Strength in numbers

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John Murphy discovers how HighWire provides technology and community to more than 140 publishers

Electronic publishing started off in a very democratic spirit and promised that anyone could become a publisher on the web. Things changed very quickly when people realised that a huge amount of development effort was needed to stay competitive. This seemed to suggest that a journal is better off as part of a large publishing group because the development costs of new features and services are spread over many hundreds – or even thousands – of titles.

There is no doubt that the large publishers have come up with impressive services that have made a significant contribution to research productivity. But efficiency is not everything; diversity is also a vital element of advancing knowledge. Many learned societies, in particular, value their independence highly and rely on hosting services like HighWire Press to keep them up with the technology but still with ‘skin in the game’, as investment guru Warren Buffet calls it.

Early days

HighWire was founded in 1995 as an offshoot of the Stanford University Library Service. Initially, it was focused on putting the Journal of Biological Chemistry on the internet. However, its director, John Sack, then managed to recruit other independent journals and societies to sign up to the service. Back then just getting pages online (reliably) was a big deal. Journals still saw the paper version as the main source of funding and the online service as a back up.

Much has changed since then. Today, HighWire works with more than 140 publishers hosting more than six million pages from nearly 1,300 journals – including 71 of the 200 most-cited journals. Kristen Fisher Ratan, assistant director for business strategy at HighWire Press, said: ‘There was a lot of energy around the internet in Stanford at the time; in fact Google was getting started across the hall from HighWire so there were many people thinking about using the web and a strong commitment to get it working.’

As electronic publishing grew, so too did the drive into scholarly publishing. Many commercial publishing companies began offering to manage the complexity of the technology and add their software development expertise. This resulted in a well-known consolidation of the publishing industry.

‘The consolidation of the industry was a great concern to the publishers in the HighWire community. They said that maintaining their independence was part of maintaining their mission, and that strength in numbers could help with this,’ observed Ratan. ‘HighWire became a safe harbour for many of these publishers. They were not only able to share the cost of developing a high-end e-publishing site across many organisations; they were also able to talk through issues as a community of publishers.’

Full-text searching added

One of the first value-added services from HighWire was full-text searching and this drew many researchers to the HighWire site. Initially HighWire invested in making itself a ‘portal’ but, as the world changed and Google became more important, the investment changed to working on ways of integrating with third-party search engines and making the content more visible and findable.

Another service was making ‘toll-free’ links between HighWire-hosted journals. If any article from another HighWire-hosted journal is referenced, then the full text of that article can be read for free by a reader of the first article. This gives HighWire-hosted titles more visibility as well as increasing the ‘accidental discovery’ potential and generating goodwill from researchers.

HighWire does not project its brand unless the publishers want it to. This means that many large and important publishers can also use the service without anybody realising it is hosted, rather than an in-house development. ‘Our mission is not to be an information source or a librarian tool, but to help the publishers thrive,’ explained Ratan.

An important development in e-publishing has been the emergence of workflow systems, some of which are well-proven and open-source. HighWire offers its Bench>Press web-based content-management service. This is integrated with the hosting service so that a journal can be run and maintained from anywhere with a web link.

Ratan said that HighWire is constantly looking for new services to offer. Its latest version of the publishing platform, H2O, makes extensive use of XML so that publishers can create new services with their content. She believes this will open up new channels for publishers as well as access to content through new devices. This can help publishers develop new services and products based on their content and this, in turn, may create new revenue streams.

An important development expected in the next 12 months is the addition and integration of scholarly books. The education and research communities are expected to appreciate links to e-book content on the platform. Ratan believes that the crosstalk between the different forms of content has shown itself to be an important driver, and is bringing content to new audiences – and that is what all publishers want.