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Beyond Reference Management: How Literature Management is a Win for the Life Science Organization

Posted on April 7th, 2021 by in Pharma R&D

Scientific literature is a critical component to virtually all aspects of a life science enterprise, including Medical Affairs, Pharmacovigilance and R&D. However, the process of curating and sharing literature can lead to significant challenges in organizing content, facilitating collaboration and enforcing copyright compliance.

In many cases, reference management tools (e.g. EndNote, Zotero) are used to manage the large amounts of literature that accumulate over time. While these tools are helpful for developing bibliographies, a more robust approach to managing literature should be considered in order to effectively collaborate and centralize information.

Especially in the remote-working era, a proper method of literature management can benefit your entire organization, streamlining access to literature while keeping the company compliant.

Literature management tools have evolved in the last few years.  They are no longer used just for document delivery services, but as collaborative tools to enable discussions.  With so many employees working from home these days, the right information management tool can help improve collaboration, simplify workflows and save users time.


Within Life Science companies, there are many consumers of literature across the organization.  How they’re accessing it, however, may be problematic. There are typically several ways that people access literature without a literature management system: ordering articles directly from the publisher, using personal subscriptions, or using academic or professional affiliations.

When ordering directly from a publisher using a personal credit card, there’s no way to track that expense in a meaningful way. We’re missing out on important data to gain insight into what journals people are reading. We can’t use these transactions to make informed decisions on subscriptions. 

The same applies with personal subscriptions. If someone subscribes to a publication on their own, we gain no insight into the usage because it’s limited to the individual. And, incidentally, articles downloaded from personal subscriptions are not meant for sharing within an organization, they are for personal use only.

Those that come from academia sometimes have difficulty transitioning to the business setting in regards to their literature consumption. They tend to be reluctant to spend money on articles that they were accustomed to getting for free from their academic institution. Accessing articles through academic affiliations, however, is a violation of copyright when it’s for business purposes. 


Once PDFs are obtained, storage tends to be another pain point. Companies have various methods of storing, from saving PDFs on shared drives or SharePoint, to tracking them in Excel files or posting and discussing articles on Yammer. All of these approaches have their issues. 

First off, there is probably no standard naming convention, which makes it difficult to know what to look for. Secondly, access to documents may be limited to a specific group. For example, someone may save a PDF to a Medical Affairs shared folder. Pharmacovigilance may not have access to that folder so they order the same article, needlessly doubling the cost. The content is siloed, so sharing can’t take place.

Also, it’s inefficient for a user to have to check multiple locations for articles. Without a central repository, some things may be stored one place, while others are stored in another—or maybe the PDF was emailed, so they have to check their inbox.

And once something is stored in a location, is it findable? How can you search for it? Can you search within a document, or are you just able to search the metadata?


Saving to a shared location may not even be allowed due to copyright restrictions. Not being clear on the ins and outs of copyright can put your organization at risk for compliance issues. Navigating re-use without some sort of automated assistance to ensure compliance can be difficult and can increase the risk of copyright infringement, trigger costly lawsuits or settlements, and result in damage to brand reputation. Copyright law provides a range from $200 to $150,000 for each work infringed. And while you may not hear of it all that often, it does happen. With a literature management system, copyright is automated, so it takes the guesswork out of compliance.


Streamlining access to information and resources enhances productivity. Research shows that most knowledge workers turn to Google as their primary source, often completely unaware of company resources and subscribed content available to them. A literature management tool can be a big help in getting your organization at least part way there by serving as THE point of access for literature within the organization.

A literature management tool can make access to literature easier for researchers, and faster research makes for faster discoveries and decision making. In the end, that’s what it comes down to. Users want easy access to the information that they need to do their job so that they can be successful at moving the business forward. This is where proper literature management can help your organization. 

Literature management is the concept of centralizing literature into a system/location accessible to entire organization to share, store, collaborate, access/order, reference and review.

A literature management system can integrate all the pieces of the puzzle.

With a literature management system, copyright is automated, so it takes the guesswork out of being compliant.

Journal subscriptions can be integrated into a literature management system so that there is no need for users to check to see if they have a subscription to an article prior to ordering. The system checks the repository of previously obtained articles and the organization’s subscriptions, as well as open access content. 

If an article is not available through the repository, subscriptions or open access, they can obtain it by ordering through Document Delivery. The user doesn’t then need to upload it so that others can access it. The system automatically adds it to the repository, copyright permitting. The system is checking copyright at various steps in the process, taking away that responsibility. PDFs are then stored in one central repository, eliminating duplication of orders.


With a literature management tool, your organization will be getting the most value from the content they’ve purchased.  Multiple groups can share access to PDFs, so rather than each group purchasing a copy and storing it in their own silo, it’s available to everyone without any effort.


Users across the organization can access literature through the system and can share, collaborate, comment and tag, working as a group and communicating within the tool, rather than emailing PDFs around.

Workflows can be set up to capture a review process like the weekly literature review that the Pharmacovigilance group does. It’s an auditable process and can capture everything needed for their specific workflow.

References can easily be exported in various formats whether it’s for a simple bibliography or to a citation tool so that references can be integrated into a document. Some literature management tools even have a built in cite and write capability.

A literature management system also allows for full text search. Users can type in a key word to search the content, whether it’s in a shared library or a personal library. The system searches the entire document, rather than just the metadata – title, author, abstract, etc. – making information easier to find.


Groups can collaborate using shared libraries or folders. They can create workflows, set up alerts for specific searches or get notifications when a colleague has contributed to the library. This is all contained in one location. A running dialog can be captured within a record and tags can be added for easy filtering. 


“You can’t manage what you can’t measure.”
– Peter Drucker

An added benefit of a literature management system is the insight you can gain into what users are ordering, reading and accessing. Reports available through these tools will enable better decision making in regard to journal subscriptions or pre-paid tokens, based on usage data. Companies often think that they need subscriptions to specific journals. Collecting usage data for a few months through a literature management system can provide insight into what is being used within the organization. With this information, better decisions can be made regarding subscriptions, saving the organization money.


Another great feature of a literature management system is that it can help with retaining institutional knowledge. How often do people leave an organization and take all of their knowledge with them? When users can add comments, annotations and tags to PDFs, they’re documenting their thoughts and that knowledge is retained within the organization when they leave. So, while a literature management tool doesn’t serve as a full knowledge management solution, it’s another piece of the puzzle that can help with harnessing knowledge within your organization.

Users across the organization benefit from a literature management system, making it a win for everyone!

Editor’s Note: Learn more about how Elsevier can help you manage scientific literature with QUOSA.

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