Dealing with diversity

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Publishing platforms are the true drivers of digital content within the scholarly industry. Tim Gillett gets up close

In a broad sense, a publishing platform is the software and services needed to effectively and efficiently distribute and monetise a publisher’s digital content, encompassing all the key functions that a publisher needs to both run an online business and drive its growth. 

A publishing platform must also give publishers control of how their content is hosted, presented, marketed, and sold. More specifically, it comprises website design and development tools, content management, eCommerce, real-time analytics, and the ability to personalise content, easily create new products and subscription models, and support any type of content. It should also be easy to customise, extend, and link to third-party systems.

What makes an effective platform?

Richard Padley, of Semantico, explains: ‘A good publishing platform needs to address the four key issues of scale: volume, variety, velocity and veracity. The platform must be able to deliver great user experience whether the product is a single, highly complex reference work, or a large scale database with tens of millions of entries. The platform must have the flexibility to handle monetising a wide variety of content types, from books and journals through to databases and bibliographies, and it must address future flexibility in integrating new content types, business models and third-party services. 

‘The platform architecture must use cloud and SaaS technologies to dynamically scale from tens of thousands of users to tens of millions without 

re-configuration. And finally, the platform must support an end-to-end approach to quality throughout the publishing process, assisting the technical quality assurance aspects of content production and delivery, providing high-quality analytics and business insight as well as a highly responsive support desk service to troubleshoot and fix operational issues.’

An effective publishing platform increases the value of a publisher’s content and the impact of their digital brand, says Georgios Papadopoulos, founder of Atypon – so it must enable publishers to market their content, products, and brand efficiently and effectively.

Scalability and flexibility are also key, says Papadopoulos: ‘A good platform grows organically along with a publisher’s business – an increase in volume should not require an increase in publishing staff for managing the platform. For example, publishers should be able to affect a change across a single page, an entire site, or hundreds of websites at once. It should also enable publishers to respond to the market and shifting business requirements in real time by changing sales and subscription models; rapidly assembling new products and content bundles (to accommodate the needs of an evolving user base); easily modifying websites’ branding, UI, and UX; and indexing, promoting, and selling any type of digital content.’

River Valley Technology’s Kaveh Bazargan also highlights user-friendliness as an important feature. He says: ‘The internet user of today expects sites to “just work”, without having to read user instructions. is more complex than any “publishing platform”. Imagine if one had to read several pages of instructions before ordering a light bulb from Amazon – publishing platforms should work in a similar way!’

Bazargan adds that platforms should use open standards for any data or file transfer, in order that publishers avoid vendor ‘lock-in’: ‘Currently, the best format for transfer of files, especially for journal and book content, is XML. By using open standards, the publishers are protected, as far as possible, against loss of data and content. If one supplier goes out of business suddenly, then they can move to another supplier with the minimum of headache. It should also use industry standard application programming interfaces – APIs allow platforms to communicate with one another, to send data back and forth, and to sync data in real time. Publishers will typically be using several platforms, and data should be going from one system to another seamlessly. This allows publishers to change one supplier using one platform, and keep other platform suppliers in place.’

How do providers cope with varying content types?

CABI’s head of product management, Mike Pearson, notes that while it is relatively simple now to deliver traditional content as well as rich media content, such as audio, video and interactive visualisations, ‘the range of content types continues to grow. In particular, “data” content which can take many forms and formats is increasingly vital,’ he says.

Melissa Harrison, head of production operations at eLife Sciences, concurs: ‘eLife has tried to make our templates and content types as standardised as possible. For instance, around 85 per cent of our content complies with the standard research article template although, within that, we have different article types that differ only in their naming. The other 15 per cent of content is non-research and we have created different templates to accommodate this. As a small publisher, however, this has not been a major issue and we aim to balance the editorial and content flexibility with process efficiencies.’

Commentators only expect this diversity of content to grow. Tom Beyer, director of platform services for PubFactory, says: ‘The primary issue – and it’s becoming less so – has been for publishers in establishing metadata standards for new content types. On the PubFactory platform side, we did not struggle in the way that other platforms have in supporting different types of content because our background is in mixed content hosting. 

