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Five industry figures tell Tim Gillett what authors should be looking for when disseminating their work

In broad terms, what is an author platform?

Marty Picco, Atypon: An author platform allows writers to create, manage and publish a wide range of content, including books and monographs, scholarly articles, student essays, white papers, technical reports, manuals and blog posts.

Scholarly authors create specialised content and, therefore, need tools to create mathematical equations, bibliographies and citations, footnotes and endnotes, tables, and even data and code. An author platform should support the richness and complexity of this type of content. In addition, some of these platforms allow authors to manage their content, communicate with their collaborators, and publish and disseminate their work.

At Atypon, we’ve acquired two authoring products, Manuscripts and Authorea, that we’re combining into a new open source platform that will provide all of these functions.

Kaveh Bazargan, River Valley Technologies: We see an author platform as one that allows authors either to create new content, or to edit (or annotate) existing content online, as opposed to using offline applications such as Word. 

In the case of content creation, the author could write the content directly online, or they could upload a file (e.g. Word or LaTeX) and then ensure that it is correctly converted. The platform would allow them to make any corrections interactively.

In the case of editing or annotating content that already exists online, a typical scenario is that content (e.g. as XML) has already been ingested into a platform. The author is then invited to log in and make changes to the content, using online editing tools. The platform would track all changes and allocate them appropriately to the user logged in. This makes for a complete audit trail of changes in a document. 

Sami Benchekroun, Morressier: An author platform is a service that allows researchers to showcase their research, boost the visibility of their work, connect with peers, and discover relevant findings. Author platforms can be seen as research aggregators and should make an author’s routine more efficient by connecting them with the right people and newest research in their field. In addition, an author platform should help researchers raise their profile from the very beginning of the scientific process.

Graham Douglas, Overleaf: An online workspace that provides authors with a suite of tools which bring efficiencies to one or more aspects of content-creation workflows, enabling the creation, production and subsequent dissemination through output/export into file/content formats suited to wider distribution. 

Shafina Segon, SAGE India: An author’s platform is an author-led pulpit through which they aspire to connect to their audience, springboard a book into the marketplace, build momentum to sell the book, and promote themselves to a ready-made potential readership. These could be publisher services, blogs, newsletters, speaking engagements, watt pad, social media, TV shows, radio, web series and others.

What key benefits should an author seek out?

Picco, Atypon: Most authors still write with the desktop version of Microsoft Word and use traditional workflows based in text editing. A plausible alternative to Word must feel familiar in both a browser and on the desktop to be successful. And hassle-free import from and export to formats like .docx, LaTeX, and Markdown is essential.

In addition, scholarly authors should look for tools that are not only easy to use, but also support scholarly tasks that generic writing tools like Microsoft Word or Google docs can not. Authors need capabilities such as commenting, project management, journal-specific templating, and version control for computationally reproducible documents, as well as the ability to host data and code, and submit directly to journals and preprint servers. 

Bazargan, River Valley Technologies: Author platforms should reduce the work of authors and allow them to concentrate on the content, rather than the ‘form’ of the content. I have categorised the benefits an author should seek from platforms:

•    Ease of use – authors should not have to read instructions to carry out edits;
•    Audit trail – a platform should keep track of who changed which part of the content, and when;
•    Export of files – authors should be able to export their content at any time, in an open industry standard;
•    Repurposing content – an authoring platform should not be tied to a particular output format or publisher. Authors should be able to create any format, including different reference styles. This would save authors significant time; and
•    Reference manager – an authoring platform should have a good reference management system, e.g. filling in DOIs when some reference details have been entered.

Benchekroun, Morressier: Researchers should seek out two main sets of benefits when considering which author platform to use. The first set centres around sharing research. Authors should look for platforms that offer them insights into how their research is perceived, allow them to gain feedback from their peers, and help them to increase the visibility of their work. The second set of benefits should focus on the consumption and discovery of research, helping authors to easily and quickly discover the latest findings in their field.

Douglas, Overleaf: 

•    Ability of the platform to link into their overall workflow(s): not forming an isolated island of functionality but equipped with bridges/integrations to support/leverage other tools/platforms which form part of authorship process;
•    Removing the need to install, manage or update complex local software installations;
•    Language proofing/enhancement tools: spell check, grammar check. Word counts. Ability to ingest contents forms/formats produced using external (e.g., desktop) applications;
•    Reduction or removal of barriers to collaboration: support for team-based working – with immediate colleagues and teams distributed around the world;
•    In-platform tools to support versioning/history and chat/communication among team members;
•    Enhanced dissemination and tools to aid discovery. Time saved, accuracy: productivity tools, automation; and
•    Ideally, the platform vendor/team should have a friendly, human-not-bot support team and a responsive social media presence, which not only enables quick access to experts, but can also act as a way to provide feedback directly to the team.

