A brave new world

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Is discoverability ready to take on the challenges of interdisciplinary research, data diversity and more? Rebecca Pool finds out

For more than a decade, librarians and publishers have rigorously tracked how readers discover journal articles, online books and more. Myriad tools have been developed to help readers locate content but, given the proliferation of publishing platforms and rising data diversity, understanding the process of discoverability is more difficult than ever before.

Scholarly publishing guru and founder of e-publishing platform, HighWire Press, John Sack, believes instant comprehension is now critical.

‘In the last two to three years, I have realised that more and more people need to take in information at a glance,” he says. “Within seconds they need to understand what something is and how it is relevant to them.’

But until recently, this user need has been largely at odds with published information, be it accessed on a publisher website, library catalogue or academic search engine.

As Sack points out, a typical abstract from an academic’s research paper isn’t short and is generally targeted at the like-minded reader: ‘It’s as if the researcher is writing to a mirror of themselves,’ he says. ‘But this abstract should be directed towards somebody that is not as steeped in the field as the author.’

Charlie Rapple, co-founder of UK-based Kudos agrees, adding: ‘Study after study shows that the readers of published research are much broader than we realised.’

‘We [in the scholarly communication industry] are beginning to realise that the audience for research is much bigger and much broader in demographic than previously recognised,’ she adds. ‘And this is something that we haven’t yet done a great job of addressing.’

Still, change is afoot. For starters, more and more lay summaries are now being written to accompany research publications.

These simple plain-language descriptions of a piece of work have been required for research grant applications for several years. But now the likes of Kudos as well as many publishers are inviting authors to create these summaries to optimise discoverability for all.

‘We now see a clear trend from funders and institutions, that to arrest the decline in research funding we have to make more researchers understand the value of their research at all levels,’ says Rapple. ‘The readers really need to understand the potential relevance of a piece of research to their own lives.’

Case-in-point: several years ago, the then editor-in-chief of Science, Professor Donald Kennedy, introduced one sentence summaries to each paper in his journal. As Sack highlights: ‘He put these on the table of contents, of all places; you didn’t even have to go into the article to get a summary of whole.’

‘These were very, very compelling,’ he adds. ‘We now realise that these “lay summaries” can be 100 words or 140 characters, as long as they have instant comprehension.’

Beyond lay summaries, an increasing use of alternative tools is enhancing article discoverability. According to Sack, visual abstracts and annotated tables of content are all great ways to communicate to the non-expert what a piece of research is and why is it novel. 

Kudos is also piloting different approaches to increase content discoverability. The company recently teamed up with research communications agencies, Research Media, UK, and Research Square, US, to create infographics and animated videos of abstracts for publishers to host on Kudos, other publishing platforms and related websites.

Emerald Publishing and The New Phytologist Trust are already piloting these services with the former already seeing ‘significant uplift’, says Rapple, in article use.

At the same time, Kudos’ preliminary results from a study with a university in Singapore indicate that content with a plain-language explanation and shared across social media receives some 23per cent more downloads than content without the extra summary.

‘We haven’t yet seen a comprehensive, scientific study on this but the circumstantial evidence is compelling,’ says Rapple. ‘These kinds of activities are really driving success.’

Beyond lay summaries and infographics, recommendation tools are continually being updated and used more widely to boost discoverability. Earlier this year, HighWire joined forces with TrendMD, so its publishers could integrate recommendations from the scholary article recommendation engine into their content.

The move followed studies indicating that the engine, which bases recommendations on user data as well as semantic criteria, had increased article views by up to 28 per cent, compared to a control group.

‘From what we have seen, readers are clicking on TrendMD’s recommendations much more than earlier recommendations, which makes sense as they are related to the reader and what he or she is reading,’ he says.

Elsevier also provides a recommended articles feature on its search platform, ScienceDirect, suggesting related articles based on the researcher’s online behaviour. Originally based on search terms alone, the publisher developed new algorithms, and integrated its abstract and citation database, Scopus, to the search platform to enhance discoverability.

‘This recommendation engine is now also giving researchers more accurate suggestions of what to read beyond ScienceDirect, to content from all publishers on the recently launched Mendeley newsfeed,’ says Wouter Haak, vice president of Research Data Solutions at Elsevier. ‘By integrating online platforms and databases, we can use citation information on top of measuring reader behaviour, to make even more accurate recommendations.’

‘Technologies that drive content based on behavioural patterns means that published articles by younger researchers can potentially share the spotlight with the work of more broadly published authors, a career-changing opportunity,’ he adds.

Shifting landscape

For HighWire’s John Sack, the rising demand for what he coins ‘instant comprehension’ stems from more fundamental changes taking place in discoverability right now. Researchers and academics have long been pre-occupied with keeping up-to-date with recently published information, and librarians have provided ‘current-awareness’ services accordingly. But this state-of-play is evolving.

‘Researchers have wanted to keep up with their field, and we’ve called this the ‘just in case model,’ says Sack. ‘But search engines are now so good [at providing information] that there’s no real need for researchers to stay aware of everything; when they want information, they just ask. This is the “just in time model”.’

