Should a Single-Publisher Platform be Called a “Database”?

[tweetmeme source=”Intellogist” only_single=false] Another interesting discussion recently took place on the CHMINF listserv that tried to differentiate between publisher compilations and databases.  This topic is very relevant to patent searchers, since we are constantly trying to locate comprehensive, reliable sources of non-patent scientific literature that can be used as prior art.  If a patent searcher believes that they are accessing a comprehensive database that covers a wide range of materials, and the database is actually limited to only journal articles and books produced by a single publisher, then the searcher may overlook crucial non-patent literature (NPL) prior art if they focus the search on that one database.  A patent searcher should always look at multiple databases so as not to overlook any relevant NPL.  It makes the searcher’s job easier to access a platform that covers a wide range of publishers and journal titles, instead of only works by a single publisher.

After the jump, we’ll look at some of the highlights from the debate on the CHMINF listserv, try to define a database and a publisher compilation, and look at some examples of these single-publisher platforms.

The Debate

Anyone can read the archived discussions from the Chemical Information Sources Discussion List (CHMINF-L), and I’d definitely recommend joining the listserv if you  have any interest in chemistry reference or general library/information science topics.  Many of the posters on the listserv are professional academic librarians who work with scientific collections, and their discussions are often on current information science topics or new chemistry-related reference resources.  A thread from January 2012, with the subject line “Authors listed in search of ACS Pubs,” evolved into a discussion of how to define single-publisher websites that resemble databases.

Here are some of the highlights of the discussion:

But for me, the bigger question is the trend of journal publisher web sites mimicking databases and being used by our patrons as databases. We know that not only students but faculty do this.  One of Elsevier’s all-time brilliant marketing moves was to brand their journal platform, ScienceDirect.  What could be more appealing to a patron that accessing science information directly?  And I would gauge that 80% of our patrons that search ScienceDirect don’t realize they are searching a single publisher.

– A. Ben Wagner, Sciences Librarian, University at Buffalo

I agree that librarians are sometimes unwitting enablers of this database vs publisher confusion.  I can’t recall how many times I’ve seen college/university library web pages (often in the cookie-cutter LibGuides platform) list ScienceDirect and ACS Pubs, and others, under the “Database” rubric.  They are databases only in the technical sense, but librarians should not be conflating them with disciplinary or general discovery tools.

– David Flaxbart, University of Texas at Austin

The one place where third-party I&A services are inferior to using primary publishers’ databases of articles is in the area of advance articles.  Unless the primary publishers inform the secondary about forthcoming papers in advance of posting the articles on their Web site, some lag-time is inevitable; however, now that many journals are posting “just accepted” articles, the abstracting tools seem woefully out of date.  What we need is a broadcast search of the publisher sites, focused on advance and “just accepted” articles.

– Judith N. Currano, Head, Chemistry Library, University of Pennsylvania

Is a Single-Publisher Compilation a Database?

The CHMINF-L discussion seemed to come to the consensus that publisher-created platforms often tend to mimic the search platforms for indexing and abstracting (I&A) services, so users may not realize that they are limiting their search to articles and monographs produced by a single publisher.  The LIS Wiki defines a database as “any computerized collection of data. Per library naming conventions, a database is usually a computerized (often Web-based) bibliographic index, or, a search engine for finding library materials.”  Based on this general definition, any digital collection of  bibliographic records  for online articles may be called a database, regardless of whether the articles are produced by a single or multiple publishers.  Databases that only cover a single publisher’s materials should identify themselves as such, though, so that users are aware of the limitations of the database’s coverage.

Single-Publisher Platforms: I took a look at a few of the publisher search platforms identified in the CHMINF-L discussion, and I specifically looked at their “About Us” sections to see if they were transparent about the content’s single-publisher coverage.

  • ACS Publications (publisher: Publications Division of the American Chemical Society (ACS)) – The “About Us” section for the site states that “ACS Publications publishes more than 40 journals, Chemical & Engineering News, ACS Legacy Archives, and the ACS Symposium Series via its award-winning web-based platform.”  Between the rather obvious name of the database and the previously mentioned statement in the “About Us” section, ACS Publications does an excellent job of identifying itself as a single-publisher database.
  • SpringerLink (publisher: Springer) – This website also identifies the publisher within the name of the search platform, and it’s “Frequently Asked Questions” section states that “SpringerLink is an integrated full-text database for journals, books, protocols, eReferences, and book series published by Springer.”  Like ACS Publications, SpringerLink is also transparent about the single-publisher coverage of it’s search platform.
  • ScienceDirect  (publisher: Elsevier) – The “About ScienceDirect”  section of the SciVerse website states that “ScienceDirect is a leading full-text scientific database offering journal articles and book chapters from more than 2,500 peer-reviewed journals and more than 11,000 books,” but the section fails to mention that the content only covers material by a single publisher.  In a brochure linked through the website about ScienceDirect, it is mentioned that “every article accepted for publication in an Elsevier journal is typeset and a PDF version is made available on ScienceDirect.”  Overall, though, the lack of the publisher name in the platform’s name and the cagey “About” section that fails to mention the single-publisher content indicates that ScienceDirect is not very transparent about the limitations of its coverage.


As discussed on the The CHMINF listserv, many publishers create databases that exclusively cover the publisher-produced content.  These publisher compilations may meet the technical criteria of a database, but the limitations of their coverage should be clearly defined so that users can utilize other resources simultaneously to conduct a comprehensive search.  These publisher websites may also provide a useful function through their early publication of advanced articles.

The search platforms ACS Publications and SpringerLink both identify the publisher in the database name, and the sites also mention in their “About”/”FAQ” sections that the content is produced by a single publisher.  Meanwhile, ScienceDirect is an example of a single-publisher platform that doesn’t identify itself clearly, so users may not realize the limitations of the database’s coverage.  Prior art searchers should always carefully check the coverage of a database to verify the limitations of the content and accordingly choose other databases to search simultaneously that fill these coverage gaps.

Do you think that single-publisher collections should be defined as “databases”?  Let us know your opinions about single-publisher search platforms in the comments!

Patent Information from Landon IP

This post was contributed by Joelle Mornini. The Intellogist blog is provided for free by Intellogist’s parent company Landon IP, a major provider of patent searches, trademark searches, technical translations, and information retrieval services.


4 Responses

  1. One suggestion from a late post to the CHMINF list was that publisher platforms be designated as “digital libraries” rather than databases. Not a bad idea, but a distinction that likely would be lost on most patrons and the use of the “library” word might denote to some multiple publisher sources.

    • I was definitely having trouble coming up with ways to refer to the collections on the publisher platforms while writing the post: compendium, compilation, archive, etc. just didn’t seemed to properly illustrate the coverage limitation of a single-publisher source. I’d probably prefer referring to the content as “digital libraries” rather than “databases”, but, as you said, that term also seems to imply a wider variety of sources. I really like Patricia’s suggestion of using “collection” to define the content, since this seems to imply a collection from a single source.

  2. I identify publisher specific “databases” as “collections”. So on my electrical engineering LibGuide my Find Articles tab has a box for Recommended Databases and a box for Journal Collections. In the former are INSPEC, Compendex and others. In the latter I including IEEExplore and the ACM Digital Library. When I train users I explain they will get good resources from each tool, but the broadest coverage is available in the traditional bibliographic databases NOT on a specific publishers web site. Running a well chosen search on the IEEExplore platform and then in INSPEC clearly shows the student that there is a difference.

    • “Collection” seems to have a connotation of more limited coverage than “database,” so that sounds like a perfect way to label those publisher-specific compilations.

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