Web Magazine for Information Professionals

10 Years of Zetoc

Jane Ronson looks at how Zetoc has developed and what the future holds for the service.

Now celebrating its 10th anniversary, Zetoc [1] provides quality-assured, comprehensive journal table of contents data for resource discovery that users can search and have delivered straight to their in-box or desktop. In a nutshell, Zetoc is all about convenience, current awareness and comprehensive coverage. In a recent survey, one academic commented: 'This is a "one-stop shop" for relevant literature'. What is Zetoc, what has it achieved and where is it going? In this article I will look at the history of the service and how it has developed over the past decade. I will also preview some of the exciting enhancements due to be launched in the coming months.

What is Zetoc?

Zetoc provides access to the British Library's Electronic Table of Contents [2] and is provided by Mimas [3] at the University of Manchester in collaboration with the Joint Information Systems Committee (JISC) [4]. For those puzzled by the 'Z', this refers to Z39.50-compliant access [5] to the British Library's Electronic Table of Contents (ETOC) database (Figure 2 shows more interface options.) With time being of the essence, most academics and researchers are not able to spend as long as they would like in finding and accessing material. The three main features in Zetoc, Search, Alert and RSS, are designed to make life easier, but without compromising on quality.

banner (13KB) : Figure 1: The Zetoc Web site 10th anniversary banner

Figure 1: The Zetoc Web site 10th anniversary banner

diagram (16KB): Figure 2: Zetoc interface options

Figure 2: Zetoc interface options


Zetoc supports cross-disciplinary searching and alerting on data from 1993 onwards and its coverage is regarded as unique by its users: one academic, from the University of Surrey, commented that Zetoc contains a 'wide range of articles, especially on the subjects/practitioners I can't seem to find anywhere else.' Along with key, mainstream journals such as the BMJ and Harvard Business Review, you can search Zetoc for less well-known journals, non-current articles and papers and a significant amount of non-English material. Due to Zetoc being Z39.50-compatible, it can be searched using bibliographic software such as Reference Manager, EndNote and ProCite.


Zetoc Alert is a Table of Contents alerting service, emailing the contents pages of your selected journals each time a new issue is loaded into the database (with daily updates to the database). Along with selected journals, alerts can be set-up for keywords from article titles and in association with author names. Links are provided to the full text, depending on the subscriptions available to the user through their institution or organisation, and Zetoc includes a page to allow inter-library loan enquiries. In addition, any article in Zetoc can be ordered directly from the British Library.


Zetoc offers the choice of receiving the table of contents of researchers' favourite journals via an emailed Alert or as an RSS feed, whichever is the most convenient. Emailed Alerts and RSS feeds can be set up even for journals still only available in print.

Key Features and Coverage

Key features of Zetoc can be described as follows:

In terms of content, the subjects Zetoc currently covers are as follows:

Who Can Use Zetoc?

Zetoc is free to use for members of JISC-sponsored UK Higher and Further Education institutions and Research Councils. Subscription to the service is available and current subscribers include:

There are also overseas users, such as Subito Publishing, a German-based document delivery service, and trial subscriptions to Zetoc have been taken up by Stanford University, NATO headquarters and Hewlett-Packard Labs.


diagram (16KB): Figure 3: Zetoc timeline

Figure 3: Zetoc timeline

Zetoc was launched on 26 September 2000, originally as a project making the British Library's ETOC database available to universities across the UK until at least August 2003. The initiative was welcomed by academics as demonstrating the commitment between the British Library and the Higher Education sector in working together [6] and came as part of JISC's plans to establish The Distributed National Electronic Resource (DNER), a managed environment for accessing quality-assured information resources on the Internet. In October 2000 the Zetoc Alert feature became available, closely followed in December by the availability of usage statistics, such as Top 20 Journal Alerts.


The Zetoc service was evaluated in Spring 2002 by Mimas in collaboration with the Department of Human Sciences at Loughborough University. There were 659 responses to the questionnaire which revealed that users were happy with the service, finding it easy to use and agreeing that it helped to keep them up to date in their research. However, users wanted to be able to reach full text from Zetoc records [7], so in November Zetoc began supporting OpenURL resolver software, enabling users to go from the Zetoc full record to the range of services provided by their institution. For example, to go straight to full text. Also introduced was the ability to search Zetoc via OpenURL software as a 'target'.


The OpenURL resolver support was enhanced to allow institutions to customise the link text that takes users from Zetoc to the resolver and to provide a relevant image.


