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Ian Evans | Communications Business Partner, Elsevier

In the past, reference solutions were either current, or they were trustworthy. There are websites like Wikipedia that deliver up to the minute information, but the compromise can be accuracy. Conversely, rigorously edited reference works are more dependable, but can be years old before a new edition is published.

The launch of Elsevier Reference Modules on ScienceDirect is a next-generation approach to major reference works. Reference Modules combine thousands of related articles into one evolutionary source of reliable information that is continuously updated. As a result, researchers have access to current, reliable, comprehensive foundational content.

“It’s a massive change,” said Lisa Tickner, Director for Continuity Publishing. “We’re leading the way in a new approach to publishing book content. We’ve been publishing electronic reference works for a while now, but it’s still been the case that you publish an e-book, wait a few years and then do another edition. This is our first foray into modular publishing and constant updating.”

For each module an Editorial Board of subject experts reviews content to ensure that the most significant developments in the field are included. Once published, articles enter a review cycle and are regularly checked by the Editorial Board to ensure that they stay current.

That process created a huge amount of work up-front for the Books team, as the launch of the first two Reference Modules meant reviewing more than 10,000 articles for currency.

“At one point we held currency review marathons,” said Lisa, describing days on which reviewers were given a few hundred articles to review – and a few pizzas to eat.

Elsevier reference works changing along with their users

The idea of constantly updated online modules was conceived in response to a changing marketplace. With even the likes of the Encyclopedia Britannica doing away with its print version and moving to an electronic-only model, it was clear that the world had changed.

“It’s motivated largely by customer needs,” said Lisa, “People want something that’s convenient to access, and fully up to date. With things like Wikipedia and other new competitors coming onto the market we needed to be a bit smarter.”

Using Reference Modules, a researcher or a student can get a basic or higher level introduction to a subject, giving them a starting point from which to go into more depth. Recently, this has a been a task for which people were using Google and Wikipedia, but Lisa and her team see Reference Modules as offering some key advantages.

“Google gives you millions of results, not all of which are relevant or current. Wikipedia articles are more focused, and they’re up to date, but have some issues with accuracy. The idea with Reference Modules is to give people the best of all possible worlds.”

A new workflow for reference works

Unsurprisingly, working on a massive project such as this presented a number of challenges, not least that of taking an entirely new approach to reference books. Reference Modules required a completely different workflow to the traditional reference books, and it meant Elsevier and its partners delivering a new level of dedication.

“What we asked of our editors is more than we’ve ever asked before,” said Lisa, speaking of the commitment of those involved. “They had new demands thrown at them all the time, they were on tighter timescales. It was a challenge, but they rose to that challenge.”

Authors, too, had to adjust to a different way of doing things. Initially energized by the idea of being able to get published quicker, authors found that the rapid pace of continuously updated content meant shorter timeframes for writing.

Nonetheless, due to a huge collaborative effort, the first two Reference Modules – on Earth Systems and Environmental Sciences, and Chemistry, Molecular Sciences and Chemical Engineering – are on track to go live mid-September.