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Issues in Science and Technology Librarianship
Winter 2007

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Electronic Resources Reviews

Inspec via Engineering Village (EV)

Howard M. Dess
Physical Sciences Resource Librarian
Rutgers University
Library of Science & Medicine
Piscataway, New Jersey

Copyright 2007, Howard M. Dess. Used with permission.


Inspec is a multidisciplinary database that focuses most heavily on the subject areas physics, electrical and electronic engineering, and computing and control engineering. The name Inspec itself encapsulates in acronymic format the purpose of the database as originally conceived: Information Service in Physics, Electrotechnology and Control.

Inspec is web accessible via a number of proprietary commercial platforms, including Dialog, FIZ Technik, Questel Orbit, STN, and Engineering Village (EV). This review will focus on Inspec via the EV platform, which is owned by Elsevier Publishing (until recently Elsevier's official name for its Engineering Village platform was EV2, but this has now been shortened to EV). Inspec has been available on the EV platform since January 2003.

Historical Background and Recent Developments

Inspec's historical roots extend back to a print product called Science Abstracts, first produced in 1898 by a U.K. professional organization, the Institution of Electrical Engineers (IEE). The Inspec database was developed in the late 1960s to help facilitate the production of Science Abstracts and its various (print) off-shoot titles that were spawned over the years. The Inspec Centenary web site provides with a comprehensive history of this family of publications, both print and online (Inspec 2006). In 1969 Inspec was introduced and marketed as a commercial product in its own right by IEE and continued to be published under the aegis of that organization until very recently, when the merger of IEE with IIT (Institution of Incorporate Engineers) in March of 2006 gave rise to the successor organization called Institution of Engineering Technology (IET). Production of Inspec was then assumed by the newly launched IET. Further information about IET is available at their web site (IET 2006).

Database Size and Time Span

Inspec currently contains over nine million records for the period 1969 to date and is updated once a week. The growth rate in the near future is predicted to accelerate from a level of some 400,000 new records currently added per year to over 550,000 records per year as coverage is expanded in several subject areas such as computing conferences and the field of nanotechnology. Over 4,000 journals, worldwide, are scanned on a regular basis (including 1,600 that are scanned cover-to-cover and 140 open access journals), plus an additional 3,000 "other" types of publications such as conference proceedings, book chapters, monographs, etc.

The Inspec Archive database is a separate product which covers the years 1898-1968 and contains some 874,000 records comprising the digitized contents of Science Abstracts and daughter publications for that time-span. This archival database is certainly of historical interest to researchers, but our focus for the balance of this review will center solely on the main Inspec database.

Inspec on the EV Interface

The EV interface for Inspec is displayed in figure 1. Key functions are accessed via a set of prominently displayed tabs near the top of the screen.

Figure 1

Users have the option of searching only Inspec or simultaneously in combination with Compendex (engineering database) and/or NTIS (a government document database). Answer sets from simultaneous searches on two or more databases can be deduped, but this feature is limited to only the first 1,000 hits retrieved, an inconveniently small number which we hope will be expanded in the near future.

Three different search modes are offered:

Figure 2

Browsable Indexes

EV provides browsable indexes that can be extremely helpful in pinning down a specific author name, author organizational affiliation, journal name, etc. The number of such indexes on display for use varies with the type of search performed. Thus, "Expert Search" offers the maximum choice of browsable indexes, nine in all, including author, author affiliation, controlled terms, language, serial title, etc. "Quick Search" provides access only to the first three previously listed, and "Easy Search" does not display any of these indexes (because these searches are, in effect, preprogrammed to execute with no limits).

Other Specialized Indexes: Chemical Indexing, Numerical Indexing, and Astronomical Object Indexing

Although labeled as indexes, these functions do not really fit that description. Rather they are more realistically described as coding schemes developed to permit users to carry out "expert" searches for inorganic compounds (Chemical Indexing) or numerical data, and especially property data (Numerical Indexing). These search functions are available only on Inspec, for use solely in "expert searches," and are not applicable in Compendex or NTIS. The main types of inorganic compounds for which the chemical indexing system was devised are semiconductors such as gallium arsenide, or gallium phosphide, or gallium aluminum arsenide, etc., either as stoichiometric materials or more commonly as non-stoichiometric compositions that may also be doped with other elements. In short, these are complex systems that are not amenable to keyword or nomenclature searches. (However, searchers should note the following exception: organic compounds are not covered by this search methodology and access to this vast category of materials still relies on chemical name searches). Not surprisingly, the methodology developed to deal with these systems requires precise and detailed knowledge of the applicable codes, and construction of search strings can be quite complex. Similar comments are applicable to the Numerical Indexing and Astronomical Object Indexing. These are not intuitive search fields that can easily be comprehended without some degree of preparation and practice. Therefore it is distressing to report that Inspec's standard help file provides only very limited information about these specialized functions, just a few short sentences about each, and even these meager descriptions are not easily located. They are not indexed separately in the help files but can be found (almost serendipitously) under the broad blanket heading "Inspec and Inspec Archive Search Fields." Inspec does provide links to more detailed compilations of information and usage instructions at the end of each of these brief descriptive sections in the help files. Even here though, in these online instruction manuals, search examples illustrating the use of these search tools are limited in number and not easy to follow or extrapolate to undocumented situations. In fact, probably in recognition of the shortcomings and paucity of these instructional materials, users are advised to contact the Inspec Help Desk for assistance in constructing searches that require use of the Chemical Index or Numerical Index. This seems like very good advice indeed.

