Have we reached an inflection point in online collaboration?

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From email to chat rooms to social networks, online collaboration has evolved rapidly over the years – as have users, writes Kent Anderson.

Scholarly publishers have dabbled in the space, sometimes with large initiatives and sometimes with small experiments. Some have worked, many have not. This article provides some lessons learned over the years and outlines why we may be at a point where new capabilities could really change the game.

Successful online collaboration addresses a need or interest of the user. In the case of Facebook, the interest was initially what old friends and extended family were doing. Re-establishing these social connections was integral to Facebook’s growth. For Twitter, the main impetus for engagement has been current and efficient gathering of relevant news and opinion. For LinkedIn, the ability to network your professional identity was an emerging need.

Scholarly collaboration networks or SCNs, as they’ve become known, have emerged from a history of attempts to create separate engagement spaces alongside publisher’s content. Some of these attempts were membership-oriented initiatives, some were designed to attract a community via one publisher’s content, while others have used a service model. These efforts did not integrate the content particularly effectively. Many of these initiatives continue to this day. Successful ones like Mendeley were acquired, while others continue to seek their full potential.

When collaboration tools are put in the content workflow, they can be quite effective over a long period of time. In 2007, I was part of developing an article type for the New England Journal of Medicine called Clinical Decisions. This article type built collaboration into the content workspace, making anyone interested in the topic an almost immediate participant in a conversation – whether via poll, comment, or reading others’ comments. Clinical Decisions was an immediate hit, and continues to this day.

These two aspects of successful collaboration tools – putting collaboration tools immediately adjacent to actual content, and addressing a need or interest of the user – has led to the success of SCNs like ResearchGate and Academia.edu. These SCNs recruit users and papers from publishers’ sites into a central repository, and then put collaboration and measurement tools against these papers. These address user needs – de-siloing of content and resolving the fragmented user experience that can come from using multiple publisher sites across multiple platforms – while also giving users a better path for collaborating around content. For publishers, these sites pose an existential threat, however, as they move both content and users away from the Version of Record and the publishers’ own branded sites, depriving them of traffic and reorienting the market to these new players.

The STM SCN Reference Group has been working for years to improve the situation, and to engage Academia.edu and ResearchGate in the scholarly community, so that usage statistics and other aspects of their proprietary systems could be shared, providing authors, editors, and publishers with insights into how these platforms performed. So far, there has been little headway. News earlier this year that ResearchGate received additional venture funding of $52.6 million naturally raised eyebrows in the publishing community.

The good news is that modern technologies now allow other approaches that may tip the table back to the publisher’s favour. We’ve already seen hints of these approaches with the ubiquitous links to Twitter and Facebook allowing users to post updates to these general social platforms, and with the emergence of LinkedIn in a similar way but focused on professional identity. The recent emergence of annotations tools like Genius on newspaper sites also shows how layers of meaning are becoming more mainstream – a layer of primary content and a useful layer of commentary or expanded content.

Many of the releated technology developments facilitating these changes can be seen in separate initiatives. For instance, Hypothesis has taken advances in annotation to create its annotation tool, while Read Cube has taken advances in PDF and browser technologies to create a PDF reader that allows new functionality around the PDF. Others like PaperHive are taking similar approaches. At the same time, social norms have emerged that make it acceptable, even desirable, to post profiles online, connect with others virtually, and form workgroups in the digital space.

One 'hot button' area for publishers and editors is user commenting. This was once welcomed with open arms, but trolls have made everyone skittish. Newspaper and social media feeds are especially notorious for attracting unpleasant and offensive comments. Another important aspect of a modern approach to collaboration is to ensure that users have the correct role in the correct environment. In the scholarly space, an editor for one journal may be an author at another and a reader at a third.

At RedLink, we’ve been developing a 'decentralised' approach to the SCN called Remarq that allows publishers to place all of these features and tools on their sites and on the Version of Record in an integrated manner – article-sharing, annotation, user profiles, and collaborative groups. Remarq’s decentralised approach allows users to collaborate on the publisher’s Version of Record. Remarq also ensures transparency and requires commenters to have educational, professional, or publication qualifications in the fields a journal covers to comment publicly, and accommodates different roles by differentiating author and editor updates and user comments.

We are now reaching an inflection point for online collaboration, with more and more services becoming decentralized, and bandwidth, browser technologies, standards, and user expectations aligning around these decentralised approaches. Users are more comfortable with collaboration overall, in the right environment. When collaboration can occur on content of interest, the opportunities to carve out higher engagement for publishers of primary research expand.

Kent R. Anderson is CEO at RedLink