FEATURE

Platforms to success

Eight industry figures give us the low-down on the world of publishing platforms

What is a publishing platform? 

Michelle Norell, Business Development Manager, PubFactory: Technically, a publishing platform is hosting technology, the foundation of which is a base application of modules that allow publishers to present their content online. It is one of the most powerful enablers of publication growth and user engagement for publishers in that it maximises content discovery globally while also providing access control; delivers sales and marketing mechanisms; and provides critical insights via usage data and analytics all of which inform publishers’ business near- and long term roadmaps and initiatives. 

Iliyana Kuzmova, marketing director, ARPHA Platform: Most of the times people are looking for a hosting platform, followed by a large demand for peer-review, editorial and production management workflows. The authoring tools are also becoming a trendy solution, even if, in most of the cases, there is still some resistance by authors to adopt a new technology over the beloved MS Word and PDF. What is making the market really interesting, however, is the emergence of new end-to-end solutions, which in our view is what the term “publishing platform” should stand for. In our view, a publishing platform is an online environment, which gives you the opportunity to manage the entire publishing process of your outputs, be they books or journals, from the act of submission, peer review and production, through to publishing, hosting and disseminating your content in the best possible manner.

Marty Picco, VP for product development, Atypon: A publishing platform must give publishers control of all the key functions that a publisher needs to run their online business and drive its growth: how their content is hosted, presented, marketed, and sold. So it must fully support all of a publishers’ content, products, and websites, and be easy to customize, extend, and link to third-party systems. An effective publishing platform increases the value of a publisher’s content and the impact of their digital brand with websites that adapt the features of successful consumer websites specifically for research content.

Giuliano Maciocci, head of product, and Melissa Harrison, head of production operations, at eLife: GM: A set of interconnected tools and services that can be used together to create a consistent workflow for the publication of content. MH: A set of interconnected tools and services that can be used together to create workflows for the publication of a variety of content. It also needs to incorporate conversion processes and delivery to a variety of downstream locations such as archival hosts. 

Kaveh Bazargan, River Valley Technologies: A publishing platform is a browser based system that allows the publishing process to progress without the need to send files back and forth between parties. Stakeholders log into a single platform to carry out their tasks, instead of sending emails and attachments back and forth. Admin and “dead time” is minimised which means more time can be spent on work such as reviewing, and that papers can be published faster. It is now possible to manage the entire publication process in cloud based platforms, including: collaborative authoring; supplementary file upload; peer review; automated or semi-automated file clean-up; plagiarization checking; copy editing; proof checking; XML validation; formatting PDF; automated delivery of PDF, Epub etc; and hosting.

Andy Robinson, CABI: In the case of CABI’s platform, CAB Direct, it’s an online destination where people come to find research or content, usually to help answer a question or problem, or to gain insight. It’s a place where users can access a variety of different types of content, filtering and searching the information at hand to find what they need. Conversely, in terms of authors, it’s a place where they can publish their materials and share them with a target audience of like-minded people. Increasingly it’s a place to showcase their work, and to demonstrate its impact in measurable ways. 

Rowland Conway, director of publishing platforms, Ingenta: In its simplest form, a publishing platform is an accessible location where a publisher (or publishers) can host their content and make it discoverable. From a consumer or researcher’s perspective, a publishing platform is a place they can go to find the information they’re looking for. Within that simple description, there are many inherent complexities. Arguably though a publishing platform should be much more than that. It should enable a publisher to control their content, and access to it, based on framework of the business model(s) they’re using whilst making life simple for the researcher to get updates, store their products, export references and so forth.

Jennifer Goodrich, principal consultant at Copyright Clearance Center: A publishing platform today is often a cloud-based system that addresses one or more of the following functions among others: submission, peer review and peer recognition, content management and enrichment, basic rights management for the content components, production, hosting and distribution in print and digital formats. Some systems do basic e-commerce. Most publishers don’t have a single system that does everything or everything well.

What makes one platform better than the next? 

