ANALYSIS & OPINION

Stopping the rot

Don’t let your research articles waste away on readers’ hard drives, implores Alexander Naydenov

In the current period of the information age, we live and work online. Our internet connectivity is better than our transport networks, our online tools to create, manage and consume information are faster and much more powerful than their offline ancestors. Computers have become just the driveway to our browsers which allow us to work (and relax) on our favourite websites and platforms. One type of information, however, is stubbornly siphoned off to our offline hard drives: research articles. The reason? The omnipresent download button.

Research and innovation are chain reactions of collaboration, but this chain reaction is much slower in offline environments. Downloaded papers only look backwards; static and unresponsive to new discoveries and thoughts. Updates and improvements come late or never. Even the most advanced recommendation tools work only once at the point of first contact with the article. No forward references can be added to help researchers. According to Tenopir et al. (2011), researchers read for between 12 and 25 hours per week and a large portion of this time is dedicated to screening relevant content. Given this massive time investment, it is a pity that researchers have no easy way to stay in touch with the relevant pieces of information.

Another issue with the download button is that publishers are effectively blinded after the user downloads a document to the hard drive: all subsequent activity cannot be measured by the publisher, thus making business and product decisions hard and inefficient. Of course, this is independent of the actual document storage location: cloud storage services like Dropbox, Google Drive, and iCloud do not solve the problem.

According to Outsell’s 2016 Library Market and Trends report, more than 77 per cent of global library content budgets are allocated to digital content, but a huge portion of the real potential of the content’s digitality remains uncovered. Engaging readers to embrace the full value of purchased content should be a top priority of libraries. Likewise, it is of huge importance for publishers to deliver academic literature in a way that keeps articles, communication, and collaboration alive. The benefits for readers, as well as publishers’ various business models, are clear.

How to keep these texts alive and really helpful as a publisher? Create incentives for readers to come back to research documents. Feature bloat and overloaded user experience on a publisher’s website are not an option in a fast-paced work environment, so selecting the right functionality suite is crucial.

Commit to increased interactivity around texts and opt for cross-publisher solutions that do not create a silo. Annotations are one way to extend the lifespan of relevant content by allowing sharing of new discoveries or corrections. They have a wide range of applications in the work of learned societies, research groups, and in higher education.

Improve the quality of your metadata and benefit from third-party services. Sometimes even the author or the title fields are missing in certain documents’ metadata. Online indexing databases as well as reading and writing tools ignore articles and books with incomplete metadata, so it is the responsibility of the publisher to fix them in order to increase the online usage of content. Enriching the metadata, for example by providing links to the full text, will similarly increase discoverability.

Talk to your IT department about tracking metrics beyond the download count. Some alternative performance indicators: time spent on online versions of documents, monthly active users, and recurring visits to documents.

Don’t let research articles rot on readers’ hard drives.

Alexander Naydenov is co-founder and head of marketing at PaperHive

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