Five industry leaders on the future of publishing platforms

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As the move towards open science and FAIR data progresses, platform providers are facing new challenges. Five industry figures tell Tim Gillett what comes next.

Please give us a short definition of a publishing platform…

Lyubomir Penev, chief executive officer and founder, Pensoft: It’s the backbone of a scholarly outlet – be it a scientific journal, preprints, conference materials or academic monographs. It’s everything the readers, the authors or the editors see when they visit the website or access their user interface, yet it’s also what they do not – or rather should not – notice in terms of underlying processes and service delivery. It’s what makes or breaks a smooth user experience.

Will Bailey, head of partnerships, 67 Bricks: At the moment, publishing platforms are the end of the research journey; a place to access content, often discovered via other search engines and websites such as Google Scholar or Academia.edu. The paper or book chapter is downloaded by users before they leave the site, and that is the end of the interaction. But what a platform could be is a starting point – a place where publishers showcase themselves as innovative and boundary-pushing organisations; hosting experiments, testing new value propositions, integrating new products and continually focusing on user needs to provide added value to a research journey. 

Mirjam Eckert, chief publishing officer, Frontiers: A technological solution for the evaluation and dissemination of research advances. Publishing platforms underpin the peer review and distribution services provided by journals and publishers, allowing stakeholders to manage the processes and interactions involved.  

Kaveh Bazargan, River Valley Technologies (RVT): Traditionally, a publishing platform has referred to a publisher’s hosting platform. While other aspects of publishing, such as peer review, are usually carried out on other disparate ‘platforms’, it is increasingly clear that an end-to-end solution would allow more efficient publishing. One could argue that the ‘publishing platform’ of the future should encompass all these functions, not just the final hosting, thus avoiding the need for data transfer between disparate platforms. 

Patrick Hargitt, director of product management, Literatum: A publishing platform provides the venue and toolkit for publishers to create a global, discoverable, accessible home and syndication source for their scholarly research content. It enables publishers to present, market and monetise a variety of content to answer questions, solve problems, further research and enable discovery.

What are some of the key features an academic publishing organisation should be looking for in a platform?

Penev, Pensoft: Seamless integration between the journal and everything that goes on beneath the surface, such as the submission portal and the editorial management environment, where the whole review is being executed. This includes the mechanisms driving the publication, such as indexation, data export and dissemination, but also the communication with the authors, reviewers and editors necessary to support – and eventually speed up – the editorial process and the publication of the final output. We need to facilitate the record and sharing of scientific knowledge at each step.

Bailey, 67 Bricks: The biggest thing people should be looking for is flexibility: how quickly can you adapt to new requirements, experiment with new models, content types and products, and how easy is it for you to make great data-driven decisions about all of the above? If your publishing platform is locking you into a narrow way of working, that’s a potential future problem for any publisher who wants to stay relevant. 

Eckert, Frontiers: Ease of use is key to ensuring adoption and user satisfaction. Other criteria depend on the strategy and goals of the publishing organisation, and include scalability, customisability and sophistication, particularly the integration of artificial intelligence (AI). I believe an end-to-end solution is a must nowadays, providing a coherent user experience and data visibility across the publishing process. Publishing organisations may also want to consider the importance of cloud-based solutions, the roadmaps for feature improvement and pricing of course. The provider's vision and mission, track record and collaborative spirit may also be important elements to look out for.  

Bazargan, RVT: It might go without saying that user friendliness is essential, especially for users who might be using a hosting platform infrequently. It should be highly intuitive and consistent with what users would expect from any modern website. Publishers should be able to update and change content or commercial models within the system easily and at any time. 

The interface as well as all content on platforms should be as accessible as possible, for example, for users with visual impairments or readers with dyslexia. Good, structured XML is key to ensuring accessible content. Users expect to be able to access not only audio and video content, but fully interactive content, for example, 3D images viewable with virtual reality headsets. Hosting platforms should be able to handle all such content.

Users want to be able to access publishing platforms at any time and on any device. It is imperative users can purchase and read content on anything they choose. This should apply to peer review or reporting. Publishers need to understand their readers’ usage patterns in order to help shape their future offering. Convenient reporting and data analysis is paramount. 