Zetoc users have always been able to order any article in Zetoc directly from the British Library. As part of the ongoing commitment to improve functionality, a new and improved service was introduced: British Library Direct, enabling users to choose from a range of delivery options, including instant download and Secure Electronic Delivery (SED), so that users can choose the delivery time and the format which best suits their needs. Zetoc RSS was also introduced, providing an RSS link alongside each of the journals in the RSS journal list and enabling users to subscribe to feeds for individual journals. Each article has a link to the full record page in Zetoc.


Changes to the way Higher Education users authenticate to the service (due to many institutions moving from Athens to Shibboleth), meant that Mimas had to prepare for the complication of large numbers of users' transferring their Zetoc Alerts over to be associated with their new Institutional identifier. The changeover process went quite smoothly, though not without a little confusion at times! Meanwhile, a JISCMail list was set-up - MIMAS-ZETOC - to help keep our users informed about news and service information [8].


Due to the Zetoc Alert list names being automatically generated (with names such as 'hw5yzw') feedback from list owners requested that they should be able to change the name to something more meaningful. We responded by giving the list owner's the ability to rename their Alert list. Also in response to demand, Mimas worked with the British Library to enable the inclusion of Abstracts in Zetoc records. When present, they are included on the 'Full record' display and are included in the 'All fields' search. Inclusion of the Abstract data is by agreement between the British Library and the publisher. Although not all new articles include abstracts, the number continues to increase as further agreements are reached.

Using data extracted from Zetoc, both Copac [9] and the Serials Union Catalogue (SUNCAT) [10] became able to display the table of contents for a journal.


An online survey was presented on the service home page in December 2009 and January 2010 with the results made available (see 'Evaluation' below). Following a second online survey later in the year, further research is being conducted (at the time of writing), consisting of in-depth interviews with Zetoc users to examine how they use the service.

Zetoc continues to grow and now contains around 40 million records. This continual growth means that searches require more resources. During July 2010, Zetoc, along with a number of Mimas services, was moved to new hardware. Happily, vastly improved search times have been forthcoming.


Google Scholar

For many, the advent of Google Scholar, first launched in October 2004 [11], presented an appealing way of searching for articles. It also includes an alerting service, so Google could be perceived as a threat to Zetoc. There are a number of differences between the Zetoc and Google Scholar but just to consider two: all the ETOC data has been through the British Library's selection and quality-control processes, whereas the quality of records found via Google Scholar can vary. In terms of search results, Zetoc Search can display over a million records, while the number of results in Google Scholar is limited to one thousand per search.

However, Zetoc and Google Scholar can complement each other. For example, links are provided from Zetoc to Google Scholar, (along with Scirus, a science-based search engine, [12] and Copac [9]) for those whose institution does not have its own link resolver.

The Move in HE from Athens to Shibboleth

In 2008 changes to the way Higher Education users authenticate to the service (due to many institutions moving from Athens to Shibboleth), meant that Mimas had to prepare for the complication of large numbers of users' transferring their Zetoc Alerts over to be associated with their new institutional identifier. Every Alert owner was sent notification and instructions on transferring their Alerts via a 'one-click' facility developed by Mimas. In common with all authenticated services, some Zetoc users were confused by the change from Athens to Shibboleth, but the overall changeover process went quite smoothly.

Full Text: Expectations and Misunderstandings

An issue we regularly have to contend with is the expectation that Zetoc contains full text records and the resulting disappointment of some users when they find that it does not. There is also a common misunderstanding that Zetoc does not link to full text. However, this has been possible since 2002 either via customised links to an institution's OpenURL resolver or via Google Scholar etc. (as discussed in the 'Google Scholar' section above). Zetoc also contains Open Access material provided by Mimas, and with direct links from the Zetoc full record. We need to continue to try to address this misunderstanding. It could in part be due to links to full text, or other options, not being visible enough in the Zetoc full records.

Evaluation 2010

A survey of the Zetoc service was carried out via the Web site between 3 December 2009 and 14 January 2010 [13]. There were 514 respondents to the questionnaire. Survey results included: The 'Most Valued Zetoc Feature' (see table in Figure 4). Alerts/RSS feeds were the most valued (23%), followed closely by coverage (22%) and ease of use, search facilities (21%). 'Work Sector' (see table in Figure 5): most respondents were based in Higher or Further Education (64%), followed by the Health sector (22%). When asked about 'Work Value', 76% of all respondents agreed that Zetoc is valuable in carrying out their work.

table (32KB): Figure 4: Most valued Zetoc feature

Figure 4: Most valued Zetoc feature


graph (28KB): Figure 5: 2010 survey: Respondents' work sector

Figure 5: 2010 survey: Respondents' work sector

Respondents were also given the opportunity to comment on the Zetoc service and the features they valued most. Comments were received from academics, researchers and librarians from a range of disciplines/sectors and included:

In addition to the online survey, the option of participating in a 20-minute interview was also offered to UK academic researchers or lecturers who use Zetoc. As a result of this, five semi-structured interviews were conducted with Zetoc users in order to gain a better understanding of the way the service is used in their work. A further questionnaire was issued in August 2010 to consult with the Zetoc community about how they would like the service to be developed. Several in-depth, follow-up interviews are currently taking place (at the time of writing). In the interviews so far, we have received more positive feedback on the service, such a comment made by the Associate Dean at the University of Chester: 'Zetoc tends to be the first place I go to for my research.'

