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What is Scholarly Publishing’s Hoverboard? What’s on Our Wish List?

Author info: HighWire Press
Post date: 26.10.2015
Post type: Article
Subject: Technological innovation

Several events these past few weeks have had me thinking about my wish list for scholarly publishing’s future. This is, which of today’s problems, frictions, irritants and opportunities would I put at the top of a list to be resolved?

I would like to hear what’s on your list!   I’ll be giving a talk in January and would like some ‘far-out’ additions to my own list.

I was asked to catalog my own wish list as part of my ALPSP/CCC “Masters of Publishing” webinar recently.   I observed at the time that nobody had ever asked for my wish list before!   And then with last week’s Back to the Future anniversary, I was thinking that undoubtedly some things on my list would seem “quaint” thirty years from now (e.g., the way 2015’s Marty McFly was fired by fax). That thought almost kept me from writing anything that might be found via The Wayback Machine years from now. But if HighWire’s original 1995 ‘design’ for the Journal of Biological Chemistry homepage is there, what should I be afraid of?

My wish list has a lot of what is referred to in telecommunications and supply-chain terminology as “last mile” [links] problems I’d like to see solved. And some I’d call “first mile” problems too. These are barriers to moving content into the workflow (submission, peer review, media management) and getting it out (linking, discovery, accessing).   Industries seem most successful at central processes running at scale – like freeways in transportation – but neglect the on-ramps and off-ramps, the first and last mile, so to speak. My list focuses largely on the technology-publishing intersection. If your role is as a publisher, you might well have a list that centers on sustainability of new business models, for example. I’m interested in a list broader than my own, so please contribute yours!

Here’s my list, in approximate “workflow” order:

A “common app” for manuscript submissions

Authors should only have to format and keyboard metadata for a manuscript once for submitting to multiple journals in series.

Experiments in peer review

There’s a lot of room for improvement in peer review – the process is time consuming and exhausting for all parties – and we need to discover what actually are improvements through experimentation and data gathering, not just religious debate.

Embeddable data objects, in sciences and in digital humanities

The complex and sometimes interactive data and media objects that are being developed in labs and studies do not fit easily into today’s flat publishing containers, or must be multiply-versioned for HTML and PDF containers.

Can we end ‘composition lag’ and go direct to HTML

Can we eliminate the lag and cost of composition? So many tools today are built on the lingua franca of the web, HTML. Yet we drive all of scholarly-publishing’s documents through a time-consuming and expensive markup process, still based on markup from 20+ years ago. Could we take another path?

No-lag dissemination: instant preprints

So many of the handoffs across systems have lag times, with the largest lag in the front-end process of review-then-publishing.   Can this “information float” be reduced by broad preprint adoption in many disciplines?

Article as a hub, with links to the “gray literature”

Authors create many public objects that make research articles more accessible to a broad audience beyond the experts: blog posts, podcasts, tweets, journal clubs, lab or departmental web page, meeting presentations, etc. Yet these are not formally linked to from the research literature.

Annotation that can be shared across people, and media

Annotation exists already, of course, but it is personal only, and only via proprietary tools or formats. We are still in the Web 1.0 world when it comes to annotation. Yet critical notes are part of the way scholars advance (or sharpen) each others work.

Sub-article referencing and linking

I should be able to cite and link to a section or paragraph of an article, not just to top of an article. We reference pages in books, why not something at least as granular in the journal literature.

Better indexing of book sections

Discovery of published scholarly articles is highly-evolved. But scholarly books (and book chapters) still need work. This is challenging for many reasons, but it’s a wish list, after all!

Better indexing of images

Let’s make it possible to search scholarly images by searching figure legends, or text in a figure or table, or closed caption in a video. Google already provides a basic web-image search. Perhaps if publishers would provide Google Scholar with rights to display low-resolution article images – the visual equivalent of a snippet – we could have a scholarly version of image search.

Better off-campus access to institutional subscriptions

Readers frequently do literature study off campus, outside the network bounds of institutional subscriptions.   It is a tedious multi-step process to gain access, and typically it is easier to get to a free version than the version of record, so of course that’s what people do.  We can do better.

Most all of these wishes if fulfilled would provide benefits to authors, to readers, and to publishers – that is, all the stakeholders in our ecosystem would benefit!

There is work being done on many of these wishes – the work for some is open, for others is proprietary. Much is experimental or limited in scope – or simply unknown to me. I encourage readers to cite – or even plug! – efforts to accomplish these.

I would like to hear what’s on your list!   I’ll be giving a talk in January and would like some far-out additions to my own list.

(The Hoverboard in 2015 is real, but a bit limited.)

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