Norell, PubFactory: The PubFactory platform has the unique advantage of being part of Sheridan’s publishing workflow solutions beginning in editorial through to online publication. This allows us to provide an alternative to having multiple vendors throughout the content development process and / or outsourcing the process to a commercial publisher. We are able to support and service our publisher partners during every stage of the publishing process. Relying on one publication partner simplifies and streamlines the workflow process for publishers and also allows the platform team to troubleshoot any content issues that may arise very quickly in a way that other platforms cannot due to the strength of Sheridan’s in-house content specialists.

Kuzmova, ARPHA: In the still rather small world of independent end-to-end platforms there are a few major points that people should look at to make sure they are not getting stuck with something that won’t allow them the flexibility and technological solutions they are looking for. Among these are: Is the platform truly end-to end? Does the platform provide consultancy and technical support? Is the platform integrated with the industry’s major service providers? Does the new platform that you want to switch to reduce time, effort and funds to your editorial office? Does a platform enhance your content to attract readership and citations? 

Picco, Atypon: Ongoing investment in its development and a shared source of R&D. An online publishing platform and associated technologies are critical to any publisher’s success, but publishers don’t all have the wherewithal to make the kind of investment in technology they need to remain competitive. By choosing a platform for which technological innovation is continuous, publishers can benefit from the R&D, compliance, and new feature development done for other publishers and as platform improvements.  Beyond specific functionalities, a platform should be a way to leverage the ongoing development of new features and the benefits of R&D across numerous publishers.

Maciocci/Harrison, eLife: There are many lenses through which we can assess one platform’s value over another, but for us, user experience and reusability are key metrics: user experience because it can greatly reduce onboarding and training time for the multiple stakeholders a typical publishing platform serves (including authors, editors, reviewers, staffers and readers), and because it’s an area that’s traditionally been lagging in the publishing space just as it’s become of primary importance almost everywhere else. And reusability because no two publishers’ workflows are the same, so having a platform built from the ground up to be malleable (open source, modular and welcoming of a developer community ecosystem) will greatly increase the platform’s usefulness to the publishing sector.

Bazargan, River Valley Technologies: UX/UI – Platforms should “just work” on all operating systems and on any modern web browser, with little or no user instructions. All platforms should be “responsive” and usable on any mobile device. Scalability – Clients rightly expect full scalability with no slowdown. A well designed platform will simply scale indefinitely by adding more servers – just like Gmail and Amazon. Reliability – Modern mirroring and backup architecture allows systems to have virtually no downtime. This is essential for platforms, especially in hosting. Speed – Platforms should be limited only by the speed of the internet connection of the user. In particular, heavy use by one client should never affect the operating speed of another client. Interoperability – Any modern platforms should be able to connect to other third party platforms using industry standard APIs. For instance a peer review platform should be able to export all files and metadata fully automatically to a production vendor.

Robinson, CABI: In a nutshell, a platform is better if it helps its users be more successful – at finding what they need, or in sharing it more widely and delivering impact. The platform’s features are obviously important. We’ve taken a user-centric approach to the redevelopment of CAB Direct by talking to researchers at all levels – not just librarians, but also undergraduates, graduates, postgraduates, academics, and practitioners, the whole range. We aim to provide features that will serve our users and what they want to achieve with our content and on our platform. But features are only a part of the equation. The content itself is paramount.

Conway, Ingenta: Publishing platforms exist to provide content for consumers, so defining as what makes one ‘better’ than another should predominantly be seen through the lens of the user. The platform should feel like ‘just another website’. The likes of Google have done a huge amount in shaping our experience of discovery and searchability. Finding content on a platform should feel very similar and be equally easy to use. It needs to look and feel clutter free (so a user can easily find what they’re looking for), it should work on any device and it should be fast. Access, even for gated content, should be simple to navigate. All of this can be summed with the phrase 'positive familiarity'. 

Goodrich, CCC: Platforms that are flexible enough to support multiple publishing models (subscription and OA, peer review and crowd sourced, etc.) any content format (e.g. books, journal, media, learning modules) and allow data- and API-driven workflows that utilise industry standards are probably best for publishers, their authors, reviewers and partners. Most management and executive staff are looking for highly collaborative, roles-based and dashboard-centric systems that leverage artificial intelligence to expedite manual tasks or to provide all sorts of ‘health checks’ on the suitability of the author, the content, the reviewer, the production file, etc. We often call this an “intelligence first” system that learns and adapts its behaviour within the workflow of users.

