Panel: “The Future of Platform Wars: Is this where STM Publishers should be focusing?” Part 2

[At the STM 2015 meeting in London in early December, I was a member of a panel that discussed the topic of “platform wars”: should publishers buy, build or partner?  The panel was moderated by Freddie Quek, previously at Wiley and now a researcher at the Henley Business School.  I represented the platform provider perspective; my colleagues on the panel were Christian Kohl — previously with DeGruyter and now working as a consultant — and James Walker — with IOPP, who has its own platform.
Freddie’s questions to the panel were thought-provoking — i.e., off the cuff answers were not advised!  In this post I’m going to reprise Freddie’s questions, and my answers.  Part 1 of this post appeared previously, and covered questions 1-3, listed at the end of this post. Part 3, the final in this series, will be out in a week.]

4. Should publishers still be building platforms?

  • Isn’t platform just a commodity these days?
  • Is the “Feature race” still on or is it well and truly over?
  • Is it essential for competitive advantage?

It probably IS true that the basic plumbing of a platform – loading articles, depositing them, serving PDFs, discovery, etc. – is pretty much commoditized. This is plumbing, and there are building codes to be followed.

But there is still quite a lot of innovation and experimentation going on in areas where different disciplines are moving forward at different rates, or have some unique needs.   E.g., life sciences, physical sciences, earth sciences, chemistry, astronomy, and social sciences all have different metadata databases to link to. Earth Sciences has some very interesting visual search and geographic and even geologic search requirements we’ve covered with GeoScience World.

Beyond that, we’ve seen a lot of recent innovation in approaches to data, both external data and supplementary (integrated) data.   Innovators must have the capacity to innovate, otherwise we are stuck with a commodity that just isn’t appropriate for new forms and formats of research.

This is the technology layer: to avoid being a commodity, a platform must be a framework.

Beyond that technology layer, at least speaking for HighWire, we believe in differentiation in service and in community. These are not commoditized, and don’t appear to be on the way to that.  (As Philip Carpenter, CEO of Wiley, said at a recent panel, “airlines use the same airports, the same airplanes, and mostly the same infrastructure; but the experience of Virgin is so much better than BA.”)

We believe our understanding of the research community – based on our long and continuing attachment to Stanford University – is an advantage to our customers. As we professionalize publishing – another way of saying commoditize it, reduce it to generic best practices – we can miss what it is that people are trying to do with communication, not just with publishing.

5. Should publishers not collaborate more or partner with others like FaceBook/Google that have better technology, platform?

Through HighWire, the HighWire-hosted publishers do collaborate continuously and intensively with Google and Google Scholar.   Early on HighWire had an intense collaboration with NIH and PubMed, because that was the key discoverability tool for readers of the journals we first hosted in biomedical areas. Now we have shifted more towards Google, as PubMed Central has itself become a hosting platform and a key discovery and reading tool.

We have looked at the latest from Facebook and Google delivering news, and wonder whether publishers are willing to consent to those conditions – essentially having content hosted elsewhere (as biomedical publishers are used to with PubMed and abstracts.   These tools seem particularly important for mobile use – where we think researchers are not so much reading full articles as scanning and selecting what to read and store further.  We will certainly explore these further.

I think the challenge to innovation and flexibility here is a surprising one: COUNTER. Anything that would shift significant numbers of views away from COUNTER metrics scares publishers – that librarians will see declining usage and move to cancel titles.   I think this is an example where our standards are somewhat of a barrier, as important as they are.

Part II: Other things publishers should do

[Having discussed the merits/demerits of publishing platforms, Freddie asked for the panel’s comments on what publishers should do. One thing publishers have platforms for, and have in common, is content.

Freddie said, “As we know, most publishers’ content are siloed in their own platform for their own customers/users. Speaking for end users like researchers (being one myself now), although it is much easier with electronic media to access content, the myriad of publishing platforms do not really helped with the reader/user experience and journeys. My question to the panel is:”]

6. Should publishers not focused more on its core competence around creating and driving discoverability and usage of content

I wonder if it is time to standardize – or at least create some best-practices – around key workflow integration points.   How do I download the PDF?   How do I copy to my reference manager? How do I cite this article? Where do I find supplemental data.

These assume the user has gotten to an article. But upstream of that is, in fact, discoverability, visibility and then accessibility.   And then downstream is how do I tell others about this article.

I think publishers (and journal editors) should focus on discoverability (not SEO per se, but on being sure the right terms are there to help the right audience find an article), visibility (getting the content to be seen in the right places in the workflow, in the right channels) and accessibility (o that someone can easily get to anything they have rights to, from wherever and whatever device they choose).   And then how to promote an article to the right audience.

I don’t know that “engagement” is at all a useful metric, in the traditional sense of “time on site”.

7. Assuming yes to previous question, what kinds of problems have you either solved, or identified that need to be solved by publishers?

A key barrier is off campus access to institutionally-subscribed resources.   The complexity in getting access is entirely understandable, and appalling.   I read a lot of bibliometric and scientometric research literature, and as a Stanford staff member even I found it so much easier to just read a free copy of that research than to work through getting access to the version of record when I was working at home.   The number of hoops to jump through to get access was more than I could handle (and I have a relatively high tolerance for technology-induced ‘pain’!).

I listed a number of other things on my “wish list” in a recent Masters of Publishing webinar.

Part 3, the final part, of this post will follow next week, and will cover these questions Freddie asked the panel to address:

  • Why are publishers not solving common problems together for industry and their customers/users?
  • What suggestions do you have on how publishers can solve these common problems?
  • Are there other more important things publishers should do/focus on?
  • Looking into the next 10-20 years, what can you see for the future of publishing, publishing platforms, and content? How will the next generation platform or content look like?

Part 1 of this post covered these questions:

  1. What is your organisation doing with publishing platforms (current state) and why?
  2. With the rapid change in the business environment (economics, commoditized technology, competitive advantage, availability of vendors and technology solutions etc.), has the considerations for a publishing platform changed/or are different than in the past?
  3. If your organisation (or in your role advising publishers) decide what to do today with publishing platforms, will your answer be the same? What criteria will you use?

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