If variation is driven by end-users themselves – rather than internal concerns – change is an opportunity, not a problem, according to John Connolly, chief product officer at Springer Nature. He explains: ‘We do not aim to standardise how information is consumed to make life easier for us. If a new format or medium becomes available that means it can be read quicker or more easily, then it meets our aim to provide researchers, institutions and the wider public with the very best research and information available.

‘We look forward to the improvements innovation will bring in the future, and hope we will play our part in making these happen. Variations that emerge to help make content easier to consume and understand are only to be welcomed, and we will try to embrace them as they emerge.’

One size fits all?

So, should providers be trying to standardise, or be celebrating their diversity?

Jon Hammersley, of Overleaf, is clear that diverse is best: ‘Providing a range of publishing options and practices will work best – different disciplines use different workflows and standards and as global collaboration continues to grow these disciplines will be crossing over more and more. Having a one-size-fits-all approach will stifle this cross-discipline collaboration and just make it difficult and unappealing for users to use that provider/platform.’

These thoughts are echoed by Semantico’s Padley, who argues that a one-size-fits-all approach doesn’t work – in terms of discoverability as well as user experience.

He says: ‘This is where it’s important to look at the bigger picture – call it “content in context” if you will. Different content types fit into different user workflows; my user journey as a researcher looking for material is completely different to that of an undergraduate student, which again differs from a professional looking for precise information as part of a specific task. All of these different user journeys require a different approach to discoverability. Google is going to be part of the answer in most cases, but apart from that the user journey for discovery inside a product needs to be carefully designed around the specific types of content in use. This isn’t a question of celebrating diversity, it’s more of designing user experiences well.’

Connolly, of Springer Nature, adds: ‘A diverse ecosystem is to all of our benefit because it can foster innovation and generate user-centric solutions. It also pushes us to raise our game. We are committed to working with partners who are creating user-centric solutions, just as we strive to create our own. 

‘We want to create a level playing field in which responsible third parties feel supported by our platforms and policies to develop user applications that are of value to users.’

In a mature market, there are of course industry standards that are important to support. 

HighWire’s Tracy Capaldi ­Drewett, vice president for global marketing and EMEA sales, says the company has participated in several initiatives, with executives serving on the boards of organisations that advance standards. 

He says: ‘We should be aiming for standardisation (or at the very least, implementing best practices) for discoverability and workflow integration. Different platforms have different ways of providing PDF download links, handling of citation managers, authentication journeys and so on, which results in a confusing user experience. There is plenty of room for innovation –  however, that innovation needs to be solved with a view to the market trends and a careful analysis of how well we’re answering the market needs.

‘Discoverability is vital – there will be diverse ways to solve new problems around linking discoverability of the article with its related information, such as datasets, videos, podcasts. A platform should be able to surface all the related resources for an article to users regardless of how they search for it. Our participation in the various standards bodies allow us to understand and respond to publishers’ interests ​and to researchers’ interests​.’

Should providers work together to provide a better service?

CABI’s Mike Pearson is clear: it is vital that providers work together to achieve consensus on, and adhere to, industry standards: ‘The interdisciplinary nature of scholarly research demands this, but at the same time, we must focus on our users. At CABI we are well aware that what we build should not sacrifice usability purely to conform. If we can come together in a spirit of cooperation to improve things for our customers, without compromising competition, then that’s a win-win-win.’

Tom Beyer, of PubFactory, concurs: ‘It should not be an option – we as technology service providers must work together in support of our publishers and dissemination of their research. We are constantly looking for other folks in the scholarly community that we can work together with to provide a better service to our publishers and users.  There is no way that we can do it all, and we don’t try to!  Anytime we can find someone who is providing a great service that can enhance our PubFactory platform, we seek them out and  assess integration options.’

A current ‘pain point’ for readers and researchers is gaining convenient access to content, even if they have legal log-in credentials. Hosting platforms could, according to River Valley’s Bazargan, help by working with university libraries to have a single log-in access to all scholarly content.

Crossref is one of the strongest examples of cross-publisher collaboration that supports better publishing services to authors and readers in many areas – but while there are advantages to standardisation for specific applications, Atypon’s Papadopolous points out that end-users generally benefit from a healthy diversity of ideas.