Does a variety of platforms benefit or hinder the scholarly community?

Norell, PubFactory: More competition for technology service providers, and specifically platforms, is beneficial to the scholarly community as a whole. The competition forces us all to do and be better partners and technologists. The reputable platforms adhere to all necessary web standards and deliver all of the expected capabilities and services - in this way publishers can be certain that user experience is protected. And just as (or maybe more) importantly – competition forces greater responsiveness, increased agility, and a shift in the power dynamic between platform providers and their publisher clients that improves service all around for publishers. 

Kuzmova, ARPHA: Having a single solution to fit all needs is a seriously doubtful possibility, considering the variety of expectations, budgets and expertise that is out there. In this sense, having multiple solutions is a great asset for the end user and while it may take a bit longer to study all your options, we are quite certain that a comprehensive research effort can land you with your perfect solution nowadays. Although, we are in favour of holistic solutions, we are also not against having modular options for those who need to cover just one piece of the puzzle.

Picco, Atypon: It’s most definitely a benefit: Innovation derives from different places and a playing field open to all. A heterogeneous environment and a vibrant publishing technology community yields more rapid – and successful – innovation. The existence of a single, industry-wide solution risks slowing innovation to a crawl. 

Maciocci/Harrison, eLife: Traditionally the industry has been segmented into peer review, production and publishing, with different vendors and systems in use for each of these stages. This has become more and more problematic as those processes have been increasingly blended together and efficiency has required better and more data transfers at each stage. For peer review and hosting, there are a few obvious large players at each stage. None seems to have made the leap and developed their system sufficiently to service new publishing models well. An expansion of a few new entrants to the market that are providing new capabilities, cost efficiency and improved user interfaces over these incumbent systems would be of benefit to the industry.

Bazargan, River Valley Technologies: Choice is good, and in principle, a variety of platforms benefit the scholarly community. But there is one caveat, in that platforms should ensure that users are not locked into one vendor, otherwise this defeats the purpose of 'variety'. This is best ensured by using industry approved, open standards for data (e.g. XML) as well as for metadata (e.g. for author details, review history, number of versions of a publication). The recent takeovers in the industry have focused publishers’ attention on the importance of easy supplier transition. 

Robinson, CABI: Of course, it depends! Perhaps in an ideal world being able to publish your work in one place, being able to gain access (with one login), search, find content, interact with it using a single set of features, share it, store it – yes, that would be beneficial. I think there’s scope for providing a single platform solution for those needs that transcend the unit of content - search, data manipulation, and some aspects of community. Look at the success of Google as a default for researchers finding content, or even ResearchGate as a place to seamlessly cross disciplines. People value simplicity. While we don’t have the capacity to serve the whole research environment in the way Google Scholar does, we do collaborate with Google Scholar to allow our platform, CAB Direct, to be indexed by them so that researchers can find our content. We try to achieve a universality by working with other platforms and achieve things we cannot do alone.

Conway, Ingenta: It depends what the purpose of those platforms is. From our perspective, one size doesn’t fit all, hence Ingenta offers three unique publishing platforms. Our premier platform, Ingenta CMS, delivers a branded online presence, fantastic user experience and powerful search filtering tools all wrapped up in one cohesive package. Ingenta Open is our specialist Open Access hub, delivering tens of thousands of OA books, monographs and articles to researchers worldwide. Built on the Ingenta CMS platform, it uses the latest technology for comprehensive interdisciplinary discoverability and seamless content delivery, with no need for user registration. Ingenta Connect is an established market leader in online content delivery, providing services to over 200 publishers. 

Goodrich, CCC: For authors and institutions, especially with the rise of and shift to open access, common workflows and common infrastructure are in high demand. That said, we are not aware of a single platform that performs all the functions required of ‘publishing’ today. Realistically, such a platform would also have to accommodate all the existing embedded workflows, which are publisher specific. Thus, the focus today is on a system of networked, collaborative platforms.

Are publishers reluctant to move towards a seamless, industry-wide model, and why?