However, we have noted that some users are still unaware that they may be able to link from Zetoc Search or Alert to the full text of articles, courtesy of their institution. This suggests that some marketing and awareness activities may help the research community to get the most out of Zetoc.

The Future of Zetoc

JISC have made available some additional funding for Mimas to develop Zetoc further to improve functionality and content. We want Zetoc to have a new look and greater flexibility, and consultation with our users has confirmed that this would be welcome. As such, the 'Zetoc Enhancements 2' Project will centre on four main areas: the development of personalisation features, aggregation of Table of Contents (TOC) services, the expansion of Open Access (OA) content and a new look interface.

Personalisation Features

Using a similar model to the Copac service, which introduced personalisation to its service in 2010, the new personalisation features in Zetoc will include 'My Searches', where a personalised 'Search History' will mean that users can edit, tag and annotate their searches. A 'My References' function will also be introduced to enable users to select bibliographic records from Zetoc to store and annotate. Searching within the bibliography will be supported by the generation of a tag cloud.

Aggregation of Table of Contents

Zetoc RSS will include TOC data from ticTOCs [14], a JISC-funded project on which Mimas have collaborated with Liverpool University and Heriot-Watt University.

Expansion of Open Access Content

Additional Open Access (OA) articles will be added to expand the coverage of OA content in Zetoc. Sources will include publishers, institutional and subject repositories. This will build upon the OA data currently harvested from UK PubMed Central and Biomed Central.


We are conscious that the current interface needs to be re-visited. It has remained largely unchanged since the inception of Zetoc and this may discourage new users. However, the new interface, to be developed following the enhancements to functionality and content, will be more engaging and dynamic. For example, predictive text will make journal searching easier, e.g. when a journal title is being typed in the search box.


Over the last ten years Zetoc has been developed from a project designed for the UK Higher Education sector, to a service with additional usage across the UK Further Education, health, charity and commercial sectors and growing non-UK usage. It has adapted to changes in technology, such as the inclusion of the RSS feed format, and in the authentication methods for HE users, i.e. Shibboleth.

screenshot (28KB): Figure 6: Screenshot of Zetoc news item on the Mimas Web site

Figure 6: Screenshot of Zetoc news item on the Mimas Web site

Regarding the 10th anniversary of Zetoc, Service Manager, Ross MacIntyre, commented:

After 10 years, there's still nothing else like Zetoc - it contains around 40 million articles and papers across all subject areas and many languages. The records go back to 1993 and we're adding valuable new material and archived records every day. It's very easy to access and use - for example, there's just one place to set-up your preferences. But don't be fooled by its simplicity, it's a very powerful research tool.

We look forward to launching the new enhancements to the service in the coming months.


  1. Zetoc Web site http://zetoc.mimas.ac.uk/
  2. British Library Web site http://www.bl.uk/
  3. Mimas Web site http://mimas.ac.uk/
  4. Joint Information Systems Committee (JISC) Web site http://www.jisc.ac.uk/
  5. Zetoc Interfaces page, Zetoc Web site http://zetoc.mimas.ac.uk/interfaces.html
  6. "Research costs slashed by funding bonus", British Library press release (2000) http://zetoc.mimas.ac.uk/pressrelease.html
  7. Stevenson, J. "What everyone wants: an evaluation of the zetoc service", Sconul Newsletter, Spring 2003; 28: 50-53 http://www.sconul.ac.uk/publications/newsletter/28/ART17.PDF
  8. Zetoc mailing list, JISCmail Web site https://www.jiscmail.ac.uk/cgi-bin/webadmin?A0=mimas-zetoc
  9. Copac Web site http://copac.ac.uk/
  10. Serials Union Catalogue (SUNCAT) Web site http://www.suncat.ac.uk/
  11. Google History, Google Web site http://www.google.com/corporate/history.html
  12. Scirus Web site http://www.scirus.com/srsapp/aboutus
  13. Zetoc survey 2010 results, Zetoc Web site http://zetoc.mimas.ac.uk/survey.html
  14. ticTOCs Web site http://www.tictocs.ac.uk/

Author Details

Jane Ronson
Development Officer
University of Manchester

Email: jane.ronson@manchester.ac.uk
Web site: http://zetoc.mimas.ac.uk/

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