Segon, SAGE India: The three main core interactions that an author should seek before building, or going on, an author platform are:

•    Value proposition: how will my platform provide a positive experience to the readers, and enable them to succeed in what they do?
•    Connectivity: how easy is it for the readers to plug in to the platform to share and transact with the author, resulting in an interaction?
•    Flow: how well does the platform attract readers, and foster the exchange and co-creation of value.

Why is it important for authors to build an audience for their work?

Picco, Atypon: Authors do not have it easy: they must regularly secure funding for their work and disseminate their research findings widely – with maximum impact – to establish a reputation and advance their careers. At Atypon, we engineer all of our platforms with audience-building in mind.

Integration with publishing platforms, preprint servers, and electronic editorial offices enable authors to build an audience and proliferate their work widely. Atypon’s new authoring platform will enable authors to format their work for a multitude of journals in a single click, freeing them from laboriously reformatting their work to accommodate various submission guidelines. Our platform will also enable authors to make citable versions of their articles available, as a preprint before their formal publication.

Bazargan, River Valley Technologies: A major incentive for researchers is to publicise their work to their peers. A good authoring platform could allow authors to ‘self-publish’ parts of their work that they do not want to submit directly through a traditional publishing process. These might be commentaries on the papers they have published already. Or they might be data that are not traditionally part of a published paper. The author platform should also allow comments or annotations from third parties, and in effect be a ‘home page’ for the researcher.

Benchekroun, Morressier: Building an audience for your research equals building your own brand identity. Every author needs to highlight their own unique form of research, methods and approaches. By building an audience for themselves and their research, authors can successfully position themselves as vocal and prolific contributors to their field. Additionally, by increasing the reach of their work, authors are more likely to discover potential collaborators and gain feedback on their research from peers around the globe, as early in the research process as possible. 

Douglas, Overleaf: To facilitate raising the profile of their research, showcasing the work of their team and institution: assisting with outreach to help secure funding, develop collaborations and reaching out to provide maximal value/benefits to wider society.

Segon, SAGE India: An author platform is representative of three things - the ‘brand’ that the author is or aspires to be, the author’s sales potential, and a measure of the audience’s support – both online and offline. All three require an audience for the transaction to complete. An author’s platform is a dynamic and organic growth trajectory for the author, as the custodian of the product, their book. Both traditionally-published and self-published authors must build an audience.

How does a good platform enable this?

Picco, Atypon: That starts with acknowledging that more and more research is conducted and disseminated on the web. That, in turn, requires a shift to web-native, HTML-first publishing that makes content easier to publish and reuse, as well as to discover, parse, analyse and present in varied ways. Because Word and LaTeX were built for the print world, they slow down publication cycles and the creation of the kind of media-rich content that digital natives expect. 

Beyond contributing towards a faster publication cycle, an authoring platform can positively affect the quality of scientific discourse supporting computationally reproducible content. Science relies on data-driven conclusions. Integrating data and statistical computing environments, such as Jupyter, with content authoring, enables publishers to distribute material that can be reviewed, consumed, and challenged in new ways.

Bazargan, River Valley Technologies: A good author platform should have an easy user interface for the author. It should have a convenient and flexible reference manager, so that authors need not enter all details of a reference manually. The platform should have a role-based access system, with the author retaining control of who has access.

This would allow any users with the role of ‘author’ to collaborate on writing a document. Other users, say reviewers or commenters, could make comments or annotations on the site but would not be able to edit the main text. 

Authors need to be able to upload their research data in any form. A useful feature will be to have a facility for authors to upload research data in any form, and to allow authorised users to comment on those data. The platform should support as many data formats as possible.

Benchekroun, Morressier: A good platform centres all its activities and services around the author. For too long, academia and research has been served by software platforms that do not have a strong focus on design and usability. A good platform supports and promotes authors by putting user experience first, and ensuring researchers have all the tools they need to easily share, discuss, and gain insights into their work.

New developments in AI and machine learning help to promote the discovery of research by ensuring the right information is being recommended to the right people. By offering a beautifully designed and easy-to-use product, a good platform helps authors to increase their efficiency and make progress faster. 