Norell, PubFactory: Yes because publishers online platforms, the services provided through the platform, and the content they deliver distinguish their brand and are an integral part sales,  marketing, and content development initiatives. This is particularly true for prestigious STM society publishers who are extremely focused on increasing engagement with their member communities. A publisher’s online platform, the services it provides, and the content it holds all define and distinguish the publisher brand. Homogenising that platform via an industry-wide option wouldn’t serve any publisher well, and would be particularly unappealing to prestigious STM society publishers who focus on increasing engagement with their member communities.

Kuzmova, ARPHA: Perhaps, and it is obvious why – at least the big publishers would hardly agree on such common solution. However, taking them aside, there are a number of concerns for smaller players as well. An industry-wide model sounds great if users have the expertise to apply it with the same rate of success. However, publishing expertise, for example at the level of learned societies, varies immensely across disciplines, countries and quite honestly across budgets. While some might have the team and skills necessary to implement one particular solution, others might lack in that. In a sense, having to hire a whole new team to handle an imposed-from-above standard might end up more harmful, than useful for small players who are not ready to adopt. 

Picco, Atypon: On the contrary, publishers are interested in a fluid and productive user experience for their customers, who don’t want to navigate paywalls every time they access content hosted on a different platform. So it’s in everyone’s interests for the disparate systems and platforms to work well together. Through initiatives like RA21 and Distributed Usage Logging (DUL), the industry is working toward such a cross-platform solution for identity, access management and reporting.

Maciocci/Harrison, eLife: GM: That’s a very good question, but while risk aversion, inertia and vendor lock in may be three factors at play here, the lack of a really modern, cost-effective and sound technology platform, designed with enough inherent flexibility to adapt to the wide variety of use cases, standards and workflows in the industry, is probably the real culprit. At eLife, we have dedicated considerable time and resources to getting a thorough understanding of the existing publishing platform landscape, and while there are some competitive offerings out there, they’re either proprietary (we prefer open technologies that we can audit and adapt ourselves), built on shaky or outdated technical foundations, or they don’t offer the best possible user experiences. 

Bazargan, River Valley Technologies: Publishers can be reluctant to move to an industry-wide model. The barriers to an industry wide publishing model are:

Varied content – Publishers deal with different kinds of content. And many platform providers deal with specialised content, e.g. mathematical text, or multimedia. This variety currently works against having a single, industry-wide model; Open access or subscription – subscription-based hosting platforms have very specific requirements (e.g. institutional log-ins) that are not needed for Open Access. This means that not all hosting platforms will suit subscription publishers; Lock-in – publishers are wary of being locked in with a solution provider, be that a commercial provider or a non-profit. Hosting data – hosting of data is becoming more and more prevalent. Data can be large (Terrabytes for a single submission) and varied. There are no platforms that handle every type of data, and there will always be specialised data repositories.

Robinson, CABI: There are certainly a number of discovery platforms moving towards an industry-wide model. But I think, again, the answer to this question is tied to meeting the needs of our users. It’s hard to have a one-size-fits-all platform for everyone and for every kind of content. Are medical students searching in different ways to agricultural students, and does this affect the industry’s ability, desire even, to create a single platform? I think the answer is probably yes. As publishers, we always aim to serve up our content as seamlessly as possible for our specific audiences and users. 

Conway, Ingenta: In a broad sense, publishing platforms all work in the same way. All must support the now common components of publishing infrastructure like DOIs, XML standards and Counter; these are expected. User experience is a different kettle of fish. Arguably homogeneity is what Ingenta created with Ingenta Connect as it functions as a content aggregator for multiple publishers with a common user experience. Millions of users use the site each year. However, what we find is that publishers often want to define the user experience themselves, moving to their own branded Ingenta CMS site. What this tells us is that, from a publisher’s perspective, the marketing and control of content is still important. 

Goodrich, CCC: Publishing is not a one-size-fits-all industry and pain points vary among publishing segments, content types and individual organisations making it impossible for any one vendor to do all things well. Many systems today, given their legacy, are not able to adapt to the rapidly evolving needs of the industry and that introduces an additional degree of difficulty.

Is an industry-wide solution inevitable at some point in the future?

