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Increasing the Scope of Researcher Engagement Through Technology

25th November 2015
 | Phill Jones


It’s an accepted reality that the role of scholarly publishers with respect to their ultimate customers, researchers, is changing. In 2012, Annette Thomas, then CEO of Macmillan Science and Education, gave the opening keynote at Charleston library conference where she outlined what she called the ‘Publishers New Job’ . In it, she outlined her personal vision of the ways in which publishing, as we know it, should adapt to the changing face of digital scholarship, providing research and communication tools directly to academics at every phase of the research cycle.

But how exactly can publishers go about doing that? What can publishers do to accelerate the flow of information in a way that is consistent with their business aims? The answer lies in building infrastructure that enables information flow and then offering the resulting tools as a service and learning from the resultant data and meta-data. Put simply, publishers can and must increase the scope of their interaction with researchers.

“To manage a company well is to manage its future, to manage the future is to manage information” – Marion Harper

Some large commercial publishers are already doing this, take for example, Elsevier. In a recent post on Elsevier Connect, Tom Reller wrote

“By all accounts, Elsevier’s 2013 acquisition of academic social network Mendeley has helped make us a more technology-oriented, big data company. It’s had a huge impact on the tools we can provide to digitally enhance the performance of scientists and health professionals.”

It’s certainly clear that Elsevier see the future of academic publishing as being focused on providing tools and enhancing academic workflows. I also think it’s telling that Reller refers to Mendeley as a social network, rather than a reference manager. If we look at the business models of some of the most successful internet companies, like Google and Facebook, their business models hinge on understanding the behaviours of users and monetising that understanding.

Clearly Elsevier aren’t the only one’s focused on information rather than selling licensed content. EBSCO, ProQuest, and of course Thomson Reuters, to name just three, are among companies that seem to all be thinking along similar lines.

Keeping in contact both downstream and up

At this stage, it’s clear that successful publishers are expanding downstream into how both researchers and institutions consume, use, share, and repurpose information, as well as monitoring and maximising the impact that it has. The rise of altmetrics, research management software, as well as the open science and open data movements are all testimony to that. More recently, we’re seeing an increased interest in helping researchers and institutions build their reputations and collate evidence of their impact. The most talked about company working in this space is, of course, Kudos, but there are other examples such as ImpactStory. Monitoring impact is important to institutions as well as individuals, Digital Science portfolio companies Symplectic and Altmetric work in those fields as well as Plum Analytics, which is owned by EBSCO.

Increasing upstream engagement is less well talked about, but is an inevitable continuation of this trend. We’re already seeing a rise in the number of companies offering some kind of collaborative authoring system, from startup Authorea, to Dartmouth Journal Services, to IEEE’s Collabratec, which incorporates Overleaf’s technology

What’s next?

In the publishing technology sector, we’re constantly asking ourselves and each other what the next big thing will be. Right now, it’s reputation management, collaboration, data sharing and authorship that are grabbing people’s attention. It seems to me that these aren’t isolated pockets of innovation but that there is a common theme here. What’s happening is that publishers are finding increasing ways of expanding the scope of interaction with the researcher.

In the days of print, publishers had much less opportunity for contact with the academic community. Publishers had the strongest relationships with editors, the very senior academics who represented a very narrow slice of their authorship and readership. Aside from that, the only point of contact with researchers was at submission and peer review. After printing, journals were shipped to libraries. Publishers had no way of knowing directly if they were being read. With the advent of the internet, that has all changed.

Today, we’re moving past the minimal amount of user data given by usage statistics and really starting to understand how researchers think, act, and work. The information that comes out of that relationship enables the design of products that help researchers work more effectively and collaboratively. In turn, those new products broaden the scope of the relationship and further bootstrap the process.

So the question becomes, what’s next in expanding that scope? Perhaps it’s about understanding trends in funding, or supporting academics more directly in the grant application or even tenure process? Maybe we’ll go further upstream and develop tools that will help researchers plan their long term research programs better, to help them maximize the impact of their careers.

We’re also likely to see improved information flow across the connections that already exist. COUNTER stats, for example give publishers extremely limited information, in their present form, about usage and tell them nothing that happened beyond the download of the PDF. The STM association’s voluntary principles on article sharing speak directly to that point. The submission process is also likely to be improved in terms of both usability for authors and the amount and quality of actionable data generated.

The digitisation of scholarly publishing is sometimes thought of as a burden by publishers. The extra complexity and cost of the digital infrastructure can seem like extra responsibility. Instead, I urge publishers to look at the possibilities that digital infrastructure offers. We can use it to forge stronger relationships with our customers, deliver the products and services that they need and add greater value. If that isn’t a way to help publishers of all types and sizes stay relevant and advance their businesses, I don’t know what is.