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Platform for a revolution

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Technology plays a key role in how we search and use information. Sharon Davies finds out about some of the recent developments, challenges and emerging trends surrounding publishing platforms

Publishing platforms are constantly evolving in an effort to deliver scholarly content to its many users. There is also a continued effort in the industry, from both publishers and publishing platform providers, to improve the platform user experience by responding to user demands and needs, the development of new technologies, and the improved integration of content. There have also been a number of interesting developments upstream from the final delivery of content. As a result, publishing platforms and the publishing platform vendor market have become increasingly sophisticated while facing a number of challenges.

Return on investment

Discussing how the world of publishing platforms are changing, Tracy Capaldi-Drewett, sales and marketing director at Semantico, observed: ‘We see that the marketplace is becoming more and more sophisticated and certainly the demands publishers are facing in relation to making wise spending decisions in digital technology and platforms is becoming ever more challenging. It is therefore clear to me that the vendor marketplace has to react very positively to this by proactively helping publishers to understand how they can get return on their investment.’

Capaldi-Drewett added: ‘We need to be business focused in terms of our solutions and to be “intelligent” in the way that we think about how we maximise our clients existing ecosystem when putting forward our platforms. Many publishers have already made significant investments in the digital space, so it is important that vendors recognise that they don’t necessarily want to be “reinventing the wheel” when considering platforms and distribution technologies. We need to be thinking about how we can make the very best of the technology that the publisher may have already invested in. Sometimes it needs to be replaced, but in the main it’s about what works well and what can work better with good integration.’

So what are the latest developments in publishing platforms and how are they evolving?

John Sack, founding director at Highwire, observed: ‘Publishing platforms are constantly evolving, and most have common attributes such as offering mobile support, responsive design or both.’ He also observed: ‘Most platforms also provide article-level and/or alternative metrics, as well as a way to incorporate data through links or 3rd party services. Many platforms have some version(s) of the Article of the Future layout [An initiative started by Elsevier’s to explore better ways of presenting online journal articles]. Only a few platforms offer public APIs, (application programming interfaces) or support TDM (text and data mining), but these are coming.’

Changes in user demands and behaviour

Many of these developments have been introduced in response to user demands for improved functionality and discoverability, but also in relation to changes in user behaviour.

As Capaldi-Drewett of Semantico,observed: ‘The Industry has taught a lot about the importance of the user experience. However, ultimately it is our job to help our customers understand and impact user behaviour.’

Discussing responsive design to mobile technology, Colin Caveney, consultancy director at Semantico, observed: ‘We [Semantico] were one of the early adopters in the space of responsive design. I believe we realised very early on that mobile devices, and the sheer variety of portable devices in general, was really exploding and so the responsive approach to that we felt was very smart. This enabled us to create a very nice user experience, regardless of the device that they were using and how it adapts intelligently to those.’

Highlighting how Semantico’s Linking Hub helps with the challenge of search and discovery on platforms, Caveney added: ‘Our Linking Hub technology has knowledge of all the other platforms within a publisher’s ecosystem. So, for example when a researcher comes to a platform to search, discover and read publisher content, Linking Hub enables the researcher to discover and link to content on every other site within the publisher’s ecosystem. In a space where retaining the user’s attention is critical, this provides the publisher the benefit of keeping the researcher within their eco-system and helps expand the information universe of the researcher.’

Evolving challenges

However as publishing platforms have evolved and developed, they have increasingly faced new challenges.

Sack at Highwire observed: ‘There are all sorts of ways platforms respond to the rapidly changing demands in user experience. One response we’ve seen is to implement multiple features and functionalities, with the result being that site(s) are full of visual clutter. This just makes readers prefer the (uncluttered) PDF even more: so they can concentrate on the research. A few platforms have evaluated their interfaces and de-cluttered them as a result of their research.’

Sack added: ‘Single sign-on is of high interest and value to society publishers, but the challenge is that those processes are not standardised. Incorporating research data from links and 3rd party tools is also a challenge for the same reason. Truly understanding who the user is, without imposing, in order to offer them better services and products is still ahead of us. Another challenge is that researchers still want to “grab and go” with their PDFs, so the ROI on enhanced services is not certain.’ Kaveh Bazargan, director of River Valley Technologies, agrees on this point and commented: ‘Technologies have been evolving but by adding more and more functionality there is the danger of overcomplicating the product for users. Most have one product interface for many different roles, so the user would see myriad buttons but would only ever be using a handful.’

The growing demand for the publication of research data, along with the traditional published format is also a challenge, as Bazargan observed: ‘Managing and serving data is a challenge to platform developers because of the numerous formats possible, and the potentially large size of the data.’

Another problem that Bazargan noted was that as each platform has a different interface, it is not comfortable for users, especially libraries who have to deal with dozens of platforms and suggested that a degree of uniformity would help end users.

