In a talk I gave at Frankfurt in fall 2015, I led publishing executives on a painstaking tour of my poor experience using the digital services provided by scholarly publishers and academic libraries. My goal was to provide a wake-up call that would establish the need to collaborate in more strategic and user-centered fashions. Now, five years later, I want to review some areas where publishers continue to fall short.
There is no question that major publishers are talking more about users and indeed have made some real progress. Judy Verses expressed the idea several years ago in urging publishers to treat researchers as their “North Star.” Kumsal Bayazit has spoken of the need to reduce the many frictions that researchers face in their work. The STM Association’s most recent Top Tech Trends forecasts recommends an increasing focus on the user. This is good progress to be sure. Many startups have the luxury of a blank slate, allowing them to build an architecture that truly centers on the researcher, but for incumbent organizations taking action is no small thing. Given platform fragmentation, efforts to implement the standards necessary to improve user experience is a significant enough undertaking. But truly centering on the researcher requires far more profound change, not just at the level of user experience but in terms of rethinking existing businesses and organizational models.
Access and Discovery
At the most basic level, the researcher wishes to discover and access all scholarly content that might be relevant to their research.
This statement reads like a bland truism at first, but let’s be clear about the implications. No user ever wants to end up on a publisher-specific content delivery website. Instead, they want immediate access to everything, all at once, probably ideally through one single interface. Let that sink in for a moment: The very existence of publisher-specific websites is misaligned with researcher needs. Most of the efforts to address user experience in recent years have sought to help the researcher get to a publisher-specific website, ameliorating this fundamentally maladapted architecture, rather than fix the underlying problem.
While my focus here is on the publisher, I would be remiss not to point out that a parallel set of failures exists for libraries, which never provide immediate access to all the content their researchers might seek. It has been clear for nearly a decade that the vast majority of discovery no longer happens through systems and interfaces provided by the academic library. To be sure, efforts to re-architect the integrated library system into a platform that can provide the kind of discovery that researchers require have resulted in improvements, bringing a greater portion of e-resources into the discovery index. Even so, institutionally focused approaches have stifled innovation. Instead, the vast majority of users have chosen to utilize globally seamless alternatives such as Google Scholar, even notwithstanding their own imperfections.
It would be no small matter to re-architect discovery and content delivery systems away from individual publishers and libraries and instead around the actual needs of their users. And to be sure, this is not just a technical problem. After all, since the vast majority of scholarly communication costs are paid on an institutional basis, and to individual publishers, there would seem to be little incentive to re-architect systems to address individualized user needs. As a consequence of this mismatch, incumbents have faced far too little direct incentive to modernize their approaches, and innovation comes as external disruption from those entities building business models that are not institutionally based.
Manuscript Submission and Review
Another area that profoundly lacks for user-centricity is manuscript submission and review. While the systems involved in these processes could surely afford to be modernized in a variety of ways, the limitations are not so much in the user experience as in the basic assumptions of how these systems are structured and utilized.
An author would like to submit all articles through a single system, tracking their status using a single dashboard, regardless of the journal to which they are submitting or which publisher happens to own it. And that author would like to have a single set of requirements for submissions, for example with a single reference format and a single set of data obligations for all submissions they might make. The author might even like to have something like a single “common application” for their submission, covering an array of journals in their field across various publishers, through which they might like to cascade their article through editorial review should it not be accepted by their first choice.
A reviewer would like a single dashboard where they can see all requests and outstanding obligations for peer review, manage the timelines collectively, and act on them through a single interface. Ideally, this dashboard would allow a reviewer to delegate a draft of the review to a graduate student, postdoc, or other proxy directly, rather than the workaround methods we know so many adopt.
While not all authors or reviewers have multiple manuscripts active in their workflow at any one time, active researchers and reviewers face a real management challenge which the most productive ones surely find overwhelming. For authors in an open access environment, this approach imposes unnecessary costs on publishers’ “best customers.” And for all participants, the critical issue is the need for dozens of logins, one for each journal, which is confusing because of misplaced passwords and annoying because of data reentry. Managing multiple logins and tracking activity across multiple journal workflows is an enormous waste of time and cognitive effort for researchers.
To be fair, manuscript submission and management systems are designed with publishers as the target customers and are geared to their strategic and operating priorities, which include data ownership, peer reviewer management, and the complex web of journal ownership. And a common application model stands in direct opposition to publisher-managed cascades. Still, let us be clear: the end result is an author and review experience that can in no way be framed as “user centric.”
Notwithstanding the platform investments that they have made in recent years, incumbent leaders in scientific publishing have yet to provide anything close to a user-centric architecture.
I fully recognize that solutions to some of the challenges I have emphasized are misaligned with existing organizational incentives and therefore do not make near term financial sense. To put it bluntly, some incumbents may find a more deeply user-centric approach incompatible with elements of their current business. Others may find it incompatible with the way that responsibilities are structured within their organizations. These are challenging problems and solving them may not always generate a financial return, even in the long run.
But I hope that some will read this piece differently: as a roadmap for several key avenues of disruption to legacy assumptions. In my view, this all is an indication of just how much opportunity space there may yet be in the sector. If incumbents cannot address some of these most yawning gaps, they may find others prepared to do so for them.