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Six industry experts tell Tim Gillett where the future destination is likely to be for publishing platforms

How have publishing platforms developed in the last two or three years?

Sam Herbert, co-founder, 67 Bricks: Changes have been driven by the need for flexibility, control and agility. Flexibility is essential for adapting to the constantly changing publishing environment, control is vital to have ownership of product roadmap and your own customer data, to better serve users, while agility lets you act quickly in response to challenges and opportunities, to innovate and create user-led products. User experience has never been more important and the ability to flex to user demands is paramount.

Frankly, academic publishers don’t know what their business is going to be in five years or beyond, because the new data age is changing everything all the time.  Given that, publishers are realising they need a modular platform that can adapt to this environment, where they can innovate, learn and scale what works ‘on the go’.  

As a response to these challenges the last few years has seen some high profile publishers, such as Emerald Publishing and De Gruyter move away from traditional vendor products and take a very different approach.

De Gruyter, whose new digital platform launches in early 2021, sees what they are doing as far more than replacing one platform for another, but a complete shift in their foundation. 

Haralambos “Babis” Marmanis, Copyright Clearance Center: The digitisation of publishing platforms continued unabated in the last three years. In particular, the application of “Artificial Intelligence” has grown at a rapid pace and with great intensity.

The term (usually referred to just as AI) covers a wide spectrum of human activities, ranging from playing chess and speech recognition to autonomous driving and digital assistants (such as Amazon Alexa, Siri). Generally speaking, AI systems facilitate the automation of tasks, normally performed by humans, by incorporating information from the data that they process in order to adjust the outcome of the task.

Under that definition, there is clearly a tremendous opportunity to gain value from AI in publishing platforms. 

Marie Soulière, head of publishing operations, Frontiers: A key aspect has been the increase in collaboration and integration of large publishing platforms with third-party tools and products. Examples include the integration of online manuscript-preparation software, direct submissions to publishing platforms from archives websites, and the integration of one-button plagiarism checks with CrossRef. We have, for example, integrated direct submissions from medRxiv, bioRxiv and Chronos with our platform. Direct in-platform searches for reviewers from external databases and options for reviewers to publicly claim recognition of their contributions are another key development. 

Brigitte Shull, senior vice president, USA, Cambridge University Press: Publishing platforms never rest, they’re always in development. Many platforms have become more open, both through open source technologies and new features or content that does not live behind a paywall. Platforms have become more central to publishers’ product development strategies, and there has been consolidation in the delivery of digital content. Seamless access and discovery have always been key but some exciting advances in the use of AI for relatedness, for example, has driven innovation. Publishers have also made some strides around accessibility, and have been willing to collaborate across the industry to make this happen more quickly.

Kaveh Bazargan, River Valley Technologies: Publishing platforms have traditionally been used either for disseminating published content to readers, or to carry out the submission and peer review process. In recent years platforms have been extended to cater for all other stages of the publishing process including authoring, copy editing, typesetting and proof checking. These platforms are more complex because they have to deal with the full content of a submission, including modifications, acceptance and rejection of those modifications, and comprehensive track changes. New platforms include proof checking systems that allow authors to check their proofs online and in a browser, rather than on downloaded PDFs.

Violaine Iglesias, Cadmore Media: To focus on what is most relevant to Cadmore’s core expertise, one trend we are seeing is that publishing platforms have been broadening their support for non-traditional scholarly communication formats: social media, blogs, podcasts, videos. This shift is in line with the wider recognition that there is a lot of information to capture in the research cycle besides what makes it into a journal article. It also emphasises a (welcome!) trend to de-anonymise science and amplify authors’ voices, to use storytelling to relate more of the context in which science is created. Researchers are humans, and science is an imperfect process.

What makes a great publishing platform?

Herbert, 67 Bricks: The best publishing platform is not necessarily the most feature rich.  A great publishing platform provides users with seamless access, fits into their workflow and adapts to their needs over time.  

An exceptional platform gives publishers the control, flexibility and agility required to face future challenges and capitalise on new opportunities as they arise.  It fundamentally changes the way publishers interact with and understand their users, which is vital as ‘the smartphone generation’ are used to a certain kind of user experience and have high expectations. 

The technologies that a great publishing platform is built on are flexible, robust and scalable;allowing you to improve, innovate, monitor, and optimise over time, and deliver new products and services. This approach enables publishers to implement change without huge technical upheaval and cost. 

Marmanis, Copyright Clearance Center: A great publishing platform satisfies the following criteria:

  • It is fully digitised; digitisation here does not refer only to having the content in digital form, it also includes business workflow and integrations.
  • It can support multiple business models
  • It enables extensible, scalable growth
  • It integrates seamlessly with other enterprise systems, as well as external third parties
  • It is secure and accommodates privacy concerns
  • It natively supports analytics

Soulière, Frontiers: A great publishing platform should be able to adapt to the needs of users and continue to add new services to keep improving the experience of the research community. It must keep innovating to provide flexible, stable, interoperable and perhaps, above all, user-friendly services. The inherent challenge is the variety of different needs from research communities, combined with the diverse range of users interacting with publishing platforms. Most will focus on a single stakeholder type, either the readers, the authors, or the editors and reviewers, which results in platforms being considered great by some users, but perhaps not by others. A great publishing platform is able to distinguish between these and offer a balanced approach that works for all of them.