Douglas, Overleaf: This really depends on the purpose of the platform, but some general observations might be:

•    Close proximity to users/community through an active social media presence: seeking engagement and solicitation of feedback on platform features, whether existing or planned;
•    Fundamentally, a good platform must have a clear focus, designed/built to solve a genuine problem, based on a firm understanding of the target community’s needs/requirements;
•    Where relevant, support reproducibility of research through the ability to encapsulate all the ‘assets’ that might be required to fully ‘engage’ with the content, enabling readers to gain maximum benefit;
•    It must have clear, published, security/data privacy policies; and
•    It should have a low barrier to entry, such as offering free accounts that enable authors to ‘try before they buy’. 

Segon, SAGE India: A good platform will build traction by helping authors build emotional connections with their readers through a one-on-one interaction. The other way in which a good platform would enable this, is helping their readers connect to the author through a community or forum of like-minded people to discuss, directly engage by answering questions, having relevant discussions, keeping them updated, and sharing information that they care about, or are looking for.

Is the availability of a huge range of platforms a benefit to the scholarly community, or a hindrance?

Picco, Atypon: Just as scientific discourse benefits from scholarly collaboration, so too does the the scholarly community – including publishers – benefit from a universe of diverse technologies and many different author platforms. Scholarly communication and publishing advances as more and more authors adopt products and platforms that provide new capabilities, provided they are interoperable, across publishers and technologies.

An ecosystem of connected content and technologies will help the scholarly community solve challenges like accessible, discoverability and the need for speedy, reproducible research. This is also why, at Atypon, we’ve created an open source, component-based authoring platform that others can adopt and adapt to their own needs. By integrating authoring platforms into their publishing and content delivery workflows, publishers will provide a better service to authors, streamline their own processes, and align themselves with the move toward open science. 

Bazargan, River Valley Technologies: Choice is always good. It is a benefit to have a large range of author platforms. Some authors will prefer one mode of authoring and editing to others. For example some authors will only want to use LaTeX, others a WYSIWYG interface. 

What would be beneficial to all parties is that different platforms can ‘talk’ to one another. In other words, the author should be able to start writing in one platform, then transport the native file to another system and continue editing. This can be achieved by platforms ensuring that the content is always saved in an open standard such as JATS XML. 

Benchekroun, Morressier: 

The availability of a large range of platforms is beneficial as competition creates the need for all incumbents to increase their usability and set of features in order to attract authors. We should aim for an integrated scholarly ecosystem which provides authors with a wide variety of choice and allows them the freedom to go for the platform that best suits their needs. Most importantly though, platforms need to be interoperable to ensure scientists can easily work across different services without encountering additional hassles or complications.

Douglas, Overleaf: In practice, it can be seen as both, but is a surfeit of choice a panacea or problem child? How does ‘the market’ decide – what engenders a ‘critical mass’ of support leading to widespread adoption and longevity? Price? Features? Open source code distribution? Backing by well-funded ‘major players’? 

A proliferation of platforms can certainly present difficulties: islands of disjoined functionality; duplicated or wasted effort, re-inventing the wheel; fractionation of communities, not forming a ‘critical mass’ by coalescing around key solutions. 

Platforms can disappear as quickly as they arise: business models fail to deliver projected revenues: founders and/or investors move on to the ‘next big thing’, perhaps leaving users/authors stranded, potentially leading to future reticence to trust/adopt another platform. Authors may not know how to choose a platform to trust, one that will be around for the long haul and worth investing their time in. Publishers, too, may not know which one authors really prefer, and thus hesitate investing resources to support it in their workflows, further leading to slower adoption by their authors: chicken and egg syndrome? 

Minimal longevity of platforms can also arise through grant-funded project initiatives, whose active development may only last as long as the grant funding itself – resulting in proof-of-concept systems that most likely will eventually disappear without trace. 

Segon, SAGE India: This is a tricky one. Anyone in research today understands that the philosophy of ‘Publish or Vanish’ rather than ‘Publish or Perish’ holds true. Research cannot be limited within geographical boundaries.

For those, who want to engage with content, the three transformative technologies: cloud, social, and mobile, are very useful, for they enable a global infrastructure for production, allowing anyone to create content, while through the social networks, the scholarly community can connect to people across the world, while maintaining their identity online. The result is a globally-connected seamless world, providing an accessible network of researchers, academic content and visibility.