ATG Interviews Max Berenstein, Product Manager, SciVerse Applications

by | Aug 16, 2011 | 0 comments

In April, Elsevier announced a couple of “app” challenges. These challenges were launched in two areas: Apps for Science and Apps for Library Idea Challenge. These challenges were to allow end users, developers, and librarians to suggest new approaches and/or actually build tools within SciVerse to enhance information search and discovery. Tom Gilson and I interviewed Max Berenstein recently to gather more information for ATG readers. — KS

Against-The-Grain Q&A E-mail Interview with Max Berenstein, Product Manager, SciVerse Applications

By Tom Gilson ( and Katina Strauch (

ATG: Elsevier has launched a series of community competitions trying to “engage the scientific research communities, librarians and application developers in the creation and conceptualization of search and discovery applications.”  Can you list and explain what these various community competitions are?  In particular, can you talk a little about the “Apps for Library Challenge?

MB: These community competitions align with our goal to empower users, including librarians, developers and researchers as we provide the tools and platform for them to experiment and build tailored apps that improve the research process. We recently hosted 24-hour “hackathons” with the New Jersey Institute of Technology (Feb 5-6), Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute (June 27-28) and the National University of Singapore (Aug 12). In fact, the iSpeech Audio Reader application on SciVerse came from a student at NJIT.  We are also targeting developers through activities like the “Apps for Science” challenge, an international competition for software developers in Australia, Germany, India, Japan, the Netherlands, the United Kingdom and the United States. We had 25 submissions and will announce winners of that challenge in October. Additionally, we are planning country-and-region-specific challenges sponsored by leading institutions in Asia and Europe.

We also recognize that librarians play an integral role as the knowledge managers who know the needs of researchers’ best. Seeing the initiatives that Elsevier and other companies are employing with developers to prompt the creation of new applications, we felt we should offer the same opportunity to the librarians with whom we work so closely.

The launch of the “Apps for Library Idea Challenge” soon followed, and we are excited to see the innovative solutions that librarians come up with that solve real problems for the community.  The goal is to engage the librarian community in a conversation about how to improve search and discovery, specifically via apps on SciVerse.  They, as much as anyone, know what sort of challenges they and their users face and we want to give them the opportunity to both collaborate and compete to solve such challenges.

This Challenge is still in progress and the app ideas are not public yet (will be in mid September), but they seek to address a variety of problems that both librarians and researchers face.  We also wanted to encourage collaboration within this competition.  The way this Challenge is structured, the competition part comes first where the app ideas are submitted.  Once the Entry Period completes, all the eligible ideas are exposed to the community for review and comment.  This is the collaboration part where librarians can add more details or point out shortcomings of the app ideas, thereby making the concepts more viable.

ATG: How did you develop the idea?  

MB: At the ALA conference in San Diego earlier this year, we presented SciVerse Applications to the librarian community. The response to SciVerse Applications was very positive but a consistent theme we heard was that although librarians know of the problems they and their researchers or students face, they don’t have the time or the expertise to develop applications to solve these pain points. That feedback led us to come up with the concept of soliciting ideas for apps to engage the librarian community in order to generate the right concepts to inform our developer network or the product managers at Elsevier so that they can develop the applications based on these ideas.  Even if some librarians do not have the technical background to build the apps, they can certainly participate in and guide the process of the application development.

ATG: How have librarians responded to the challenges?

MB: The response to the Apps for Library Idea Challenge has been very positive.  The librarians I met at the conferences have been very enthusiastic and supportive of this opportunity to identify ways that SciVerse Applications can help them.  In our impromptu brainstorming sessions, they’ve identified how an app could enable integration of disparate data sources.  Another recurring idea was an app to help the librarian (and the end user) formulate questions better and thus get to the right answer or information quicker.  As many librarians indicated interest, we’ve added features to the Challenge website to allow visitors to simply register and stay in touch (to see what ideas we come up with and to offer feedback when the time comes) even if they don’t have an idea ready themselves.

ATG: What specific improvements, if any, have you realized?

MB: It’s too soon to say what specific improvements we have seen as these challenges are still underway. Aside from the iSpeech application from the NJIT Hackathon, we have received a lot of positive feedback from students, researchers, librarians and developers as they realize the opportunity they now have to improve their own workflows and solve real problems. This is already leading to a more constructive, collaborative relationship and we hope to soon show applications resulting from these challenges.

ATG:  Perhaps, before we continue it might be a good idea if you tell us what SciVerse is and how it fits in with the other Elsevier products and services?

