Digital Directions: The Semantic Web
• Knovel. Knovel provides semantically structured collections of engineering and technical content, including text, charts and tables. This allows the information contained in articles to be queried, as one would query a database. Technical researchers can find answers contained in large bodies of content with great efficiency. For example, a technical researcher could submit a query to find studies that address polymers with a specific tensile strength at a given temperature range. This is tremendously more efficient than simply putting a search engine on top of a collection of thousands of journal articles. In the context of the cost of an engineer’s time (and the time he saves on research), the economic value is enormous.
Was Berners-Lee’s vision of the Semantic Web on target? BISAC, Alexander Street Press and Knovel are evidence that the semantic approach can increase the value of content through discoverability and research efficiencies. While considerable effort is required to structure content in this way, it yields, in many cases, a significant return.
What has not taken place is the wholesale transformation of the Web. The Web has not become a global, semantically structured database. Instead, there are islands of semantically structured content, inside commercial, walled gardens (subscription services), or within defined communities, as in the case of BISAC. The reason is economic: There often is insufficient justification for the investment required in semantically structuring content.
In addition, adoption of semantic technologies has been slow, since it is built upon other standards—particularly XML and Web Services (a standard way that software can connect with one another on the Internet). It has taken time for XML and Web Services to become widespread. With those standards in place, the semantic approach can and will be increasingly used. However, this will only occur in specific areas of content when there is a particular, usually financial, rationale for doing so.