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Tim Gillett picks five hot riffs on UX

How would you define the term ‘user experience’ in terms of scholarly publishing?

Giuliano Maciocci, eLife head of product and UX: With scholarly publishing being so diverse, the definition of user experience (UX) should encompass every touchpoint for every stakeholder, from the systems administrators running publishing platforms, to the authors, editors, reviewers and journal staffers that interact with these platforms on a daily basis. 

Ebsco Information Services senior director of user experience and design, Jesse Blank: Successful support of scholarly communications requires us, as a community, to consider the larger research/information needs that are driving their search behaviours, so that we can build our services to support the broad and diverse range of scholars and students who rely on us not only for their grades or careers, but for the information that supports them in making an impact in the world.

Paula de Matos, consultant at The Pistoia Alliance: User experience is about making the tools available to researchers as effective as possible, in order to accelerate innovation. It involves deeply understanding users through research, organising information, visual design (and more), all with the goal of meeting user needs and doing it elegantly. Specifically, in the field of science, context is crucial to understand how users utilise a tool to solve the right problems for them and simplify product development – this includes everything from designing a button to be easily found, to integrating a new feature into their workflow. User experience is foundational to the pursuit of good science. Practicing UX in scholarly publishing will go a long way to ensuring that scientists can find, access and discover publications relevant to their field. 

Gaëlle Béquet, director, ISSN International Centre: From my perspective as an LIS researcher and as a librarian, the user experience is the set of perceptions and responses that result from the use of information systems offered by content providers and library discovery tools. As stated in the Library Reference Model developed under IFLA [International Federation of Library Associations] auspices, the user experience is the specific path that the researcher follows to find, identify, select, obtain and explore global information resources, notably those available online. This process consists of several steps with are critical to the success of the operation. The researcher brings together information about one or more resources of interest by searching on any relevant criteria: the simplicity of the search interface and the ability to query multiple databases simultaneously and seamlessly are paramount. He/she is able to understand the nature of the resources and select the most relevant to his/her purpose: quality metadata is required to complete these steps in an efficient way. The user can then access the selected content and relate it to other contents that redirects research towards other topics of interest: the links established between diverse resources are absolutely vital for the content search process to become a virtuous circle.

Vee Rogacheva, UX designer at OpenAthens: In scholarly publishing UX is the interaction of learners, researchers, faculty staff and librarians with the ecosystem of tools and services they use to navigate to required digital resources and to achieve their goals.

Please describe the work that your organisation is doing in terms of user experience

Maciocci, eLife: eLife has a strong user-centered design focus for everything it produces, from how a research article appears on its website to how its open-source Libero publishing platform is deployed. We incorporate UX research, design and testing into almost every aspect of our activities that is exposed to end users, and have built a talented product and UX team to ensure that process is constantly evolving. Most importantly, we have worked hard to ensure that key aspects of design thinking have been internalised by the whole organisation.

Blank, Ebsco: At its core, delivering great UX is still about bringing content, technology and design together to create a “useful experience”. However, UX continues to broaden in definition, and we see conducting research has increasingly become a non-linear process, spanning both digital and physical, leveraging multi-device and collaborative tools to be effective and efficient. Leveraging UX design thinking methods will uncover ways to meet these evolving needs.

De Matos, Pistoia: The Pistoia Alliance launched a community of UX practitioners from the pharmaceutical, biotechnology and software industries. This User Experience for Life Sciences (UXLS) community is raising awareness of the value UX brings to science, and is a means for these UX practitioners to share best practices. The Alliance will be launching further measures to help foster greater understanding between organisations that design search, storage and retrieval software, and those that use it, which will be open to anyone who wants to get involved.

Béquet, ISSN: The ISSN International Centre and its global network of 90+ ISSN National Centres are involved in the process of identifying information resources by assigning a unique and standardised identifier to printed and digital serial publications, and describing these resources. The ISSN International Centre pursues a business-to-business model in the information chain to meet the needs of publishers, content-assessment agencies, indexing services and libraries. But we also target researchers and a broader audience through our Directory of Open Access Scholarly Resources ( for the identification of open access serial publications around the world. Road is the linchpin of our new online information service regarding serial resources.

Rogacheva, OpenAthens: Committed to empowering library users spanning a wide range of industries, OpenAthens plays a significant role in supporting institutions. Whether they are a PhD student, a hospital clinician or a research scientist, we provide quick, easy and secure access to online content for end-users from anywhere, at any time. The OpenAthens team works hard to ensure our products and services constitute a powerful tool which empowers both librarians and end-users.

We have just launched our inaugural Best Publisher User Experience Award to inspire publishers across the globe to invest in developing the best user journey to content. We want to celebrate online publishers which have demonstrated how they’ve put the needs and experience of users at the heart of changes to digital services.

What have been the main developments in this area in the past few years?

Maciocci, eLife: The relaunch of our website in 2017 was the first time the results of our then newly established UX-first practices were shown to the outside world. Two years later, and we’re confident that the eLife journal website is still one of the most user-friendly and accessible journal websites out there. So confident that we are using much of the UX research and design that went into it as a basis for our upcoming Libero publishing platform.

Blank, Ebsco: Personalisation continues to be a powerful opportunity to deliver more relevant content. The proliferation of available data and UX research methods create understanding on when, where and how a group of (or even single) users specifically needs it. The benefits of personalisation can be significant, but it also must be balanced with increasingly cautious aspects of privacy. 