Sack also believes this shift from discovering information ‘just in case’, to accessing it ‘just in time’, will gather momentum as younger generations of researcher join academia. And at the same time, the use of social media in discoverability it going to gain an ever greater foothold.

Researchers are increasingly alerting colleagues of new information via Twitter or Facebook and, according to Sack, a publisher will need to know where its audience is reading this information and ensure its own material is on that channel.

‘Twenty years ago this meant getting yourself on Pubnet; 12 years ago it meant getting onto Google Scholar; and now it probably means getting your content onto social media channels in a way that’s appropriate to that medium,’ he says.

Given these developments, Highwire recently teamed up with a publisher that uses so-called tweetable abstracts that can be generated as a reader peruses an article. As early as 2013, the online-only journal Methods in Ecology and Evolution introduced such a feature, requesting each author to provide text, 120 characters long, describing their manuscript’s key finding.

Following success, other journals, including BJOG: An International Journal of Obstetrics and Gynaecology, have taken the same step. As Sack points out: ‘[In our case] the reader can edit the tweet and I think that’s the cool thing. So instead of appearing in the journal’s or the author’s tweet stream, the tweet will appear in the reader’s tweet stream and I think this is even better.’

Kudos’ Rapple believes that social media is gaining in importance for the discoverability of all areas of research.

‘Again we are beginning to see studies on social media and, while we don’t yet have conclusive answers, I think it’s indisputable that authors are using this at all stages of research from discussing ideas to promoting published research,’ she says. ‘And this is making research output more discoverable as well as the entire research process.’

Indeed, with research promotion in mind, Elsevier set up its daily news platform, ‘Elsevier Connect’, in part to address the pressures on academics to showcase research to funders, policy-makers and the general public.

Articles are promoted through the publisher’s social media channels. And as Haak points out: ‘Last year, the news site attracted 1.5 million unique visitors and has enabled many authors to tell their stories to a vast multi-disciplinary research community, as well as an extensive lay audience.’

But for Haak, social media is also important to ease a researcher’s workflow. ‘Tools that enable researchers to personalise search parameters by integrating social and traditional research results are crucial to ensuring workflow efficiency,’ he says. ‘Sharing platforms such as Mendeley, social scientific networks and other technologies allows teams to be located anywhere in the world, so researchers can work seamlessly across different platforms.’

Beyond discoverability

As more and more scholarly publishing players focus on making content more discoverable, HighWire’s Sack also highlights how industry needs to look very closely at accessibility.

‘You’ve found something you want to look at but how easily can you get access to it?’ he asks. ‘Legitimate researchers are university-affiliated, but they go home at night... and don’t have good access.’

For its part, Highwire Press is working with search engines so any user can get an instant indication of whether or not the content that he or she is curious about is ‘free’ or requires a subscription. For example, the company recently integrated ‘CHORUS’ to its platform so authors and their publishers can more easily make mandated research freely available.

‘Content can be tagged so a researcher can see it in a search engine, Google, or Google Scholar, and know that it’s accessible now,’ he says. ‘As open access becomes more successful as a business model, this becomes easier, but accessibility is a new frontier that we’re working on.’

For Christine Stohn, senior product manager at Ex Libris, recently acquired by ProQuest, ensuring accessibility among today’s deluge of data is a key challenge. As she highlights, undergraduates, postgraduates, researchers and librarians, with different needs, all want to access diverse content, such as supplementary material, blog posts and MOOCs.

‘The Discovery service shouldn’t be the end-game and I would probably now call this the Gateway,’ she says. ‘I’m no longer searching and finding something, I’m also getting access [to more diverse content].’

According to Stohn, personalisation is a key part of discoverability, with personalised ranking  available with its discovery interface, Primo. Here, results can be ranked based on user information, such as disciplines of interest and a preference for the most recent material.

In a vein similar to many in the industry, Stohn is looking to add a resource recommender – ProQuest’s Summon – to Primo, to increase accessibility. As Stohn points out, Summon includes a database recommender but is a web-scale discovery service designed to to give users with easy access to the most relevant content, alongside a library’s discovery system.

What’s more, a citation trail tool will be included in the latest Primo release, so users can track down other materials that either cite the article of interest, or indeed, are cited by it.

‘The user can move from one list to the next list and in doing so is learning more about the topic and collecting material, making discoverability a learning and exploring experience,’ says Stohn. ‘[This rationale] applies to Primo’s exploration tools, bX Recommender, and we are adding more exploration tools over time.’

The company is also in the process of launching projects to investigate the use of linked data and, following in the footsteps of other industry players, is looking at visualisation software to depict different types of data in new ways.

‘This isn’t about individual features though,’ adds Stohn. ‘It’s important to cover all cornerstones of discoverability, including search and find, exploration and learning, and also personalisation.’


Likewise, for Kudos’ Rapple, discoverability continues to evolve and is only going to increase in importance for all in scholarly publishing. ‘[Only recently], it’s shifted from being very much about metadata distribution, website headers and search engine optimisation to being a more holistic concept that isn’t just managed within a technical or marketing team,’ she says. ‘There are now so many channels to increase discoverability, and everybody in the whole research process now plays a role here. Today, it’s so closely aligned with impact, it’s not something that people can ignore anymore.’