Scope of Subject Coverage for Inspec

The 9.1+ million records in Inspec are classified into five broad subject categories accessible via a pull-down menu in the "Limit By" section of the search interface, under the default label "All Disciplines" (see figure 1). Applying these descriptor limits provides insight into the subject coverage of Inspec:

Physics: 5.348 million records
Electrical & Electronic Engineering: 3.371
Computer & Control Engineering: 2.606
Information Technology: 0.084
Manufacturing & Product Engineering: 0.793

Physics clearly is the major subject area covered by Inspec, followed by electrical and electronic engineering and computer and control engineering.

The numbers listed above total 12.202 million and this outcome reflects the fact that the content of many records falls into more than one subject category. Accordingly those multi-disciplinary records are assigned two or more subject descriptors, e.g., the physics subject category also includes 1.232 million records tagged with the "electrical and electronic engineering" subject label, and 0.142 million records were assigned to three subject categories. So when constructing a search strategy, users who wish to impose subject limits must keep in mind these overlapping domains.

The heavy focus on science, engineering, and technical subjects notwithstanding, searchers will occasionally and unexpectedly retrieve answer sets in subject areas that are clearly business oriented. The following Inspec search shed further light on this matter: the phrase "business or economics or finance" retrieved 269,000 hits. Application of the following additional limiting terms or phrases yielded the indicated retrievals (results were rounded):

computer uses and applications: 91,000
information technology: 69,000
communications: 47,000
publishing 18,000
systems 14,000

An admittedly cursory and random examination of answers suggests that if there is any unifying thread linking these areas, no matter how tenuous the connection, it relates in some manner to information or communications studies or management.

By way of contrast, a comparable search in Business Source Premier yielded over two million hits. This stark contrast indicates that Inspec cannot be used for comprehensive searches in these business- or commerce-related subject areas.

Other Limits That Can Be Applied

Document Type: Of the 10 document types listed in the pull-down menu with the default label "All Document Types," the two dominant categories are "journal articles" (over six million) and "conference articles" (over 2.8 million). The remaining eight document types show relatively low numbers, but two of them are deserving of further comment: dissertations and patents. Use of the dissertation document limit retrieved only 8,736 hits for the period 1967+ but the distribution of retrievals by year was skewed in an inexplicable fashion as follows:

Years Number of Dissertations
1996-2005 101 (note: no dissertations later than 2003)
1986-1995 764
1976-1985 1,180
1969-1975 6,691

In the case of patents, a total of only 17,943 was retrieved for the period 1969 through 1978, with no additional patent records beyond 1978. Of this total, only two countries are represented: U.S., with 9,829 and U.K. with the balance.

These findings indicate that Inspec cannot be used as a primary resource for comprehensive searches for either dissertations or patents.

Treatment Types: Users can limit searches by nine different treatment types. Again, one needs to be mindful that many publications are assigned more than one treatment type label, and assignments will in some cases involve some degree of subjectivity. The three major categories are:

Theoretical 3.754 million
Experimental 3.351 million
Product Review 2.677 million

The population of the other types falls off rapidly beyond this point.

Language Limits: English is the major language category accounting for some 8.2 million records in Inspec or 89.9% of the total. Searchers are also given a choice of limiting searches to seven other languages, including German (0.18 million), Chinese (0.18 million), and Russian (0.17 million). In the absence of some very specific need, searchers are best advised to take the language default option, which is "All Languages."

Time Limits: Searches can be restricted to specific years or ranges of years, via the pull-down menus displayed near the bottom of the search interface. One can also impose much shorter term limits, restricted to specific update periods and extending to a maximum of the most recent four weekly updates.

Display and Sorting of Answer Sets

The page format used by Inspec to display answer sets is very easy to read, attractively laid out, and search results can be further refined and/or sorted in various ways. The following example is illustrative. The basic search query was, in plain English: find information about gravitational effects of black holes. The search was carried out on Inspec only, using the "Quick Search" default mode, as follows: black hole AND gravity. No limits of any kind were imposed, and the default "All Fields" option was chosen. Finally, the default "Autostemming" function was utilized (more about this later). This search yielded 4,029 hits for the default time period 1969+ (see figure 3).