Norell, PubFactory: Yes, some version of an industry-wide solution is inevitable, BUT I don’t believe it means that publishers will eliminate their own publishing platforms especially those that go far beyond just presenting articles for reading. Many scholarly publishers are doing interesting and ambitious things that repurpose their content into educational resources and packages which require customisation beyond what an industry-wide solution could provide. This is just one example of why an industry-wide solution does not mean the elimination of publishing platforms.

Kuzmova, ARPHA: An industry-wide solution might work in an utopian world and who knows maybe we might see it someday. But for the time being key questions remain: Where will it come from? Who will introduce it? How will innovation come about, will it be centralised and available to all, or each to their own? 

If it is centralised, wouldn’t it kill the incentive to innovate? If it is open source and everyone customises it, wouldn’t large players still have the leverage of having big technical teams and financial advantage? More than enough questions to feel sceptic about this perspective! Are we ready to lose the flavour of diverse opportunities and the powerful engine of competitiveness and innovation?

Picco, Atypon: No one technology company or publisher will ever control the end-to-end workflow from collaborative authoring to peer review. And no one – publisher or technology company – wants a monolithic solution. There will always be a variety of systems available and the ability to pick and choose from among competing solutions, although there may well be some benefits to using a single vendor’s products. Ultimately, it’s the author or researcher who is empowered to choose the best tools available, that make their work more convenient and productive.  

Maciocci/Harrison, eLife: ‘Inevitable’ is a tricky word to use in a technology context, where entire industries can be disrupted at a moment’s notice. That said, while I do not believe one single platform will likely conquer the industry as a whole – nor do I believe that would necessarily be a good thing, as innovation likes competition –  I do think we’ll see a greater level of standardisation permeate through the publishing sector, removing some of the current friction to the free flow of people and information between different platforms. From a practical sense, that may be a better outcome in the end. 

Bazargan, River Valley Technologies: We believe that there will always be a need for specialist platforms, for the reasons outlined above. At River Valley we have an end to end system, all the way from online authoring to hosting. Publishers can pick and choose which platforms they need. For instance a publisher may not have our copy editing platform, or our peer review system. Like most other vendors’ platforms, River Valley’s platforms can be configured to the precise requirements of publishers. But there will always be a need for very specialised platforms, e.g. for certain types of data. The key here is to have good API connectivity for all platforms so that publishers can use specialised platforms as and when the need arises and these can be seamlessly integrated into their main workflow and platform. In our opinion publishers should always have a choice of which platforms to use depending on their preference of each offering. And they should be able to easily transition between systems. 

Robinson, CABI: I can imagine generic solutions, layers that sit on top of a range of content platforms, for search or data retrieval, combination and manipulation. It seems to me that we should all be working to make the lives of our end-users easier, whether that be in the role of author, reader, student, researcher or practitioner. That might mean a single sign-on for all platforms (that could include peer-review systems), making it really easy to store and share content (legally), being able to interrogate the data underlying research. On the flipside, I can also see how this immediately might start to fragment as end-users coalesce into communities of interest - with common needs not met by a single solution. Different users still need different content and that often leads, as mentioned, to different platforms targeted at specific audiences and industries. A publisher’s specific content collection transcends the features of its platform. 

Conway, Ingenta: As eluded to above, I don’t think there is a one size fits all model on the horizon. This question often comes up because of the idealised way we like to think about academic content. Industry wide homogeneity may seem like a researcher’s utopia, but realistically publishers still have their own individual interests (a society publisher with a single title often has different aims and needs than a publisher with 100s of journals and thousands of books), and often they need to make money (or at a minimum cover their costs). To do so they need an offering better than their competitors, and the ability to go that extra step to promote their own content. 

Goodrich, CCC: An industry-wide solution is less likely than interconnected platforms that rely on strong partnerships among multiple platforms that specialize in different functions. The Internet is a good example of how connectivity that relies on a few standards can spawn innovation. As the volume of open access publications grows, and momentum around open data and open science builds, efficient connectivity of the publishing systems and seamless workflows for authors, institutions, funding agencies, and publishers is an imperative for success.

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Analysis and opinion
Analysis and opinion