How UX innovation is democratising scholarly research

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Emma Warren-Jones

Many readers of scholarly literature today are underserved by traditional publishing formats that restrict the reach of primary research, writes Emma Warren-Jones

At the same time, the audience profile of scholarly literature is shifting, accelerated by the pandemic and geopolitical events, with more demand for easy access to reliable sources of knowledge. Publishers have an opportunity to get their content disseminated to, and read by, a broader, more engaged readership than ever before, but unwieldy PDF formats and complex, jargon-filled writing are hampering this. 

Scholarly literature need no longer be the preserve of academics and researchers. Published articles and preprints are increasingly accessed by non-academics such as journalists and patient groups, who need to understand and translate primary research into actionable knowledge. At the same time the number of non-native English-speaking students as well as neurodiverse readers accessing scholarly research is growing. In the UK, over one-fifth of students in HE are studying with English as a second language, and one in seven students have dyslexia or other specific learning difference1.

Technology is now evolving and adapting in ways that make academic literature easier to understand, and streamlines the authoring and promotion of this content. Innovation in UX is helping readers draw insight, understanding and knowledge from preprints and published research, reducing the friction of dense academic language and legacy formats. From more visual depictions and radical reformatting of traditional text structures, to features that improve focus and support more fluid research styles, we’ll look at how transformative UX is democratising scholarly content, from writing and promoting to reading and analysing. 

Authoring and promotion 

In recent years there has been a proliferation of online tools for screening and running quality checks of manuscripts to help authors get them publication ready. Self-service platforms such as Pubsure and Writefull now let authors upload their paper and get a quick, traffic-light report highlighting areas of concern or aspects that can be improved before the paper is submitted for peer-review. With the rapid growth of preprint servers however, many authors are making their articles immediately available without rigorous editorial checks. This leaves them with the responsibility not only for editing but also promoting their work.

The real challenge here comes with distilling long, complex work into a punchy tweet, snappy summary, or more visual overview that piques interest without misleading or losing context. AI-powered knowledge extraction technology trained to identify salient facts, keywords and claims from scholarly content is turning authors and librarians into marketers by automatically distilling research papers into bite-size social media posts, complete with hashtags and concept definitions. Some of these tools allow authors to tweet directly from within the application, making it possible to go from manuscript to publicity in just a few minutes. 

Other consumer tools such as Mind the Graph are taking this one step further by helping authors create striking visual abstracts and academic posters. Authors can upload their manuscript and generate a promotion-ready, impactful advert for their work in a few clicks. Audemic applies a similar principle, but using audio as the communication medium. While these tools sit on top of sophisticated information extraction and language analysis technology, the workflow is remarkably simple: import a paper, select an output format, and convert lengthy prose to media-friendly scholarly communications. 

Discovery and screening

Publishers and discovery services are now starting to embed this technology within their platforms to make it easier for their users to screen collections of articles. Many are coming round to the idea that abstracts aren’t always the most efficient way of conveying the essence of research. Text-mining technologies such as Unsilo are integrated to automatically extract and display the keywords on an article page, giving readers an immediate sense of the scope of the work as well as a means to identify related papers. Research platforms such as R Discovery are also utilising knowledge extraction technology to display a short list of important statements and claims on the article page, helping users get to the most relevant papers faster. Presenting these alongside key concepts is making the long and often frustrating activity of screening literature more manageable. 

Other knowledge extraction and screening technologies are also well embedded in the discovery workflow, allowing readers, regardless of the platform, to seamlessly save a useful article, or digest of it, to read later. Whether it’s a scholarly text or comment and analysis piece, the way we interact with long form content has changed. Screening and reading are distinct activities carried out at different times. A useful or relevant article can be spotted at any time and easily lost in the myriad of other things competing for our attention. Being able to easily retrieve these articles later for a period of focused, distraction-free reading is a crucial aspect of the research workflow and is integral to the user experience. 

Reading and assimilating

Features that enable researchers to filter and refine literature faster are essential aspects of today’s research experience. But there’s still the task of reading and assimilating the pile of articles that has been saved. Until recently, this aspect has been relatively overlooked by technology. Reformatting long form content to make it more accessible, and setting it in a distraction-free environment, are the goals of an emerging set of research tools that put easier assimilation of complex information at the heart of their UX. The result is not only that academics have a more systematic way of organising and reading hundreds of articles a year, but that students new to a subject have a clear route into the literature; non-native English speakers are better equipped to tackle long, complex papers in another language; and neurodiverse students are able to process information more easily. Increasing focus and reducing literature burnout is the rationale for this new generation of reading tools that keep simplicity and focus front and centre of their application design.

Non-linear presentation of content

Breaking articles down to allow readers to interact with the text in a non-linear way has been proven to aid comprehension2. This goes much further than simply splitting an article out into its constituent parts and presenting summaries of these. Reading tools such as Scholarcy generate interactive summary flashcards from book chapters and articles, helping users get to grips with academic texts layer by layer, before tackling the full text. A reader might for example, orient themselves with a set of key concepts and their definitions, before scanning a highlighted set of facts and findings and then jumping to an overview of the study data or looking at a synopsis of how the paper compares to earlier research. 


The goal of these reading technologies goes beyond breaking down and presenting texts in more accessible formats, they incorporate features that enrich and contexualise research for the reader. Unlike static PDFs, tools such as Scholarcy, and Semantic Reader from Semantic Scholar, provide quick definitions of concepts, acronyms, and other terminology. Rather than re-directing the user down a rabbit hole of related reading, these apps display condensed information from a range of content and analytics tools that provide more context to the research in situ. For example, how well supported or significant is the cited source, and do its findings agree with those of the current study? 

The simplicity of research reading apps is key to keeping users focused and aiding comprehension. Content formatting and presentation is an important part of this and tools such as Semantic Reader do this by ‘dimming unrelated text’. Others such as Scholarcy identify and isolate important sections, sentences, and terms, separating these completely from the full text to aid concentration and remove the need to jump back and forth in the paper. 

Organising, collaboration, analysis, and visualisation

The recent explosion in ‘second-brain’ tools such as Roam Research, Obsidian and Notion and their enthusiastic adoption by the academic community has created a new type of user experience – the personal knowledge management system. The integration of these tools with discovery services such as ResearchRabbit, reference managers such as Zotero, and knowledge assistants such as Scholarcy, has enabled the creation of new research workflows. The use of public APIs and the adoption of future-proof authoring and interchange formats such as Markdown provide new ways for research to be written, read and remixed. For example, source documents in any format can be annotated locally or in the cloud, with main findings and related research automatically extracted and linked into a public or private knowledge graph. Mind maps, subject-specific citation networks and literature synthesis matrices can also be generated easily.

If we acknowledge that the traditional research paper format will persist for many years to come, the priority must be harnessing technology to make it easier to consume. UX has an important role to play not only in presenting research in a more reader-friendly way, but also helping the reader build and reinforce their knowledge of a subject.

Emma Warren-Jones is co-founder of Scholarcy


  1. 2022. Beyond the bare minimum: Are universities and colleges doing enough for disabled students? - Office for Students. [online] Available at: < [Accessed 7 February 2022].

  2. 2022. [online] Available at: < [Accessed 7 February 2022].