De Matos, Pistoia: In order to ease adoption of UX in the life sciences, the UXLS community has created a toolkit which enables businesses to adopt UX principles and methods as they develop scientific software. The toolkit includes a range of resources, such as case studies, templates and UX methodology, as well as templates. The community has also developed a set of UXLS procurement guidelines to aid (pharma) enterprises in selecting solutions which fit the needs of their users. 

Béquet, ISSN: In 2018, the ISSN International Centre, with the support of network users, implemented the ISSN portal, the Global Index for Continuing Resources, relying on a freemium-type business model. On one hand, publishers log in to the service to create a user account, request ISSNs and track their request during processing. They also have a direct access to the descriptive metadata of their publications for which they can request corrections. On the other hand, information seekers can access the free version of the portal to check basic metadata about a resource. They can also subscribe when they need more detailed bibliographic information, or extended features such as APIs and records in different formats. Since 2018, the ISSN International Centre has extended its service offer with ETAS (, the free tool for reporting and checking transfers of scholarly journals between publishers. The ISSN International Centre will soon integrate the Keepers Registry, which relies on information provided by partner archiving agencies to identify digital journals archived over the long term. We are mindful of feedback from our users and we will soon update the ISSN portal’s homepage to better reflect the diversity of our services. We have already translated the portal in six languages to reach out to our diverse constituencies. 

Rogacheva, OpenAthens: Users’ expectations of their experiences have evolved rapidly and have been framed by the likes of Google, Facebook, Netflix and Amazon. They expect online tools and services to be simple and intuitive. These expectations have placed increasing pressure on publishers, libraries and academic institutions to bolster investment in digital services and improve the UX of their products. The focus is very much on users’ needs, rather than the technology itself. The ecosystem and the overall student and researcher experience have to be the priorities, not the individual platforms or tools. RA21 and NISO are working towards that goal with the introduction of seamless access recommendations for both publishers and libraries. Their aim is to transform the industry and deliver safer and easier access to content. The most recent GDPR and accessibility regulations focus on protecting user rights, promoting inclusion and diversity, and advocating good UX design.

Who benefits from these changes, and how? Researchers, librarians, publishers, or all of these sectors?

Maciocci, eLife: The application of UX practices to optimise any aspect of publishing benefits everyone who interacts with their results, and it’s not all about dramatic innovations in UX, either: even one single minute saved in a process that happens dozens of times a day, at scale, can add up to hundreds, if not thousands of person hours a year. And every minute saved on handling or administering a system is one more minute that can go instead towards improving the quality of the research available.

Blank, Ebsco: Everyone can benefit, but it will require a greater level of collaboration and co-creation between sectors for everyone to see those benefits. Embracing evidence-based decision-making and putting aside what we think we know will enable progress, leading to tangible, measurable benefits. 

De Matos, Pistoia: All of these sectors can benefit from the improvements to UX, but specifically researchers will benefit the most – we are at a time when they are dependent on increasingly vast and complicated datasets and need tools to be productive and help them easily dissect, understand and analyse their data. Research has shown that changing the UX of a product can boost productivity by up to 300 per cent. Unfortunately, today many are still having to make do with sub-standard UX. If researchers are to be effective, this has to change.

Béquet, ISSN: The ISSN Portal is a service tailored for all these audiences, because the activities of the ISSN International Centre and its network are at the intersection of the production, the archiving, the exploration and the dissemination of academic content.

Rogacheva, OpenAthens: The sector will benefit from improved user experience. However, publishers and institutions will seemingly be the parties shouldering the cost, in terms of redesigning content platforms which embrace new technology and different ways of working. Larger publishers and well-funded institutions may not view this as a major disruption, but smaller institutions and independent publishers might struggle to prioritise the changes needed to deliver a seamless journey to content to end-users, and remain competitive.

Can you predict any significant developments on the horizon?

Maciocci, eLife: A whole new generation of researchers and end-users of publishing technology is coming up with expectations of one-click, highly optimised and highly designed user experiences as the norm, from how they order their food to how they choose what to watch on their streaming service of choice. Those expectations will naturally transfer to the publishing platforms they interact with, and it would be a missed opportunity for the academic publishing space to ignore them. From our perspective, the time for a more user-centred and design-driven approach to academic publishing is long overdue.

Blank, Ebsco: The amount of good research / information content will continue to grow exponentially.  The unintended consequence of this may be that discovering great content will become more challenging, and in turn, push alternative ways to discover, evaluate and consume information.

De Matos, Pistoia: In R&D we expect to see significant process changes. The way we work has to change. The drug discovery process of 10 to 20 years is no longer viable. On the business side we will move towards targeted therapies that are fertile for profit, but harder to achieve. A smaller group of patients. How does that work? How do we empower that? The scientific publishing industry will have to adapt to this new model and practicing good UX will enable publication mechanisms and access that suit this new way of working.

Béquet, ISSN: The interaction between users and information systems is evolving to move beyond the old all-or-nothing alternative. A powerful information system can already suggest new search terms to any user based on searches already performed and stored, or make recommendations on resources bearing similarities to those identified by a specific search. Let’s bet that natural language conversational agents and chatbots will soon replace reference librarians and contact forms!

Rogacheva, OpenAthens: In 2018, we conducted research into the challenges faced by the modern librarian in which 99 per cent of respondents reported an increase in demand for remote access to library resources among students and researchers. This has evidently driven educational institutions to place increasing emphasis on improving the student and researcher experience, leading to the better use of the rapidly advancing tools and technology. This provides seamless access to valuable digital resources, as well as to analyse resource usage and student/researcher engagement. Increased focus on user experience within scholarly publishing might also inadvertently accelerate the process of redefining the value of education, in line with the changing ways of working in both academic and professional settings.