MB: SciVerse is Elsevier’s suite of search and discovery products including ScienceDirect, Scopus and Hub, as well as SciVerse Applications.  One of our goals when we launched SciVerse was to increase interoperability between SciVerse ScienceDirect, a full-text database of peer-reviewed content that currently contains more than 10.5 million articles, and SciVerse Scopus, a broad collection of peer-reviewed content with an index of more than 40 million abstracts as well as the citations, references and author data which connect them all.

As such, a search through SciVerse Hub covers SciVerse ScienceDirect, SciVerse Scopus and scientific web content with results ranked by relevancy and without duplication. Moreover, SciVerse Applications integrate into ScienceDirect, Scopus and Hub, allowing the scientific community to build, find and use applications that enhance search and discovery.

In fact, other Elsevier products can now easily integrate with SciVerse as well.  For example, the Emtree app is an integration of Embase into ScienceDirect.  The marketplace currently contains forty applications, all free (though we expect paid applications soon), enabling developers from Academia, Commercial companies and Elsevier to integrate their products into SciVerse.

ATG:  Getting back to the SciVerse “Apps for Librarian Idea Challenge,” it sounds like Elsevier is trying to get librarians and other users to help improve the SciVerse platform.  What do you mean by submitting “specific ideas for applications”?  Do those who want to take up the challenge have to write the app code or only come up with the concept?

MB: We launched the “Apps for Librarian Idea Challenge” as a call to action for librarians (as well as any information professionals), who serve as the knowledge managers and information experts for their organization, to come up with concepts and ideas that solve real problems for their users. Librarians understand the needs of researchers, instructors and students across disciplines and career stages and play a pivotal role in enabling the search and discovery of information.

The idea behind the challenge is to have the librarians present ideas, based on their insight and experience, and that the winning ideas will be passed on to the SciVerse Developer Network to create the applications. Librarians don’t need to write the code, but simply identify what is the problem being solved, who it is being solved for (typical user) and what is the context (workflow affected).  Of course, the tech-savvy librarian with programming skills is more than welcome to develop applications. In fact, the Illinois Catalog Viewer, one of the applications currently available on SciVerse Applications was developed by a librarian from the University of Illinois.

ATG:  It also appears that you want the library community to “propose innovative, customized solutions” to meet “the unmet workflow needs of researchers.”  Can you give us some examples of the “unmet workflow needs” that you are concerned about?

MB: We want to discover the unmet needs of users by leveraging the insight of librarians so that either we or third-party developers within our Developer Network can build apps to fulfill those needs. There’s an array of workflow needs already met by the forty applications currently available. For example, the Illinois Catalog Viewer application exposes relevant results from the institutional catalog when a user conducts a search within SciVerse Hub. By integrating this external content, a user (not even limited to University of Illinois) has easy access to additional information and no longer has to conduct a search in two different locations. Other applications cater to specific individual needs like the iSpeech application which enables users to listen to the text of articles and is most helpful for researchers who are auditory learners, visually impaired or on the go.

We also have quite a few applications that cater to the unmet workflow needs of the general research population including: the Share application which enables users to post articles of interest on Facebook, Twitter or CiteULike eliciting discussion among their professional network; the Most Downloaded application which allows users to find the most downloaded articles within the journal they are reading, providing a quick view of significant articles in their area of interest; and the Co-Author Network application which provides a visual representation of an author’s network of top co-authors allowing users to find potential collaborators or better understand a research network.

In fact the unmet needs for search and discovery continue to evolve with technology and growth in scholarly content.  SciVerse Applications offers a platform that engages the community of users, librarians and developers to respond to such changing needs by identifying problems, building solutions and integrating them into the workflows.

ATG: We know that the judges are Clifford Lynch, Karen Hunter, Roy Tennant, and Robert McDonald.  What criteria will they be applying in making their decisions?  We understand that there will be two grand prize winners but that there will be other prizes available.  Will there be different criteria for the different award levels.  Can you be specific as to how all this will work?

MB: We chose the judges because of their understanding of the librarian community as well as the end users’ needs.  We recruited some pretty tech-savvy individuals to ensure that the ideas submitted are not pie-in-the-sky concepts, but are actually buildable.  These are the leaders of the librarian community and they will have leeway in order to make judging decisions, especially given that we don’t know up front what sort of ideas will be submitted.  We will get together in September, once the entry period is finished, to confirm the specifics.

