Not all platforms are unified

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?

Roger C. Schonfeld

Roger C. Schonfeld

Roger C. Schonfeld is the vice president of organizational strategy for ITHAKA and of Ithaka S+R’s libraries, scholarly communication, and museums program. Roger leads a team of subject matter and methodological experts and analysts who conduct research and provide advisory services to drive evidence-based innovation and leadership among libraries, publishers, and museums to foster research, learning, and preservation. He serves as a Board Member for the Center for Research Libraries. Previously, Roger was a research associate at The Andrew W. Mellon Foundation.


4 Thoughts on "Transitioning to a More Unified Platform"

I often refer to platform weariness as a condition we are creating and to a mutli-medie, format platform with direct commerce between provider and patron (think Ebay) as where we will likely head. What a great post! Thanks.

Most discussions of platform transitions tend to be exercises in cognitive dissonance. It’s as if people forget that we are living in a world in which every technology we use on a daily basis changes frequently — often too frequently — as a result of new capabilities, new expectations, intentional obsolescence, and the failure of previous market leaders to keep up with the pace set by new competitors. Why should academic publishing platforms, of all things, be subject to different laws?

Librarians themselves have been key drivers of change by adopting the various discovery tools to create a federated search experience within their institutions. No organization can afford to exempt itself from experiments to its underlying technologies, and it is less than helpful to suggest otherwise. JSTOR itself is in the process of unleashing a new platform. A curious omission.

One of the most interesting things about the Oxford move — and another curious omission — is that it appears to sound the death knell of HighWire, following the latter’s acquisition by private equity. The state of platform providers in scholarly publishing shows an instance of contraction not so much as a result of growing “rationalization,” but as a function of a smaller pool of viable vendors who can meet current expectations. In addition to HW, Publishing Technologies has been experiencing well-documented operational challenges for quite some time. The number of vendors was small to begin with, and the remaining plausible options can now be counted on the knuckles of one finger.

It is also misleading to characterize ScienceDirect as a way for Elsevier to “showcase all its content through a single platform.” SD’s main user base was in the research community, which meant that it was never an ideal platform for the huge stable of medical journals aimed at practitioners. For this reason, Elsevier built the HealthAdvance platform. It also created the Clinical Key product to provide another platform in which book and journal content could be served to healthcare practitioners. This is about differentiating offerings for different market segments and not about the tired concept of the seemingly never-ending print-to-electronic transition. (Isn’t it about time that we retire this already??)

Even Oxford’s recently announced plan to combine books and journal content does not mean that it is moving all its assets to a single platform. OUP has a large reference and dictionary business as well, and it does not appear that those too will be moving. So the not particularly surprising story here is that all players are going to continue to experiment with platform technologies as a way of satisfying very specific business needs rather than in pursuit of the mythical “one-stop shop.”

Michael Magoulias
University of Chicago Press

I think this is even more important for aggregators like Project Muse (and JSTOR) than it is for individual publishers, and when I served on the advisory board for Muse, I was a major advocate for not siloing the book from the journal content when books were added to its program.

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