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Getting noticed in an open access world

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One consequence of the rise of open access publishing has been a re-examination of the concept of accessibility. Charlie Rapple is interviewed by Chris Kenneally of Copyright Clearance Center.

Those authors, institutions, funders and publishers that care about open access often aspire to reach as wide an audience as possible. This means finding ways to efficiently and effectively broaden the discoverability and penetrability of publications, without diverting too much time from other research activities and priorities.

Availability vs. Accessibility

One of the most popular talking points in any open access debate is the appropriateness of scholarly and scientific publications for non-specialist audiences. Support for open access has, in part, been built on the premise that taxpayers should be able to access the research that is funded by their taxes; on the other hand, some doubt that taxpayers can understand the works being made available to them.

That doesn’t necessarily mean that such works shouldn’t be made openly available; it may instead mean that more effort needs to be made to make those works more penetrable. Many open access publishers do now publish plain language summaries alongside scholarly and scientific works, and services like Kudos are enabling this approach to be extended across all publications regardless of publisher or business model.

Case in point: I have a long-time friend who’s a professor of nephology (the study of clouds). For many years he sent me links every time he had a paper published. And I would, with the best of intentions, look at his paper and be baffled. I would write back and congratulate him on another great publication, all the while hoping he never asked me about what he’d written.

Then one day he pointed me to one of his papers, and with it was a video his publisher had posted. It was a real team effort. Just a couple of minutes long, it showed him out in the field with some of his instruments, explaining in the simplest language what he had done in this particular study and what he’d found. And just with the aid of a whiteboard and a pen and a couple of simple charts that he drew right then and there, I suddenly understood the concepts in his paper.

 

That was my personal eureka moment. I thought what an enormous value it would be if every paper had a quick summary from the author, as if he or she were talking to a family friend and saying in simple language what the piece of work was about and why it was important and what essentially had been uncovered.

Availability vs. discoverability

Perhaps the single greatest benefit from today’s device-driven, all-online digital environment is availability. More content than ever reaches more people than ever. Yet, just as availability is not the same as accessibility, so availability doesn’t necessarily equate to discoverability.

The people and organisations that fund research increasingly demand proof that the projects they support are making an impact. In other words, their question has become not just, 'Is the content out there?' but rather, 'Is that content making its way to the right audience at the right time?'

 

Publishers provide substantial support in terms of integrating the works they publish into institutional services (such as library discovery systems), subject resources (such as A&I databases) and general search indexes. But no one is better placed than researchers themselves to ensure that their work is found, read and applied by interested parties both within and beyond the field.

 

Communication paralysis

However, researchers don’t necessarily feel confident with the growing number of options open to them for sharing their work online. Before starting Kudos, my colleagues and I conducted a survey of around 4,000 researchers from all over the world, including those early in their career as well as seasoned professionals. We discovered that a high proportion of researchers feel uncertain about what steps they must take to help their work reach wider audiences. In many cases, they avoid the problem entirely by choosing instead to focus on other important items on their to-do lists, leaving their content to fend for itself in the wild.

Collaborating beyond silos

Meanwhile, publisher and institutional communications teams would welcome opportunities to align their marketing and PR skills more closely with researchers’ subject expertise and passion. Researchers would also benefit from the application of marketing skills earlier in the publication process – for example, publishers and their staff are typically more familiar with the concepts of search engine optimization and can help to educate researchers on how the language they use can affect readership and searchability. Many behaviours in this respect are still driven by the print era, when people browsed a table of contents and stopped short at a clever or witty title.

So, many papers published in the digital era still employ the classic, two-clause approach as parodied by Witold Kieńć: something characterful – 'Victory on an Invisible Enemy'; – followed by the meaningful phrase – 'Success in Fighting X Disease with Y Therapy'. A publisher marketing team, in partnership with editorial colleagues, can support a researcher by explaining that search engines are responsible for the majority of traffic to publisher websites, and that your work will therefore achieve higher readership if you give it a short title, 'frontloaded' with the key terms early in the phrase, as these are 'preferred' by our robotic readers.

Human readers remain important: the keywords that they are likely to use in searching are also a vital consideration when titling work (even specialists will often tend towards plain language terms, for example) – so, again, matching publishers’ experience and skills with researchers’ subject expertise is necessary to maximize the likelihood of a work being discovered and read.

Measuring success

The transition to a primarily online research ecosystem has increased the ability to measure publication performance, with new indicators like views, downloads, and discussion now commonly complementing traditional metrics such as citations. Yet, it remains challenging for researchers to look at these numbers in the round and make sense of what they mean in terms of impact. Researchers who have invested – emotionally, financially, or both – in open access are increasingly eager not only to view metrics around their work, but also to connect metrics back to their own actions to better understand how they should invest their limited time for outreach.

As the landscape continues to evolve, the challenge for publishers and institutions is to take a more strategic approach to metrics – using them not only to evaluate overall performance, but also to assess and refine the activities undertaken to achieve those results. Open access publishers, having reinvented the author services market, have perhaps more keenly felt the need to move quickly towards such goals – but publishers of all business models must follow quickly to maintain their competitive edge.

Charlie Rapple is a co-founder of Kudos (www.growkudos.com). This article is based on a webinar interview; the webinar can be watched at www.beyondthebookcast.com/open-access-success-stories/