Bazargan also noted issues around accessibility of the platform itself and platform content. But while these problems persist, they are slowly improving with platform publishers adopting new web technologies.

Discussing the plethora of platform standards, Brian McDermott, operations director at Emerald Group Publishing, observed: ‘A huge challenge for publishers and publishing platform providers is the ‘blizzard’ of technical standards that one needs to keep abreast of. There is a lot of work that publishers do behind the scenes, which is not always recognised or acknowledged to make sure that we keep pace with technical and industry standards.’

McDermott added: ‘Another key challenge is because most publishers have now opted to go with an industry standard publishing platform that has all the same benefits, functions and developments, it creates a “vanilla platform”, where everything is the same. How do you differentiate from one publishing company to another? In the first instance, we’ve got a view that the platform itself is not a unique proposition, in that everybody has the same capability to exploit it. It’s how you learn from your customers and what they want that makes the difference.’

Discusing challenges for researchers, Sack of Highwire observed: ‘We’ve noticed that some platforms spend significant resources on their search engines, which research end-users do not much use.’ He continued: ‘Researchers dislike that all the platforms look and work differently. They are annoyed that access to subscription resources off campus can be very, very difficult from source to source. And in the end, the evidence has shown that researchers do not use platforms per se (they read articles, not journals or publisher sites), and are mostly driven from search engines and alerts directly to articles of interest.’

Future and emerging trends

So what are the emerging trends for publishing platforms and what does the future hold for the industry?

As indicated earlier there is a growing trend towards closer integration of the delivery publishing platform with upstream systems, as Bazargan of River Valley Technology observed: ‘Traditionally, “publishing platforms” have referred to delivery platforms, allowing the reader to have access to published material. However, since 2014 the major innovation in publishing platforms has been in cloud-based systems further upstream from the final published article, and there has been a lot of interest from publishers.’

Bazargan noted drivers for publishers to adopt these platforms are to offer: better experience for authors, who find writing and submitting papers a burden; faster publication times; and lower production costs.

Bazargan noted recent developments in “upstream” platform technologies include collaborative authoring which allow authors to write online in a browser, rather than in a desktop application like Word. A bit like having a “Google Docs” for academics. Several platforms exist, including OverLeaf, ShareLatex, Authorea, FidusWriter and River Valley’s offering RVRite.

Other developments Bazargan noted include online proof correction, such as River Valley’s ProofCheck, which allows authors to make corrections quickly and easily directly on the XML file; and automated PDF generation, such as River Valley’s RVFormatter which converts the XML of a document to PDF, ePub and other formats.

Industry ideas

Discussing future trends for the platform providers industry, John Peters of GSE and Greenleaf observed: ‘I think there is an opportunity for host providers to put in place simple, affordable online delivery systems that do simple, necessary things such as visual-impairment conformity and Counter-compliant systems, for the many, many smaller publishers who are still in 2015 wrestling with what ‘digital strategy’ means for them. They are not going to write multi-million pound cheques; they are not going to have ‘Digital Content Champions’ or indeed anything resembling a functional IT department. I think that’s an opportunity.’

He continued: ‘For the industry to move on further, let’s have providers who look for and care about smaller publishers; and let’s have publishers and providers who care about customers and customer service, and listen to librarians and academics.’

McDermott of Emerald Group Publishing concluded: ‘It’s all about search and discovery for end users, making it quicker and easier to find relevant content.’ Sack at Highwire also agreed and observed: ‘People seek simplicity, or what I would call “friction-free reading”.’

Choosing the right platform design

Brian McDermott, operations director at Emerald Group Publishing talks about Emerald’s transition from an in-house platform to Atypon’s Literatum platform.

‘We made a strategic decision to transition to a publishing platform provider to meet the growing demands for new services, products and features. We needed to upgrade the system, move everything forward and keep pace with customer demands and technical developments and standards. Change in user behaviour also influenced our decision to move to a publishing platform provider so it was important to make sure for that we were optimised for that, and the move towards user mobility.

‘We therefore looked for a provider of a publishing platform that had an established reputation in the industry and was used by other scholarly publishers. As a result we decided on Atypon’s Literatum platform.

‘The benefits of moving to the new platform are enormous including increased discoverability, due to enriched metadata and search engine optimisation; compliance with industry technical standards; and enhanced search, as a result of advanced filter capabilities within the Literatum platform. Enriched metadata also improved the feed to third party discovery tools, which further help librarians and end users find the content they need. Search and discovery are probably the biggest most important things for our end users such as students and researchers, who are trying to find the material that they are interested in. The Atypon platform also complies with industry standards and automatically ensures that all reporting fits in with the requirements.

‘We did a customer survey in 2013, as we were going through the migration to Atypon, as we wanted to make sure that we had the correct platform design, and the right features and functions that our customers wanted to see. From this we were able to respond to customer demands by Atypon developing these features for us.’