Shull, Cambridge University Press: A great publishing platform needs to be user-driven, responsive and intuitive. The roadmap needs to prioritise work that meets changing user needs, and the user experience should add real value (with minimal contact with technical support teams).

Bazargan, River Valley Technologies: A great publishing platform should need minimal instructions, even for novice users. Any instructions should be contextual, and embedded within the platform. A good way of embedding instructions is to use short videos, available directly and contextually through the interface. Publishing platforms should be accessible as far as possible. For instance, readers with visual impairment or those with dyslexia should be able to select typefaces that are most comfortable for them to read. Ideally, formats other than HTML, such as PDF, should be generated on the fly, according to the preferences of the reader, allowing the reader to select font size for example. A general expectation of modern platforms is that they are fully responsive, and therefore usable on all devices, including tablets and mobile phones. 

Iglesias, Cadmore Media: A great publishing platform is one that doesn’t get in the way. Publishers are the guardians of “good” information, which seems more critical today than ever; they shouldn’t become software companies. Yes, investment in technology and staff to run it is critical, but technology is there to serve content in a manner that is as painless as possible for authors, as useful as possible for readers, and as efficient as possible for publishers. It may take a great deal of complexity and flexibility to create a platform that achieves those simple goals, but that burden shouldn’t rest on the shoulders of publishers – that’s what vendors are for.

How have platforms developed to take account of the move towards open access and open research?

Marmanis, Copyright Clearance Center: Many platforms developed, or integrated with, purpose-built OA-enabling systems, where publishers can delegate anything from the collection of OA fees to full digital implementations of transformative agreements.

CCC is proud to offer the market leader of such OA enabling systems, namely, the RightsLink for Scientific Communications platform.

Soulière, Frontiers: The move towards open access for publishing platforms is not as straightforward as many would think. Frontiers was born as an open access and open science platform, and as such, all its technology has been developed and designed around that. To make a functional change to open access, publishers with older models have to adapt many fundamental processes in their platforms.

This includes submission systems, article production, public pages, access and discovery of articles, as well as depositing workflows, in addition (in many cases) to their business models for article processing fees.

Shull, Cambridge University Press: Making research publications open dramatically increases their capacity for impact. To support that as fully as possible, platforms have ventured into new usage-driving territory, with new social sharing tools as one example; supported new open access business models such as Read & Publish; become more engaged with interoperability and open institutional APIs; and started to support more of the scholarly communication lifecycle. For example, Cambridge University Press launched its new early and open research platform Cambridge Open Engage to support collaboration in the early research space.

Bazargan, River Valley Technologies: Open research involves publishing the results of research as they become available, and in formats other than those for traditional publishing, such as HTML or PDF. It is now expected that research data are published in their native format. In addition, it is expected that research results are published in a matter of days after acceptance, not weeks or months. 

This expectation has been underlined during the Covid-19 pandemic. OA publications such as the GigaByte Journal are now publishing papers within 24 hours of acceptance. Platforms are increasingly providing “widgets” to allow viewing of any data format, including interacting with 3D data. Static HTML or PDF views of a publication and the underlying data are no longer considered sufficient. 

Iglesias, Cadmore Media: To comment on video only: open access video is still a rarity, but it could take off once publishers become more adept at creating video – they are taking a crash course at the moment, so this could happen quicker than expected.

As for open research, video has a key role to play with reproducibility, especially in protocols journals; it is one more way to capture methods used in a research project. In some cases, like in the geosciences, it is part of the data that is studied and needs to be treated as such, for example by applying the FAIR principles.

How can a good platform benefit other players in the industry (ie authors and libraries), rather than just publishers?

Herbert, 67 Bricks: A great publishing platform provides authors, researchers and librarians with seamless access, is embedded into their workflows, integrates with the required third-party systems and tools, and adapts to their needs over time.

For librarians, data analytics are key to decision making and a great platform can provide this intuitively and accurately. It should also integrate into their systems smoothly, potentially providing them with some of the required services they need to offer to the institute, such as integration with institutional repositories. For researchers, a great platform assists them across the full research and publication lifecycle. 

Marmanis, Copyright Clearance Center: In the context of OA publications, there are four key stakeholders (authors, publishers, funders and academic institutions) and the difference between a good platform and a great platform is the extent to which the needs of those other stakeholders are met. For the stakeholders that are not publishers, it is very important that there is transparency, traceability, a seamless experience for the author, strong analytics for funders and institutions.

