ProQuest Invests in Virtual Conference Venue Underline Science  

ProQuest's investment in virtual conference venue Underline Science is a harbinger of making conference papers and presentations more findable for librarians and the scholarly community.

When Underline Science announced ProQuest's significant investment in the company, the obvious question to be asked was: What's in it for ProQuest?  What was in it for Underline Science was not in dispute. Additional funding to support, scale, and expand its business would always be welcome. Concomitant with ProQuest's investment, Underline Science added two ProQuest executives to its Board of Directors, Robert VanHees, President and Chief Financial Officer, and Rafael Sidi, SVP and General Manager of ProQuest's Information Solutions business unit.  

A caveat here: More than one person, including Sidi himself, went out of their way to tell me that Sidi invested his own money not ProQuest's. Plus, Sidi plans to leave ProQuest at the end of December 2020 and Chris Burghardt will replace him at ProQuest.

Underline Science is a relatively new company that provides a virtual conference venue for events related to science, medicine and the academic world in general. At first blush, Underline Science's streaming virtual conference product seems a far remove from ProQuest's core library business.

On its website, it says it focuses on conferences about AI, biomedical informatics, robotics, computer science, physics and web engineering. It also promotes many IEEE conferences and symposia, on topics such as Big Data, networking computing and applications, and hardware-oriented security and trust. In the midst of these highly technical topics is the 2021 UKSG conference, which will give the library community ample opportunity to test out Underline Science's capabilities.

Hosting UKSG, however, is insufficient to explain ProQuest's interest in Underline Science. Unless you think that ProQuest longs to move beyond its traditional online databases and library management software to get into conference organizing, you need to consider the totality of Underline Science.

Background of Underline Science

Underline Science was founded by Alex Lazinica, who founded his first company when he was studying for a PhD in mechanical engineering at the Technical University of Vienna. That company, IntechOpen (, based in London, describes itself as "the world's leading publisher of Open Access books" and "Built by scientists, for scientists." It has published over 5,000 titles.

His interest in conferences stems from attending them and being frustrated by the multiple sessions. Having to choose among competing sessions and being unable to access them upon returning home made the notion of a live streaming and repository platforms very appealing. Underline Science offers the ability to film the presentations and offer technical and logistical support for online conferences. As he explained to Darrell Gunter, "We have basically two value proposals, one for the conference organizers and one for scientific societies." 

When speaking with David Shumaker, Lazinica characterized Underline Science as "YouTube for scholars" ("Underline Science Brings Conferences Into the Streaming Era," Information Today, September 20, 2020, pp. 16-17). When I spoke with him, he altered that slightly to "Netflix for scientists".

For conference organisers, Underline Science's "white glove service" offers a range of features to attempt to replicate an in-person conference. It has a main stage for keynotes and breakout rooms for sessions . Speaker rooms encourage networking and interactivity, as do sponsor lounges. One innovation is the "flipped conference". Like flipped classrooms, the idea is to let conference delegates view the presentation in advance, then come to the session with questions and comments, creating what Underline Science terms a "cerebral slugfest".

Virtual Conferences

In these days, when almost all conferences have adopted the virtual platform model in lieu of in person gatherings, the allure of Underline Science should be obvious. But the marketplace for platforms for virtual conferences is crowded. What differentiates Underline Science for information professionals is what it does after the conferences end. True to its commitment to preserving the scholarly record, it enriches the videos with DOIs, MARC records, closed captioning, a full transcript, and the speaker's profile. The speakers are responsible for assigning content-based metadata.

Any researcher who has searched diligently for the text of a conference paper, only to find at best a mention in a conference programme or, if lucky, an abstract, knows the fleeting nature of conference papers. Conference paper databases have spotty coverage, plus they lack full text, and the inclusion of conference papers in subject-oriented databases is equally hit or miss. The full printed conference proceedings of the past that graced library shelves have largely disappeared. Replacing them is streaming video. Thus, the ongoing need to capture and archive this format.

You can (sometimes) find conference presentations on YouTube and at conference websites, but they do not have the added metadata, transcriptions and captions added by Underline Science to its videos.

As an information source, conference presentations can be harbingers of scientific breakthroughs, indications of future research directions, practical explanations of just about anything, descriptions of innovative projects, and more. They provide other valuable insights. Yet too often they fall into the grey literature category, with limited discoverability. Underline Science wants to make its repository of conference presentations more discoverable. This just might be what caught the attention of ProQuest. According to ProQuest's Burghardt, Underline Science's content is intriguing, but as for the conference business, ProQuest's interest is strictly financial. He sees a fit between scholarly events content and the mission of ProQuest to "advance knowledge and understanding".

It doesn't stretch the imagination too much to envision a future where streaming video of conferences becomes part of ProQuest's Academic Video Online, or perhaps as a stand-alone database. As video expands its footprint as a source for valued scholarly content, integrating it into the offerings of traditional aggregators for the library market seems a natural next step.