Hargitt, Literatum: A proficient platform should empower a publisher to disseminate information based on their specific goals, while also ensuring that authors, readers and other users experience as seamless a journey as possible. A successful publishing platform must also celebrate the breadth of online service and technology providers, and be prepared to integrate and collaborate with others. Key features to consider are: accessibility; flexibility; overall market integration; technical support; innovation; analytics; a consistent investment in R&D; ease of use; robust abuse protection; user identity management; intelligent content organisation and the ability to support various publishing models (for example, subscription versus open access). 

How have publishing platforms developed in recent years to take account of the move towards open access and open science?

Penev, Pensoft: It must be a difficult exercise for publishing platforms and their developers to switch from technologies initially designed for subscription journals. Luckily for us at ARPHA, we don’t have to face this challenge, as it has been designed as a fully open-access platform from the very start. Instead, we are simply continuing our work towards the much anticipated evolution from open access to open science. 

One way for platforms to embrace open science apart from prompting free and easy access to research publications from day one – is opening up ‘non-conventional’ research work, including early research and small, yet integral bits and pieces that comprise scientific breakthroughs. Favourite examples are grant proposals, datasets, data management plans, workshop reports, software descriptions, conference abstracts and posters. 

Bailey, 67 Bricks: We’ve seen some recognition of the fact that publishers’ primary customers are shifting, from libraries, consortia and institutions to researchers, thanks to the open-access movement. Publishers whose customer data is in great shape and can therefore respond quickly to changing needs and trends will be at an advantage in this new market, since customers at an individual level are much less likely to suffer from inertia than B2B subscription contracts. This B2B to B2C movement is still nascent and requires a new mindset from both publishers and platforms.

In terms of the platforms themselves, open and digital-first platforms, such as F1000 and PLOS, have taken steps including facilitating preprint deposits, promoting open peer review and requiring open data – all of which challenge some of the traditional publishing processes and take advantage of the available technology. 

Eckert, Frontiers: I believe platforms, which were developed with the sole aim to enable open access, provide the most powerful solutions for our move towards open science as they do not suffer from compromises in workflows or being adopted as an afterthought in the publishing process. Open-science platforms benefit from fully leveraging the widespread dissemination of research advances without barriers to access and therefore drive visibility and impact for scientists. The myth that open science is of lower quality has also set the standards high for open-science platforms to perform better than legacy solutions in quality control, assurance and efficiency, while allowing for an expansion of innovation and promoting collaboration.

Bazargan, RVT: Open access has simplified and streamlined the requirements of publishing platforms, in that no subscription or authentication of the reader is needed. On the other hand, the submission systems have more to do, mainly to work out article processing charges (APCs) using complex formulae. In addition, the submission system, directly or indirectly, needs to collect the funds from the author. The proliferation of Plan S transition models have added further complications to APC calculation and management.

The move to open science has meant that data relating to publications needs to be openly available and in as widely readable formats as possible. This requires publishing platforms to partner with third parties that specialise in hosting different types of data. Ideally, the data should be viewable directly via the platforms and should be linked closely with the relevant section of the publication.

Hargitt, Literatum: Open access has opened the industry’s eyes to new business models that rely on enriched content offerings. Publishers are considering branching into new content types so they can better identify, develop and monetise their audiences and high-value content spaces. Open science has also sparked a conversation about embracing technologies that enable publishers to take new strides. Research that incorporates media and data assets requires new services to be integrated, or natively supported on platforms, requiring an overall modernisation of supporting content management systems.

What should platform providers be working towards next?

Penev, Pensoft: More and more automation. Even if we have managed to develop a rounded, end-to-end platform, new tools and platforms designed to cater for the specific needs of different communities are emerging all the time. The solution is to be ready to continuously incorporate those within our platforms’ own workflows, guidelines and practices. Again, our mission in academia is to take the burden of technicalities away from the researcher by providing the technology, accompanied with a very personal approach and understanding, so that they are able to focus on the science. 