Figure 3

The default sort is by relevance, listed in order of decreasing relevance. (Information about the criteria used to determine relevance is summarized in the help section, but the precise algorithmic formulation remains a mystery to users.) All sorting options are listed in a row just above the first listed citation retrieved and include:

The default display option for any reference retrieved is "citation," which provides the usual minimum bibliographic information needed to locate and retrieve an article, but users can readily select progressively more detailed formats by clicking on the "abstract" or "detailed" button situated just below the bibliographic information line. Finally, the user can link to the full-text article via the button marked "Search for Article," provided that the user's institution maintains a current subscription to that publication source.

If one carries out this same search (black hole and gravity) in the "Easy Search Mode," a larger answer set is retrieved (4,441 hits versus 4,027 earlier).

This result seems counterintuitive for this simpler search mode until one recalls that the default search in this case is conducted across all three databases (Compendex, Inspec, and NTIS), and includes duplicate entries.

Additional Search Capabilities

Refining Answer Sets via Search "Facets"

Every search generates not only a set of answers retrieved from Inspec but also a bibliographic analysis of the answer set displayed along the right hand margin of each page, broken down into eight categories that are called "facets" (see summary below). In each facet category, authors for example, the names are listed in rank order by the number of their publications in each answer set. This same ranking scheme, by number of occurrences, is applied to all of the other facet types as well (see figure 3):

The facet functionality is a new and useful feature that was introduced in 2005 to provide searchers with ready means to modify or refine searches by limiting answer sets to those publications that either include specific facet terms (e.g., restrict the answer set to publications by a specific author) or exclude them. At the very bottom of the screen, provision is made for adding additional (non-facet) search terms or keywords, either restricted to the current answer set (to narrow it) or to broaden the search to include the entire database.

It should be noted that these facets are also indispensable tools for librarians and other information specialists who carry out analytical studies on the literature of any particular subject specialty.

In addition to the standard list of facets described above, we would also like to see that list expanded by the following capabilities and hope that IET and Elsevier give serious consideration to these recommendations:

Search History

As a search session progresses via entry of additional search strings, these activities are captured in the "Search History" field which records the entry of each new search statement, plus a summary of the retrieval results of that search event. Individual search strings can then also be combined via Boolean links to extend or modify an ongoing search. The format used is #1 and #2. Use of the # symbol is mandatory. The numbers identify the specific search strings displayed in the History field. Entry to Search History is accomplished by clicking on the "Search History" button located on the topmost line of the search screens.

Saving and Exporting Search Results

Inspec offers the following options for saving or exporting selected citations retrieved from a search, or entire blocks of answers via:

The facets also provide additional display, export, and storage capabilities. Note the two small icons located at the top of each facet. (see figure 4)

Figure 4

Clicking the one on the left opens a screen that displays the retrieval data for that particular facet in the form of a histogram (e.g., number of publications per author, shown in declining order). The icon on the right allows one to export the data in that particular facet to a software program such as Excel, where further manipulation or graphing can be carried out.

Additional Post-Search Options: Blogs and RSS

Inspec gives searchers the opportunity to establish links to preferred blog sites and RSS services. The process is very simple and convenient: after a search is run and an answer set retrieved, the RSS button appears in the line just below the heading "Search Results." Instructions are provided for setting up the link and activating an RSS reader. This process only needs to be done once. In the case of blogs, a "blog this" button appears after the searcher begins opening the records of individual answers retrieved, via the "detailed" or the "abstract" options. Additional information about both of these functions can be found under "Help."


Inspec is an essential database for researchers in the fields of physics, electrical and electronic engineering, computer and control engineering. It is of more limited value (in terms of content and subject coverage) to searchers in subjects related to information technology or mechanical & production engineering, although IET has announced that these latter two areas are being expanded. Therefore, we can expect the usefulness of these subject categories to researchers to increase in tandem with the future growth of the published literature on those subjects. It is a real plus for users that the EV platform permits simultaneous searching of Inspec along with Engineering Index (EI) and NTIS (the government document database covering the sciences).

The EV platform is visually appealing and user friendly. The layout and search options reflect careful consideration of user needs, including easy access to extensive help screens and provision for the application of a number of sorting options to answer sets.

Introduction of the bibliographic "facets" in 2005 provides searchers with a powerful new tool to aid in analyzing answer sets and modifying or refining searches. Suggestions for expanding user options include adding facets for journal titles, and citation tracking. The latter would be especially valuable for users.

Additional improvements that would greatly benefit users deal with the methodology now used in the "Other Specialized Indexes" (for chemical, numerical, and astronomical object searches). The search procedures now required to deal with these subject areas are complex, confusing, and poorly explained. Hopefully IET will eventually develop new search algorithms that are easier to apply, but in the interim, at the very least, we urge them to provide more detailed help screens which are also more readily accessible than at present.


IET - The Institution of Engineering and Technology. 2006. About the Institution. [Online]. Available: {} [December 22, 2006].

Inspec. 20006. Centenary Website. [Online]. Available: {} [December 22, 2006].

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