On making information accessible. Interview with David Leeming.
“The problem we had was that, if we tried to store the XML in traditional relational databases, we were losing the structure of our articles or having to redesign them.”–David Leeming
On making information accessible, I have interviewed David Leeming, Solutions Manager at the Royal Society of Chemistry. The Royal Society of Chemistry is the world’s leading chemistry community, advancing excellence in the chemical sciences, with 49,000 members worldwide.
Q1. What is the main business of The Royal Society of Chemistry?
David Leeming: The Royal Society of Chemistry is the world’s leading chemistry community, advancing excellence in the chemical sciences. With over 49,000 members and a knowledge business that spans the globe, we are the UK’s professional body for chemical scientists; a not-for-profit organisation with 170 years of history and an international vision of the future. We promote, support and celebrate chemistry. We work to shape the future of the chemical sciences – for the benefit of science and humanity.
Q2. What is your role at The Royal Society of Chemistry? And what are your current projects?
David Leeming: I manage the solutions team within the Royal Society of Chemistry’s recently formed Strategic Innovation Group, whose goal is to develop and deliver digital products and platforms that support and enhance our strategy and goals. As well as delivering platforms such as our Publishing Platform and our platform for teaching and learning resources, Learn Chemistry, my team also trials new technologies to scope what the organisation could be doing next in digital delivery to connect the chemistry community with high-quality research and chemical data.
Q3. Why did you digitize and convert over 1 million pages of written word and chemical formulae into XML?
David Leeming: Our aim is to connect the world with the chemical sciences, so we need to be able to make the chemistry research that we publish available and accessible to researchers all over the world. With the age of digital technology and demands from researchers to get their hands on data in new formats, rather than the traditional hard copy journals, we undertook a project to digitise our vast library of scientific data, news and literature and make it available online. By getting the XML for our articles and data, we are able to improve the discoverability and functionality of the platforms we use to deliver our content, by using the content structure. We are also able to hold only one copy of an article and transform the XML into other format layouts without having to hold multiple copies of the article.
Q4. What kind of new products and services were you expecting to develop when you converted the data in XML?
David Leeming: We can enhance and semantically enrich our content and analyse it to discover niche domains or areas of chemistry research that might benefit researchers who may not normally think to look in our journals.
For example, since launch in 2010 we have launched a number of new journals in environmental science.
On Learn Chemistry we have been able to produce mini-sites for specific initiatives such as a collection of Chemistry of Sport education resources that coincided with the 2012 Olympic Games.
Q5. What technical challenges did you encounter when trying to store and manage these XML files?
David Leeming: Before we discovered MarkLogic the problem we had was that, if we tried to store the XML in traditional relational databases, we were losing the structure of our articles or having to redesign them.
The XML was basically stored in flat files, and we needed to build indexes from this. Keeping this up to date and versioned was difficult. Since we’ve been using MarkLogic, we have been able to store our content in its original structure within the database, giving us full version control and adding search capabilities. The initial technical difficulties we faced when switching over to MarkLogic were finding experienced developers and getting traditional database administrators to think a bit differently about the way developers use the database and not to be concerned about traditional data modelling.
Q6. Specifically, how do you manage the logical associations between different types of XML content? And how do you query(update) them?
David Leeming: We have two ways of separating content. One is by product – this was our original method. We stored the XML documents for each product in their own database. We have now changed this method to store by content type. So, for instance, a journal article is stored together with other journal articles, book chapters are stored together, and so on. We keep the original XML schema and different documents have different schemas, but on loading the data we add a ‘meta’ record that is common across all data objects. This holds identifiers and describes what each data object is. This aids in the searching and querying we perform on the data to ensure the correct content is accessed and updated.
Q7. What results did you obtain in using a NoSQL database for this task?
David Leeming: Using the NoSQL database meant that we didn’t need to spend 6 months or so building a data model that doesn’t really fit the structure of the documents we currently have or may have in the future. Each time we get a different XML document, there’s no need to change the underlying data model, so it is very easy to implement.
Q8. What are your plans ahead?
David Leeming: Going forward we are starting to add greater semantic enrichment to data sets to provide better discoverability across chemistry data that will enable increased collaboration among researchers.
David Leeming is the Royal Society of Chemistry’s Solutions Manager. He is an experienced leader, project manager and business analyst in the digital publishing business, with expertise in building innovative platforms and solutions. He works with a number of technologies, with specific interest in online publishing, XML, sprint methodologies and MarkLogic. He manages teams of highly skilled engineers, analysts and an outsourced development unit based in India.
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