Soulière, Frontiers: Good publishing platforms should provide a range of services that are relevant for various stakeholders, including authors and libraries. Automatic deposition systems, and agreements with university libraries for publishing fees coverage and content management are key aspects of open research.

Increased discoverability of content is in everyone’s best interest; authors’ works are shared more broadly and help further knowledge in their fields, and ultimately, scientific discovery. 

Shull, Cambridge University Press: Authors and librarians are two crucial user groups for any publisher platform, and I would argue that platforms should privilege those user journeys over publisher benefits. Cambridge University Press’ platforms draw on the principles of service design and we use personas to recognise the motivations and pain points of librarians, researchers, authors, students, and learned societies in development. There have been a lot of examples across the industry where roadmaps were re-prioritised in response to the pandemic to offer support and relief for researchers and libraries, without immediate gains for publishers.

Bazargan, River Valley Technologies: A good platform is one that is easy to use and accessible by all parties. Researchers should be able to communicate their findings quickly and to collaborate with peers. Output should not be restricted to a flat PDF. Peer reviewers provide an invaluable, unpaid service, so it is crucial their time is optimised by allowing them to focus on the content, rather than on how to use a platform. 

For subscription journals, it is crucial that libraries’ access to journals are not hindered by complex log-in requirements. For open access journals, simple management of APCs by libraries is essential, especially considering the impending Plan S Transformative deals. 

Iglesias, Cadmore Media: Again, the platform shouldn’t be the star of the show. We should listen to what readers actually want, which seems fairly straightforward: they want to find content quickly and they do not care about fancy features. 

Librarians want to know what value they get for their money, and they want efficient setup mechanisms. It seems that our energy is better spent on interoperability and standardisation of processes between platforms, through organisations like NISO, and more co-operation between all the different players.

I’d argue that the role of scholarly publishers in today’s misinformation wars is so critical that we should all be focused on re-building trust in the system.

What should platform providers be working towards next?

Herbert, 67 Bricks: Change is constant in the sector, no one knows what is coming next… so a publisher’s job is to be ‘match ready’.

Phase 1 of preparing for the data age required publishers to replicate content online and vendor platform providers were able to do this competently.  

We are now entering Phase 2 of digital transformation, where customers demand data-driven information products and seamless online experiences as standard.  It is now essential that publishers have control of their customer data and digital roadmap, so that they can start adopting the new technologies and approaches that will offer the agility and flexibility to adapt and innovate.  

We don’t have a publishing ‘crystal ball’ but it is our job to prepare our clients for a future that is alien to the one they grew up in – where machines soon create, analyse and consume more content than humans – and make sure they have the technologies, approaches and mindset to thrive in the new era. The latter, in particular, is a huge task.

Marmanis, Copyright Clearance Center: The ultimate goal should be an expedient publication process that results in high-quality research output. Developments related to AI are always stealing the headlines, but there are many other things that must be done to achieve the stated goal.

For example, support for transactions in multiple currencies, customisation by research area or geographic region, strong analytics capabilities (not necessarily AI-enabled) and so on.

Soulière, Frontiers: Interoperability, flexibility and integration. There should be an increased focus on open access and open science options to provide the broadest possible benefits for researchers and readers. This can be expedited by partnering with other providers developing specific publishing tools. 

In recent years, most providers have worked on one particular aspect of open science for their platform.

The next steps should be functional integrations and operations to identify and fill any gaps within existing platforms. There are many amazing solutions out there, but they need to be added to publishing platforms in an intelligent way. 

Shull, Cambridge University Press: Providers should continue to think broadly about the scholarly communications ecosystem and interoperability to save the researcher time. Metadata that clearly reflects the status of and links between works, as well as AI and community-driven features to guide discovery, are likely on all publishers’ horizons in some form.

Journals are increasingly encouraging or mandating authors to publish data and cite it appropriately.  We have been thinking about requirements for how to appropriately capture, describe, tag and present data to make data FAIR. 

Bazargan, River Valley Technologies: Platform providers should be looking to encourage more journals to be set up easily and conveniently, and all research data to be shared. 

One pain point that is still prevalent is the cost and long timelines for transferring journals and other content to new platforms. In reality this process should be pain free and inexpensive, assuming data have been maintained using open standards. 

Legacy content should be easy to transfer to a new system, ensuring publishers are never locked into existing platforms. Needless to say, all platforms need to be Plan S compliant.

Iglesias, Cadmore Media: Publishing platforms need to focus on how users really want to interact with content. At Cadmore, we look into all the ways people discover and watch video. Why hasn’t video taken off in scholarly communications when it has taken over the world?

Mostly because “serious” video is impossible to find and even more impossible to watch. So, we are tackling this problem by applying scholarly publishing best practices to enable discoverability, and by making it as efficient to watch a video as it is to consume text. The technology is complex, but the goal is simple.