Monday, July 27, 2009

The Future of Scholarly Publishing: Elsevier Experiments with Online Journal Formats

Scholarly publishing is faced with as broad an array of challenges as any other segment of the traditionally print-oriented publishing industry, with push-back from traditional sources of purchasing such as academic and corporate libraries, a dip in ad revenues as well as a rising array of potential online substitutes for sharing scholarly information. No small surprise, then, that Elsevier would be floating two new prototypes for presenting its scholarly journal content in online formats. presented in two possible combinations of enhanced content and navigation, the prototype articles provide features such as tabbed sections for different types of content, interactive illustrations, multimedia clips and user comments. ReadWriteWeb notes that in some ways the prototype online journal articles are more a collection of current best practices for organizing online content in a more sophisticated way, perhaps reminiscent of how "social media press releases" have been used to promote more efficient reuse of PR materials, and suggests that many of the features are moot since most scientific readers are going to read an entire article anyway.

There's some truth in RWW's observations, but the full measure of the Elsevier prototypes is greater than the scope of their media-oriented comments. In the race to come up with more effective scientific, technical and medical research, products and services, organizations using scholarly content from publishers such as Elsevier are seeking to find ways to integrate that content into people's workflows in ways that will accelerate their ability to obtain breakthrough insights. Segmentation of journal content into forms that are more easily repurposed for any number of software applications and online services is therefore an essential step. Services such as Knovel Library have been doing this as a post-production service for several years for scientific reference publishers, creating easily referenced charts, interactive graphs and other services that accelerate productivity in the SciTech workplace.

So as much as Elsevier's prototypes are important as presentations of journal content intended for accessing different aspects of a specific journal article, the prototypes also indicate more movement by Elsevier to provide "pre-shredded" content that can be easily repurposed for reading and insights that look for patterns across many articles. With that in mind, some of the obvious potential shortfalls of the experimental formats are somewhat forgiveable. For example, while comments appear in one of the prototypes (probably to make it easier for people to absorb two groups of possible and contrasting new features), the use of these possible formats to act as an anchor for ongoing broader discussion of a particular research topic appears to be fairly limited. That's probably fair game for add-on applications, developed either by Elsevier, their clients or third party suppliers.

I find the prototype formats to be useful and appealing, though I do agree with RWW that these represent in large part current online best practices. They are necessary changes, in all likelihood, for any scientific publisher to undertake these days. However, as many mainstream media organizations have discovered in their push to integrate content into more sophisticated rich online presentations, necessary changes do not always translate into changes sufficient to guarantee stable or improved revenues. These new formats are a strong indication that scientific publishers are grappling with the right issues as to how to improve their content for their audiences, but in and of themselves they may not change the debate on content value that they have with many of their current enterprise buyers in a fundamental way. What is more likely to happen is that they will enable additional value-add applications and services that will set the stage for enhanced value to their clients - and enhanced publishing revenues. Here's hoping that the experiment continues and moves in even more positive directions.
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