Friday, June 21, 2013

Breaking up the Monolith – The Modular Future of Scholarly Publishing

This post was also on the Publishing Technology blog yesterday.  Join them

Scholarly and academic publishing has always been a linear business, even though the activities and mission of these businesses (and associations) has often been quite diverse. As traditional publishers, they may have published journals, textbooks and monographs yet, as the internet imposed itself on their businesses many of them became more adventurous and added archives, electronic versions of new content and even commissioning dedicated online content.

Many scholarly and academic publishers today have highly varied revenue streams, but remain heavily siloed businesses. The fact that their journal, book publishing and online businesses grew up at different times in different ways means the content these publishers generated is stored and distributed across different platforms and databases and is subject to different processes and business models.

As a business operating in this type of environment, they are likely to be held back in several ways:-

  1. The operations of the business are not optimized and reduce efficiency and flexibility which are critical elements in an internet dependent publishing environment.
  2. It can make it very difficult for users and customers to locate the content they need in the format they want when they want it.
  3. It makes the task of adding new streams of content that could be sources of additional revenue (eg conference proceedings, statistics, images and videos) a matter of adding a new platform – thus increasing the complexity of the business yet again
As significant challenge scholarly publishers face over the coming years lies in dis-aggregating content to enable their staff and their customers to search across the totality of the content and materials they produce. Many scholarly publishers still expect their users to search by content-type rather than subject, so if a user was looking for content related to ‘contract law’, for example, she would need to run searches across the publisher’s books database, then journals and so on. Not only is this a frustrating situation for users – especially for a generation of digital natives who are used to everything being indexed by Google – but it also represents a potential lost revenue opportunity for scholarly publishers. It is true that different content types need to maintain their differences, but by compartmentalizing that content to the point that users can’t find what they need, then, publishers are limiting their revenue potential.

Interpreting the interests your customers have in the varieties of content and materials that you produce is also benefited by providing complete and easy access to your content. Where content is hard to located and find it follows that interpreting what the user is interested in is also negatively impacted. Either users simply give up looking or consolidating user traffic across various silos is impossible for the publisher both of which reduce your understanding of what material is most likely to appeal to your user community. Reducing the guess work in determining upcoming titles and articles for example would naturally improve your profit and /or better support your mission.

So how are we to overcome the constraints of these formats, while retaining the integrity of unique assets? We explored this topic at SSP recently in the panel discussion I moderated, Rethinking and Remixing Content. The answer lies in format-independent technology that breaks down content into the most basic fragments that can be searched, browsed, repackaged and sold in any number of ways. Instead of thinking of digital publishing as putting monolithic content on the web, these technologies break down the monoliths of books/textbooks/journals into digital components – eg chapters, summaries, tests, supplemental material – that can be more easily searched.

Treating these ‘monoliths’ almost as part-works will involve a shift in emphasis for scholarly publishers, but will also multiply their opportunities to make sales. The latest platforms are built around data stories and flexible ecommerce solutions that make it much easier for content to be bundled, cross-sold and recommended via ‘users who read this also read’ suggestions. The flexible architecture offered by such platforms can even enable publishers to create professional networks to showcase relevant content from across their list, or subject specific landing pages. These custom landing pages need to be flexible and can be built around a critical mass of content across a single discipline drawing from journal articles, book chapters, reports and ancillary materials—or even type of user such as students, practitioners, or nationality. These pages wouldn’t just have search and usability benefits either: they can increase opportunities for content discovery, help nurture reader communities and ultimately benefit sales.

Drawing other functions into these platforms, such as enabling comment features or the ability to share or recommend content via social media could also help scholarly publishers solve the knotty problem of assessing the impact that their content has in ‘the real world’.

A number of scholarly publishers have already begun publishing in this more granular, searchable way, establishing models of best practice for the industry.


Brill is one example of an academic publisher that is driving greater value from its institutional subscribers by rolling out a Print on Demand (POD) model for content. This service, which is integrated with Lightning Source and will launch soon will be offered as a benefit to institutional subscribers. It will permit subscribing universities’ students to purchase a POD version of the book at a lower rate than the normal print version. Brill is the first site to offer Patron Driven Acquisition (PDA) as a business model for libraries. It have been running PDA as a pilot for about a year and are now rolling it out more widely.


The Institute of Civil Engineers (ICE) was among the first professional and society publishers to catalogue its content in such a way as to make the various articles, chapters, books, conference proceedings that it offers subscribers searchable via a single database.

The Institution of Engineering and Technology (IET)

Another example of a forward-thinking professional publisher, The Institute of Engineering Technology (IET) has rolled out a new online publishing system for its content which ranges across journal, article, ebook, chapter and conference proceedings categories. As part of this process it has introduced a four level taxonomy for its content which enables users to narrow down their searches more effectively, and to run a single search across all content categories.

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