Bailey, 67 Bricks: Again, the key here is offering flexibility for publishers to take ownership of their products and data so they can reimagine their offering to customers and stay current. I don’t think we’re going to be seeing the end of books and journals, but there’s a clear need for publishers to see these outputs as just one product. As long as platforms confine publishers to these traditional formats, how can they engage with their users, experiment with their data, innovate and create new and more valuable insights for their customers?

Eckert, Frontiers: The expectations of users today are high in terms of ease of use of any technological interface. Platform providers will do well in improving their interactive design, as well as evolving AI-enabled tools to serve the scientific community. Quality assurance remains crucial and continuing the work on effective research integrity checks that are integrated into the publishing workflow will be key to safeguard scientific literature. 

Bazargan, RVT: Platforms should try to be more interoperable so that data can be moved from one platform to another conveniently. Currently moving from one platform – for example, a hosting platform – to another is a major headache for a publisher, as there are no standardised methods or formats used. An initiative that goes part of the way to doing this for submission and peer review systems is NISO’s manuscript exchange common approach standard. But, even in this case, the main idea is to transfer one submission from a platform to another – moving completely from one platform to another still entails major work for the publisher and/or the incoming platform provider.

Hargitt, Literatum: Platform providers should be actively supporting upcoming developments in online technology around the areas of accessibility, security and privacy. They also need to leverage AI to automatically enhance content discovery, comprehension and connections. It is a case of knowing where the industry, the internet and society at large are heading, and offering publishers reliable and timely solutions to weather the changes to come. Ultimately, publishing platforms need to stay one step ahead of the game to stand a chance of catching up to the present.

Can we expect any ground-breaking developments in the near future?

Penev, Pensoft: Now that we have already made some big steps on the path from open access to open science, I’d say that the next ground-breaking development would be the transition from open data to FAIR-linked data in research and academic publishing and the building up of knowledge management systems. At Pensoft, we have already started working on several projects with this mission, such as the EU-funded project, BiCIKL, or the OpenBiodiv knowledge management system. We should be building the infrastructure that allows researchers to link the data that underlays their work back and forth. This is how you make it truly transparent, reproducible and responsible.

Bailey, 67 Bricks: It’s hard to predict where the truly ground-breaking changes will happen – that’s what keeps working in this industry fresh and exciting! The new syndication agreements we're seeing between publishers and companies such as ResearchGate to get open-access content in front of as many people as possible are smart, and I think we’ll see more work to make the distribution of content really slick. The disruption here will occur if usage on these third-party providers eclipses publishers’ native usage, leading to hard questions on exactly what platform development publishers should be focusing on. 

Publishers operating at high-volume should become less curators of static content and more miners of the insights their data holds, thereby adding real value and creating new revenue streams. Leveraging powerful tools such as AI and machine learning to support researchers, funders and institutions to tease out useful information from the firehose of data available to them will open up new opportunities for product development. But for many publishers and platforms there’s an awful lot of architectural groundwork to be done. 

Eckert, Frontiers: From my point of view, we would enable ground-breaking developments if we reach the tipping point for open science as quickly as possible, with data being made accessible in a machine-readable, structured format. This would allow for the development of more sophisticated AI models to support researchers – for example, in summarising advances, exploring correlations across a large body of literature and making knowledge understandable for the public, to counteract misinformation and spur innovation. 

Bazargan, RVT: We will see more flexible business models, where a user might want to buy a selection of chapters and create their own personalised book, or a publisher may decide to regroup chapters from multiple books and conferences to create a new product for sale.These should be possible with the simple reordering of content within a system. 

It is our view that the ideal publishing platform should not simply be a ‘hosting’ system, but should be able to take care of all the publishing activities, from online authoring to peer review, production and, finally, to hosting. This is already attainable and makes the publishing process far more efficient, allowing immediate dissemination of research within a fully transparent framework. 

Hargitt, Literatum: The future will be more focused on supporting the ground-breaking shift to a publishing landscape dominated by open access and open science. It is less about new developments and more about understanding audiences and new directions, as platforms branch out to facilitate new business models and a broader exchange of ideas across borders. All the while, platform providers will need to ensure they maintain the same levels of excellence in supporting an ever-evolving publishing market.