He continues: ‘Atypon does, however, bring its own customers together. Many of our product innovations are driven by the needs and ideas of our publishers. As a result, the accelerating expansion of Atypon’s customer base benefits the entire community of Literatum users. New requirements and product innovations implemented for individual customers are frequently added to the platform’s functionality to be shared with all customers. The more publishers hosted on Literatum, the more powerful the platform becomes.’

Mark Patterson, executive director at eLife Sciences, concludes: ‘We also feel that there is a great deal of scope for collaboration in the development of open-source tools supporting all aspects of research communication. We have already mentioned eLife Continuum, and several publishers are experimenting, for example, with eLife’s Lens Reader – a tool for article presentation. New organisations such as the CoKo Foundation have also been established with these goals in mind. Beyond technology, publishers can collaborate to help establish the use of new community tools and good practices that would be of benefit if widely adopted. Examples include ORCID, Research Resource Identifiers (RRIDs), Fundref, and the citation of data. 

‘In short, there is a wealth of opportunity for collaboration.’ 

How will new content types affect future platforms?

Richard Padley, Semantico: ‘I see a future where journal publishing becomes increasingly more complex, as researchers ask more from publishers to represent the full value of their diverse research outputs. Providers with monolithic platforms will struggle to accommodate this diversity. This diversity is also being reflected in the number of third party services that are springing up to handle specific needs within different sectors. So the future is not just about new content types, but moreover it’s about new service driven ecosystems, with services naturally spread between multiple providers.’

Georgios Papadopoulos, Atypon: ‘New content types represent new means of revenue and readership growth for publishers. Being a trusted technology partner means supporting a publisher’s growth and remaining ahead of industry and technology changes. To do so, a platform must be agnostic as to both document type definition and content type in order to give publishers the opportunity to monetise any type of content. This capability is paramount, particularly as content types begin to evolve. For example, the advent of “micropublishing”: the publication of individual article fragments – a table, a comment, or even a data representation of accompanying text.’

Mike Pearson, CABI: ‘Platforms will need to be more flexible and service-oriented in order to accommodate a much greater range of content types, but the real driver for change is not the format, but the user, and what he or she wants to do with the content on the platform. Ultimately, the value of the platform (such as CAB Direct) will be in the interaction with our customers and building communities in order to deliver services quickly.’

Mark Patterson, ELife: ‘From our perspective in biomedicine, it is striking that relatively few publishers support something as basic as the use of video within the body of a research article. Video has been a critical data type for many years in certain parts of biology and yet, given that many journals still produce printed issues, they are unnecessarily constrained in their presentation methods. This limitation will be solved in time and new opportunities and challenges will no doubt emerge with respect to the presentation of more interactive views of data, whereby researchers can ‘rerun’ the experiments using the same data sources and analysis tools. Ideally, this should be supported within the article itself and requires a mindset change such that the primary version of the article is the full-text web version.’

Tom Beyer, Safari: ‘We expect new kinds of content to continue to proliferate and these new kinds of content always affect the platform as a whole. More than anything else, the growth of new content types forces platforms to move towards greater flexibility and configurability or risk losing their publishers to competitors that are doing these things better. Some of the kinds of questions that we have to answer for new content types inched: How can the content be searched? Are new search interfaces necessary to support this content (grids, timelines, image galleries, etc)? Can the content be sectioned up?  How best to display the content? How is it best made discoverable?’

John Hammersley, Overleaf: ‘If the platform is setup to grow and easily integrate with other technologies and components, new content options should just enhance the platform and user experience.’ 

Kaveh Bazargan, River Valley Technologies: ‘As long as platform providers use modern web technologies, platforms should be able to handle any type of content, including multimedia. The providers who may have problems with varied types of content are those using legacy web technologies.’

Tracy Capaldi­-Drewett, Highwire: ‘The need for integration of content collected on many different platforms has been a trend. Interconnecting the types of content collected on each platform will broaden to include links to many types of related materials – deposited data, clinical trial information, citations, tweets, posts, presentations, ​annotations, augmented links, syllabi, a​nd so on. The article (or chapter, or book) itself should be a portal to information on the topic; the platforms of the future will be able to collect all this information together and put it all at the reader’s fingertips. Technology will be a driver in this.’