

Column Editors:  John McDonald  (EBSCO Information Services

and Stephanie S. Buck  (EBSCO Information Services

As the process of scholarly communications continues to reshape itself with pace, it can often seem that those best placed to respond to the new opportunities require a rare mix of size, agility, technology and, often, a singular purpose.  We can see this borne out, both in the strategic plays of big corporations and their leverage of scale and technology to innovate new solutions and services, as much as we can see it in the proliferation of start-ups and micro-businesses, often springing from the research communities themselves.  But what of learned societies?  How are learned societies faring?  Do they have the scale, the agility or the strategic intent?  Learned societies can often appear to be slow to respond, with complex governance and multiple stakeholder interests.  For a learned society, the pace and rate of change and the singularity needed to respond to it can be daunting, and can challenge the identity and the mission of the organisations themselves. 

The Institution of Engineering and Technology (IET) has geared up to respond to changes in research literature discovery behaviours.  It has reinvigorated its Inspec A&I service with Inspec Analytics, an insight and analytics solution, and it has effectively reinvented itself as a 150-year-old start-up.  This has been done by focussing on users and workflows, re-engineering key processes and embedding an agile project methodology.  Most importantly, and critically, we have invested considerable time and effort in revisiting our partnerships with librarians and platform hosts, and engaging them in our change process.  What follows is a brief account of how the IET has embraced the challenges in the changing process of scholarly discourse and how this is changing the way our organisation approaches new projects.

Before reviewing the project, first a little context.  The IET, celebrating its 150th anniversary in 2021, is the world’s leading inter- and multi-disciplinary engineering institution with over 168k members around the world in 150 countries.  We aim to deliver on our mission to ‘engineer a better world’ by supporting engineers and researchers in their education, training, certification and professional development, including the publication of research journals, books, proceedings and Inspec.  In terms of scholarly publishing output we are a mid-size learned and professional society, with the accent on professional.

Inspec is a jewel in the IET’s crown, covering a broad waterfront of research output across the physical sciences, engineering and computing comprising over 19m records from journals, proceedings, books and pre-print services.  Our domain experts curate around 900k new items a year sourced from over 200 publishers, and our application of 10,000 controlled terms and over 3,500 classification codes in a 5-tier structure, allows the highly structured Inspec records to be discovered precisely and accurately.  Inspec is available across a range of platforms including EBSCOhost, Elsevier’s Engineering Village, Clarivate’s Web of Science, ProQuest’s Dialog and Wolters Kluwer’s OVID, as well as the IET’s own Inspec Direct.

Inspec’s Precision Discovery Connecting Two Records Across 50 years

Over the last ten years, however, changes in user behaviour, largely driven by the emergence of “good-enough” free-to-air scholarly search alternatives, and an increased preference for full-text library discovery services have led to declining usage of A&I resources in our core research market.  In turn, some of our library partners, increasingly requiring return on investment evidence to justify subscription commitments, reluctantly cancelled long-held institutional access to Inspec.  From 2014 this had become a noticeable and worrying trend for Inspec, and unique searches declined by around 30% between 2010 and 2017.  

The IET has long had strong partnerships with libraries and universities, and over the last three years we have been working with a group of librarians around the world to understand the dynamic of declining usage, seeking a better appreciation of the relative value of the “good-enough” alternatives, and looking to identify new uses for our high quality structured data.  Partnering with libraries to explore “upcycling” opportunities in the expanding workspace around scholarly communication reminded us of the shared goals and shared DNA we have.  Research libraries and societies are mission driven and independent, connecting people and communities and we have been refreshed to see this shared purpose reflected in our Inspec Analytics project.  We are appreciative that our colleagues from the library community were willing to back up their clear understanding of the value of curated and structured data by supporting its development into insight and impact tools.

Our library advocates provided invaluable insights into the segmentation of user types within the university or corporation that they support, helping to set up interviews and work-shadow sessions, engagement in the development of proofs of concepts and prototypes and, critically, facilitating trials and demonstrations. 

Partnering with librarians helped the introduction of open, agile project working and has transformed our organisation.  It has helped to bring users and their workflow into sharp focus, reminding us that our first objective is to understand our users in the context of their work and, to paraphrase our mission statement, to engineer better research outcomes.  Identifying real-world problems, use cases and personas has helped us to identify new value propositions and re-engineer our production process.  The agile process worked particularly well for the development of Inspec Analytics as it is a visual analytics application that uses a large amount of high-quality legacy data.  We were able to interview users to understand their pain points and key business needs, demonstrate the development progress, and they could specify which additional data points would be most valuable to them.  For example, when we demonstrated a feature showing how many articles an organisation had authored on a particular subject, customers specified it would be very useful to see lists of authors who had published those articles.  As we already had the data, we were able to modify our roadmap based on customer feedback to add this feature and implement it within a few sprints — and customers were very pleased with the response.

Our partners have also brought important insights into the project.  Elsevier’s Engineering Village team has helped to identify key user journeys, allowing the visualisation of data on Inspec Analytics to trigger searches back into the Engineering Village platform.  Inspec users can now move between Inspec and Inspec Anaytics within the Engineering Village platform.  Our EBSCO colleagues have opened doors into the library community and collaborated with us on researcher communications and usage campaigns and EBSCOhost provides a gateway to Inspec Analytics encouraging customer access.

EBSCOhost Provides a Gateway to Inspec Analytics Encouraging Customer Access

Launched in Spring 2019, Inspec Analytics is available to all Inspec subscribers, adding precision insights and impact analysis to the traditional A&I proposition.  The semantic enrichment of the Inspec article records (bibliometrics, affiliations, authors, journals, concepts and keywords) has created a knowledge base of billions of data points that can now be related in response to specific user needs, deriving new value and up-cycling 50 years of curated data.  Now, researchers can monitor global trends in their field, compare emerging topics and find the most relevant journals to consider publishing in.  Libraries can monitor the research output of their institution and evaluate resources in line with growing and declining areas.  Inspec Analytics provides insights to allows senior teams to compare their institution with collaborators and competitors to set valuable benchmarks, monitor research output to evaluate strategies and find collaboration opportunities to support research impact.

We continue to receive positive support from our library contacts who appreciate the opportunity to provide impact assessment tools across the organisation and particularly into the hands of those making strategic budget decisions, all within their current Inspec subscription.  Furthermore, we are delighted to have been awarded the Best New Product or Service award from The Charleston Advisor in October 2019.

More importantly, as well as transforming the use of Inspec’s data, the introduction of Inspec Analytics is also increasing the use of the Inspec database.  From September of 2019, usage of both Inspec and Inspec Analytics has improved month to month, with usage of Inspec up by 300% on prior year.  Usage of Inspec is now back at peak levels, in some instances, showing that there is a full and rich life for A&I datasets beyond pure discovery.  The investment in quality and in the specialist curation of Inspec data over 50 years is now reaping dividends in a research environment seeking reliable, authoritative and verifiable sources that can be trusted.

We are now planning the next phase of our developments for Inspec, including adding additional datasets to complement the Inspec data, and we look forward to working with our users, customers, information professionals and platform partners alike to help transform the landscape of research communications and engineer better research outcomes.  


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