New platforms; new challenges

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Innovation is essential for any academic or professional publisher wishing to survive in today's fast changing information ecosystem, writes David Stuart

In an increasingly competitive space, publishers not only need to meet the challenge of other publishing companies and open access, but also changing user expectations.

Too often users’ expectations have been poorly met, but this is changing with an increasingly wide range of information products available on increasingly sophisticated platforms.

SAGE Publications and Alexander Street Press are two publishing companies that have been developing increasingly sophisticated new platforms, and Martha Sedgwick (executive director of product management at SAGE and Peter Ciuffetti (VP of product development at Alexander Street Press) shared their thoughts on the development of new platforms to meet user needs, the challenges they face, and how much further there is still to go. 

New products

The web does not have the same limitations as print publications, and publishers today are increasingly offering far more than digital versions of traditional publication types. Although SAGE Publications and Alexander Street Press are two publishers with very different histories and collections they have both significantly expanded their digital offerings over the last decade.

Alexander Street Press was established in 2000, initially publishing digital collections of letters and diaries in American and women’s history, before expanding into other text collections as well as audio and video collections. It now has five million pages of text, eight million tracks of audio, and a video platform with about 52,000 videos.

In comparison SAGE Publications has a far more traditional publishing history: established in 1965 it now publishes over 800 books and 850 journals every year. Electronic journals have been joined by a number of other online platforms, hosting both print-first content – books and encyclopedias – combined with new material for a digital first environment including online streaming video, case studies, statistical datasets for both teaching and research.


Of course the new information is only useful if it can be found, and both Sedgwick and Ciuffetti emphasised the importance of discoverability. For Sedgwick, discoverability can be divided into three key areas, search engine optimisation, library discovery, and building links to related content:

‘Discovery is key for us, and it’s absolutely critical for our library customers that are investing a lot of money into discovery tools to support their patrons. We have to ensure that our content is accessible and found on the open web and typically for our products we want to see more than 50 per cent of traffic coming in from there; the majority of that has been from Google, but with video a lot of individuals will go straight to YouTube.

‘Users also want to search library systems to find their content and we need to get our materials there; we work closely with discovery vendors to make sure we’re optimising the metadata and full-text feeds that go out to them and educating our customers so that if they’ve invested in some of our products and they want to boost them up in the search results that they can do that.

‘Finally, once a user lands on our site and finds some great content, how do we make sure they keep finding other relevant stuff? SAGE has an unbelievable diversity of content, so how do we make sure when someone lands on a journal article we throw up a relevant video, statistical data set, case study, or ebook chapter?

‘We’ve indexed all of our content against our newly developed social science thesaurus to create semantic connections throughout our content – this new tool will roll out later this year to help users more easily find other relevant material on our sites, even if they wouldn’t have thought of looking for it.’

The issue of stickiness is stressed by Ciuffetti too, with an emphasis on the importance of curation and editorial staff: ‘We need to make sure that after the discoverability problems are solved that our sites are sticky, because a lot of the renewal decisions librarians face are to do with the usage.

‘There will be more curation there, so that we’re presenting, for example, more case studies and case events where our editorial staff have grouped together material that’s related to a certain research concept, so that when you go to that event you’re seeing more of what we can aggregate for a given topic, rather than having everything keyword matched.

‘We spend a lot of time on indexing, and that indexing does help but still when you provide a common phrase into our search engine and you get dozens or hundreds of items back, there’s no sense of curation. The more that our editorial staff can do things like putting together playlists that have common themes in them, the more we’re matching what the users expectations are.’

User experience

But stickiness is not driven by content discovery alone, it is also driven by the user experience with the content.

For Ciuffetti it’s about developing the lean-forward experience: ‘For other media platforms discovering the content is all they have to make possible and then there’s just a play button and the user plays; we call that a lean-back experience.’

‘But in our case the users are studying the material, primary material, for research or teaching, and so they are often very interested in details, metadata details, or sections of the content that they are going to use as learning or teaching moments; a lean-forward experience, where you’re diving into the material.

‘So our player technologies, for example, can’t be simple play buttons they have to be interactive apps in their own right, and that’s why we develop things like synchronised transcripts, and clip making capabilities, annotation capabilities, and playlisting is very important.’

Creating such lean-forward experiences can be complicated by the wide range of users, as well as places and devices on which they want to access content.

As Sedgwick puts it: ‘It’s a complex world. We have so many different users: librarians, undergrads, post-grads, faculty, advanced researchers, and practitioners. Users want what they want where they want it and our content needs to be devise agnostic, working on a range of devises from mobiles through to desktops and all of the various tablets in between. 

‘For example, there’s even more we could be doing to think more closely about the reading experience on mobile, it works better for some content types than others right now: for consumers engaging with video content it’s great, but it’s still challenging when you think about how academics want to consume chapters and books.

‘We are also thinking more about providing personalised experiences, giving the individual what they want, what is going to be relevant to them. Whether it’s more related content, or features on the page, like scrolling transcripts or clipping functionality, or, enabling the comparison of different data sets in one really easy workspace.

‘Publishers’ sites have traditionally provided a poor user experience as the rest of the world has moved on. Web design as a discipline is a really interesting thing to look at as publishers are expanding their online offerings, because it’s still very new. Things that new web companies would have by default are still quite new to publishers: designers, user experience designers, web analysts, a whole spectrum of roles and teams focused on that web experience. When major redesigns are rolled out we’re seeing much better sites, but there’s still more for publishers to do.’

Ciuffetti also sees much more to do: ‘There’s more to do with the persons involved and the material, the way community interacts with material and each other; allowing them to share stuff they’ve contributed or use stuff other people have put together. The lean-forward experience is also not something we’ve done all that’s possible or desired, especially with synchronised media.

‘For example, we have audio material for classical material, where we also have the score of that material, videos of orchestras performing that material, and reference material discussing that material. They’re all discoverable in their own way but I think what we expect is some synchronisation between that material so that they can experience it all working together.

‘We also have to ask ourselves, how is it we’re trying to fit into the overall ecosystem? It’s not just what the experience is of the users who arrive, but how does it connect up with what’s going on out there – the development of APIs, making it possible for people to put their own user experiences on top of our content, the ability to ingest content, and have it participate in the overall user experience.’


That some publishing platforms require more work on the user experience will come as little surprise; most researchers will have been subjected to a particularly excruciating publishing platform at some point, if not on a daily basis. But with new generations of publishing platforms focusing on discoverability and user experience, we are finally beginning to see glimpses of the real potential of the web as a scholarly publishing platform.

There is still much to do, and many challenges to overcome: How can a rich lean-forward experience be built for a mobile phone or a tablet? How can discoverability extend to related content on other publisher’s platform?

There are no simple, one-size-fits-all solutions, but the increasingly competitive space is driving innovation, and those publishers who innovate successfully in the development of new platforms will continue to underline the importance of publishers to the scholarly information ecosystem.