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Personalising physics publishing with Web 2.0

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Podcasts, blogs, social networks and Second Life...David Robson investigates how physics publishing is reacting to Web 2.0

A tropical island, complete with palm trees, beaches and sunshine is not your typical venue for science conferences. Only in Second Life, the virtual world that has taken the physical world by storm, could such a place be dedicated entirely to science communication.

The island is Second Nature – Nature Publishing Group’s (NPG’s) experiment in exploiting virtual land for scientific publishing. It’s a bold move, and just one more attempt to bring Web 2.0 technology, which includes blogs, podcasts, video broadcasting and social networks, to the scientific community.

Like the arrival of the printing press, technological innovation is threatening to disrupt the nature of publishing. But for publishing companies it’s a doubleedged sword: along with the possibility of enlivening scientific content and bringing it to a wider audience comes the prospect of open access and its potential threat to the accepted financial landscape.

Physics publishing in particular has been quick on the uptake of the new internet technologies – partly due to its history (the world wide web was created by physicists at CERN) and also because of its culture. ‘Physicists need to know about new research as fast as possible,’ says Tim Ingoldsby, the director of strategic initiatives and publisher relations at the American Institute of Physics (AIP). ‘It needs the rapid reportage of small breakthroughs.’

The new innovations help aggregate relevant information, often from many different sources, into a single place. This should help researchers to deal with the ‘information explosion’ associated with online publishing, allowing them to sort and categorise information in a meaningful way, and highlight the most important results. To achieve this, many publishers offer online portals, such as NPG’s physics@nature.com website, which draws physics-based content from any of the publisher’s journals.

The physics@nature.com portal brings together all the Nature Publishing Group’s physics articles onto one site.

‘It’s not tied to a journal, so it covers lots of different content,’ explains Jason Wilde, publisher for the physical sciences at NPG. ‘It’s a one-stop shop that allows users to see all the relevant articles across our portfolio.’ This includes NPG’s AOP (advance-online publication) articles, some of which are published weeks before the print version of the journal is released. The site also provides electronic table-of-contents alerts and RSS feeds, which highlight all of the relevant articles as soon as they are published.

One of the defining features of Web 2.0 technology is the ability of users to create and adapt the content of a website to suit themselves. Like NPG’s portals, the Institute of Physics’ (IOP’s) new offering, IOPScience, brings together information from all its peer-reviewed journals, its pre-print service and its news websites. The users can decide for themselves exactly which subject areas they are interested in, and which journals to include in the search. This provides a personalised and newly-updated homepage each time they log in.

Searches made through IOPScience are fully customisable, allowing users to filter by journal, subject, author, date or PAC code. ‘When a user does a search, it casts the net very wide, but you can then drill down into the results afterwards,’ says Vanessa Murtough, product manager for IOPScience.

The website also borrows features from consumer websites like Amazon.com. For example, next to the abstract of papers it lists related articles selected by editors, and articles recommended by users who had read the original paper. This feature, launched in late July, directs users to popular and related work without having to search for it themselves. Another feature borrowed from commercial websites records the last 10 searches and 10 last viewed items.

‘We’re using the wisdom of the crowd to drive the researchers to the content that’s important to them,’ says Murtough. ‘At the moment IOPScience is in its first year… we’ve had very good feedback from our customers so far.’

Users can also tag articles with key terms, to bookmark the pages on their own profile. Each term appears in the profile’s ‘tag cloud’, linking back to the original article. A user can tag more than one page with the same term, in which case the tag would return an index of all the linked pages. The site also provides social bookmarking through services such as del.icio.us and Facebook, which help to direct users to relevant content.

Like most Web 2.0 features, the aim is to help users easily retrieve the information they need from the mass of possible documents available. ‘There are too many papers and not enough time to read them all,’ says Murtough. ‘We’re trying to signpost ways to find and interact with content more easily. It’s more interactive and dynamic than previous offerings, and hopefully more useful,’ she adds.

Collecting comments

Many news websites offer the opportunity for users to comment on articles, which promotes discussions and can give a varied viewpoint on news events. While academic publishers have not adopted comment boxes attached to articles to the same extent as news websites, many are becoming increasingly interested in blogging, both as a technique to highlight valuable content and as a medium to open discussion.

‘We had considered adding a comments features to articles,’ says Simeon Warner, who manages the arXiv physics pre-print service at Cornell University in the USA, ‘but it could be difficult to maintain. By using the blogosphere, we don’t need to police it in the same way.’

arXiv doesn’t host its own blogs; instead, it uses a ‘track back’ service to find links to arXiv articles in independent blog entries. The links to these blog entries are aggregated on a separate arXiv page, and they also appear next to the abstracts of the original papers. ‘It’s a way of adding commentary and finding related information,’ says Warner. ‘Blogs could point out a problem in the presented research. And it offers the possibility of publicity.’

NPG, with its greater resources, manages its own blogs, written by its staff. ‘From our point of view, we can interact in a less formal way. We can engage people and investigate other areas,’ says NPG’s Wilde. ‘They are not restricted to looking at our content... they might be looking at mini reports of conferences, or news blogs.’