The judges and the community will each pick one grand prize winner.  The high level consideration will be how significant the end user need (being met) is and how ubiquitous the problem is (apps usable by more than one institution are valued higher).  There may be other considerations that the judges recommend too.  The other prizes (Galaxy Tab and the gift cards) are based on a random drawing from the eligible contributions (app ideas and comments).  The goal is to recognize everyone who takes time to participate.

ATG: What are the eligibility requirements to enter? What are the deadlines? Do you have to be a SciVerse user/customer to enter?  Is anyone disqualified i.e. Elsevier employees or consultants?

MB: The “Apps for Library Idea Challenge” is a global challenge open to anyone over 21 years that targets the librarian community, whether in academia, government or the corporate environments.  While we expect the most insightful ideas to come from librarians, the Challenge is actually open to anyone who is of age.  Once the apps are submitted per the September 2nd deadline, commenting on the app ideas, with the goal of improving them, will follow and ultimately both the judges and the community will select their favorites. Anyone is invited to participate (with the exception of Elsevier employees and their relatives).

ATG: Who owns the rights to the winning apps?  The winning applicant?  Elsevier?

MB: There are two levels of ownership implied in this question.  When a developer builds an application for SciVerse, he/she owns the rights to that application.  The ideas submitted to the Apps for Library Idea Challenge, are owned by Elsevier.  The reason for this is not that we want to “capture” these concepts for ourselves, but rather, we want to make sure that the ideas are freely available to Developer Network to build into real apps.  The goal here is to build as many of these ideas into real apps as possible. All the eligible app ideas will be posted on the “Apps for Library Idea Challenge” site in order to invite anyone interested in developing the application to do so.

ATG: How will you insure the personal privacy of the applicants?

MB: As privacy is a priority, applicants’ names will not be exposed on the website during the Challenge.  Additionally, if the winning individual wishes to remain anonymous we won’t publicize their name or institution.

ATG: If someone is interested how do they submit an entry?

MB: If interested, simply visit the website ( to find all the details, including the entry form available off the Home page.

ATG: Currently SciVerse apps work in either ScienceDirect or Scopus or SciVerse Hub, and all are free.  Will these newly generated apps also be free and openly available to all subscribers? 

MB: Whether the application is free depends on the developer.  If Elsevier builds the app, they will most likely be free.  If a member of a third-party, such as a librarian, researcher or developer, chooses to build the app as a paid app, that is their prerogative.

ATG: Due to these enhancements, do you plan price increases?

MB: No. Apps are a value add to the existing products like SciVerse ScienceDirect and do not drive a higher price.

ATG: Will there be similar contests to develop apps for mobile devices or apps that run outside of SciVerse? 

MB: We currently do not have similar challenges, like the “Apps for Library Idea” challenge, for mobile devices or apps that run outside of SciVerse. However, we may host such challenges in the future.

ATG: But SciVerse can be searched via mobile apps, right?

MB: Currently, SciVerse Scopus and ScienceDirect services can be accessed through a variety of mobile apps on different platforms including the iPhone, Blackberry and Android. The SciVerse Scopus mobile app provides users with access to abstracts and citation information while the SciVerse ScienceDirect mobile app provides users access to the full text of articles. Additionally, we have an e-Reader application available within SciVerse that allows researchers to download articles on devices such as the Sony Reader, Amazon Kindle, iPhone, iPad and Barnes & Noble nook. We find that many of our users, especially younger researchers, are mobile users so we want to cater to their needs.

We are also working on building an Authentication APIs that would allow apps to be used outside of SciVerse.  We recognize that our users are accessing information in many different ways and see this as an opportunity to bring SciVerse content to where the users are.

ATG: Is there anything that you would like to add that we neglected to ask?

MB: Although app ideas are one of the key objectives, the Apps for Library Idea Challenge is also an educational and awareness initiative to inform and engage our community of users regarding SciVerse Applications. The challenge taps into the knowledge of librarians, empowering them to take their or their users’ needs to drive the creation of solutions.  Whether an app is built by the SciVerse Developer Network or the librarians’ colleagues in the Computer Science department or even students taking a course, we want to provide librarians with an opportunity to get closer to their users’ workflows and contribute to improving search, discovery and assimilation of information.

ATG: Max, we want to thank you for taking the time to explain SciVerse and your various Community Challenges, in particular, the Apps for Library Idea Challenge. We’ve learned a lot.

MB: Thanks for the opportunity to speak about this.  I’m energized by this initiative, as you can probably tell, and excited by the response from the community.  Librarians see this Challenge as an opportunity to get creative, collaborate and solve some real problems.  It has also been gratifying to organize the resources within Elsevier as many within my organization see the value of this challenge.

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