Last week brought the news that another scholarly publisher, Oxford University Press, is switching from one platform to another. In many respects this is a familiar story, one that will cause transitional difficulty for customers and users alike while promising a better long-run outcome. But this transition is an interesting example because it represents not just a one-to-one platform shift but in fact a consolidation from more to fewer platforms. This is a trend worth understanding and watching.
Some modern scholarly platforms, like SpringerLink, ScienceDirect, and Project Muse, contain multiple content types, including content from books and journals. The user experience is of seamless access to content from the associated publisher(s), even when those materials are sold to customers in a variety of different packages or under a variety of different terms.
This model has real benefits. The publisher can showcase all its content through a single platform, emphasizing the strength of its offerings overall and in specific fields. It can bundle its content into sellable packages, combining a variety of content types with ease. It allows a publisher to respond to the growth in “grab and go” usage behavior, by creating opportunities to recommend additional content offerings of possible interest and thereby driving additional usage or turnaways that over time can drive library sales. It permits an individual customer to navigate the publisher’s catalog far more readily and reach a purchase decision far more quickly. Finally, scale increases a publisher’s ability to draw together usage data and to more effectively and efficiently optimize for various types of discovery.
Combining most if not all of one’s scholarly content on a single publisher platform has not always been the norm. Other publishers, such as Taylor & Francis and Sage and until now Oxford, are operating on multiple platforms, which can be specific to journals, books, video services, reference, and so forth. Sometimes this is an indication of the current or historical division between internal business units. At other times it is a reflection of the decision to move additional products into the digital marketplace before the original platform provider could accommodate the requirements of new content types. Whatever the cause, one result is typically an increased difficulty in bundling together items from separate platforms as coherent products for libraries or individual customers.
Platform transitions almost always require compromises. They create challenges for publishers’ internal business systems, for library customers, and for end-users.
Libraries, in particular, have become more skeptical about publisher platform transitions. Many libraries have been pursuing a strategy to return discovery to the library, with the vision of re-empowering researchers to grab content and return back to a more comprehensive research workflow rather than stay on a publisher platform. They may see the investments that are being made in platforms as perhaps having real and strategic advantages to the publishers. But they may also wonder how their needs and those of their users – for example, seamless access, better support for new formats, comprehensive discovery, alternative means of measuring quality, and more reasonable prices – are being advanced by these investments.
The shift towards a single platform combining the full spectrum of content types should be seen as a small step forward in online platform rationalization. But it is not necessarily a shift towards a single platform for all content and for all customer populations, given the changing roles of aggregators and open access content. Still, these shifts are part of savvy publishers’ broader strategic examination of their utilization of the various channels available to them. And they raise a variety of broader questions that merit ongoing engagement: Books and journals, native sites and aggregators, embargoes and exclusivity, discovery starting-points and destinations: how many of these distinctions are artifacts of the transitional period from print to electronic?