And the publisher also offers podcasts. This provides another way of examining content to engage users in a less formal manner than traditional academic or news articles. A regular podcast would last roughly half an hour, examining four to five different pieces of research together with interviews with the scientists.

Users and uptake

Last year the number of individual blogs reportedly hit a peak and the number is now said to be dwindling; not every publisher is convinced they will play an important part in future offerings. arXiv’s Warner says: ‘It’s an interesting phenomena, but blogs at the moment are used heavily by a small sector. However, it’s still worth our while to continue.’

IOP’s Murtough also has reservations: ‘We haven’t included blogs at the moment,’ she says, although she claims that IOP is still investigating the idea. ‘With most Web 2.0 features, we’re still trying to see what will be useful, and how it can be applied.’

AIP has recently conducted focus groups on young researchers, to monitor the adoption of Web 2.0 features. Despite the hype within the publishing industry, its study found that there seemed to be limited use by real users. ‘So far there has not been a lot of use... but we’re fairly convinced this will increase in the future,’ observes Tim Ingoldsby.

Social networks, like Facebook and MySpace, have also met a similar degree of reserved interest. As has previously been mentioned, many publishers are offering the opportunity to bookmark articles to these sites, to show users what their friends and associates are reading.

Another possibility is that scientists could use publishing tools to include links to their growing body of work as part of their social network profiles. ‘We’re currently working out how to integrate the arXiv with social network sites,’ says arXiv’s Warner. ‘For example, currently an author can write a query to find all their articles on arXiv, which they can then use on their own website. We could also integrate this as a plug-in for Facebook.’

The Institute of Physics’ IOPScience portal is fully customisable, and includes Web 2.0 features such as cloud tagging and community recommendations.

NPG has established its own social network for scientists. Nature Network is free to join, and acts as a ‘meeting place for scientists’ according to Wilde. He adds that this is one of the areas of NPG’s site with the highest traffic, and that it offers the opportunity to open discussions between like-minded people. Users can also establish their own blogs to report their opinions and findings.

NPG’s other big Web 2.0 experiment, its Second Nature island in Second Life, has similar aims. ‘It’s a way of bringing people together, so they don’t need to travel but can talk in the Second Life environment,’ says Wilde. Current activities in Second Nature include a virtual exhibition of spacecraft and a lecture series, which has included talks on the European ExoMars space mission, biotechnology, climate change and animal conservation. The project was launched in late 2006. ‘It’s very experimental – we’re not sure where it will go,’ he says.

NPG’s island in Second Life helps to bring together scientists in the virtual world.

Changing relationships

Ten years ago, such projects would have been inconceivable. With users increasingly shaping and creating the content of online offerings, there’s little doubt that Web 2.0 is shaking up the traditional relationship between publisher and customer.

This disruption is also evident in the way customers are asking to pay for articles. Much has been said about the destructive impact of the internet on the music industry, with customers increasingly demanding to download tracks for free, but the same is also true for academic publishing. Many users are now calling for open-access articles, which are free to view for everyone.

For some time most publishers have offered some articles for free, to allow users to sample content which may eventually encourage a subscription. For AIP’s publications, authors, or their funders, can pay for their articles to be open access – a sum that could vary from $300 to $3,000.

Tim Ingoldsby says that authors may be willing to fork out this sum if the article could enhance their reputation. ‘Scientists are (in part) rewarded by their publication record – it’s how their productivity is evaluated,’ he explains. ‘By making an article available for free, it may help them become well-known for their work. But it’s a huge change in the economic picture.’

However, the cost for publishing in some titles would be too high for authors to foot themselves if the journals have high rejection rates. Jason Wilde believes that for companies such as the NPG, which devote considerable resources to editing, sub-editing and peer-reviewing material, it would not be economically possible to provide all their articles for free. ‘We put in a lot of investment to be sure articles are of the highest quality. I don’t think that Nature is viable for the open-access model,’ says Wilde.

Within the publishing industry, there’s still some trepidation as to how the situation will pan out in the future and most publishers are testing the waters with a number of experimental projects. Will users choose to adopt Web 2.0 technologies in the future, or are they merely a gimmick?

And will open access replace the concept of paid subscription? ‘The jury is still out there,’ says AIP’s Ingoldsby. ‘It’s a very exciting time with the innovations around Web 2.0, but it’s also very scary because of the threat open access has to traditional business models.’

Further information

IOPScience – IOP’s new customisable platform: iopscience.iop.org

arXiv blogs – Gathers blog entries about arXiv articles from the web and links them on one page: arxiv.org/tb/recent

Physics@nature.com – Nature’s portal for physicists, which gathers relevant content from all its journals: www.nature.com/physics/index.html

Second Nature – Nature’s island in Second Life, which hosts its own conferences and museums: www.nature.com/secondnature/index.html 

Nature Networks – ‘Facebook for scientists’: network.nature.com