Tuesday, September 15, 2009

The Physics of Publishing: AIP UniPHY Creates a Template for Expert Communities

I had the pleasure to hear two presentations recently by executives from the American Institute of Physics, the first by AIP Executive Director and CEO Fred Dylla at the recent ALPSP International Conference in Oxford, UK. Fred's presentation was an eloquent evaluation of the past, present and future of the scholarly publishing industry, in which he noted that indexing of scholarly content could be traced back to at least the 11th century. As much as we see scholarly publishing in many ways through the lens of print-oriented technologies, in fact scholarly debates preceded the widespread use of print publishing, and will outlast print as those debates move into new media. I really appreciated Dylla's far-sighted view of the industry, as well as the very immediate and concrete steps that AIP is undertaking to transform its place in that industry.

The more here-and-now aspects of AIP's efforts to advance scholarly publishing were outlined in greater detail by Tim Ingoldsby, AIP's Director of Strategic Initiatives and Publisher Relations, at the recent Fall Meeting of ASIDIC, as a part of a panel that I was moderating on social media. Tim's presentation focused on the details of the new AIP UniPHY online service, which uses a powerful combination of content sources and features to power this new online community used to locate and build relationships with experts in physics and related sciences. In many ways AIP Uniphy is leveraging key leading practices that can help scholarly publishers define highly effective models for their content and the community that creates and consumes it.

In short, UniPHY enables professionals to explore the topical and personal relationships that bind together experts through scholarly publishing and other channels of communication such as conferences. Organizations needing to locate experts in a particular field are limited in many fields to online search engines, social networking services and subscription database services to filter through who is working on a specific topic, or, alternatively, call upon consultants and peer contacts to make recommendations. Being able to find experts efficiently and to understand their relationships to one another is a critical factor for many organizations trying to come up with timely innovations for their products, services and research efforts, so AIP is addressing a key "pain point" in their marketplace.

AIP UniPHY is a free online service that enables registrants to search for scientists who have published materials via AIP on topics that have been mapped to AIP's very detailed PACS topic categorization scheme. Using semantic analysis and visualization technologies from Collexis, similar to those used in the Collexis BiomedExperts portal, the result is a detailed map of content produced by specific authors on very specific topics and of the people and places who are related to those authors. The very well-designed interface includes "six-degrees"-style mapping of relationships found through the analysis of people's publishing, as well as the ability for registrants to build out their own profiles for professional networking (a la LinkedIn) and to understand which people in their professional networks are involved in specific lines of research.

The beauty of combining scholarly publishing, a strong topic index and powerful semantic analysis of both content and expert relationships is that you wind up having a portal that is already very attractive to people who may be interested in interacting with one another in an online community. The use of Collexis technology to process AIP's content through their PACS categorization provides day-one content organization that can help people to see the value of using the service in a more social fashion. The more than 180,000 scientists who contribute content to AIP publications and events get tools on AIP UniPHY that help them to understand better who is doing what with whom and where, as well as tools that help them to keep track of closer relationships in their own networks more effectively. This provides a strong motivation for AIP members and publishers to register for the service, and will attract other people who are not publishers but who are seeking the expertise of people who publish to participate as members also.

I was struck in general by the receptivity that society publishers at the ALPSP conference had to social media and very pleased to see that AIP was advancing into a platform that is a fine demonstration of what scholarly publishers can do to build a new core to their ongoing value propositions. The "how" and the "how much" of paying for scholarly publications is still up for grabs in many ways, but the plain picture is that scholarly publishers need new revenue streams and value points other than simply providing paid access to easily reproduced content. AIP UniPHY sidesteps the entire Open Access/traditional payment model question (it presents only abstracts of premium content) and instead provides a potentially vibrant online community environment that will be very hard for others to duplicate with technology alone.

Once professionals have a commitment to a publishing platform that draws then together with other professionals that are important to their work and their lives, they will tend to stick with such a platform indefinitely. Clearly printed scholarly journals and their electronic derivatives are waning as a center of commitment at a community level, even if they are acknowledged as necessary to one's work and career. By focusing on the benefits of membership in an online community - and, after all, managing communities is what professional societies do best - AIP is setting the stage for future premium products that add value to that community of experts and expert-seekers in ways that will provide better value points for all concerned.

Most importantly, this model is highly reproducible; any publishing sector that has a detailed categorization scheme and lots of community-generated content at its disposal - in this instance, high-value scholarly content generated by a scientific community - can provide a platform that locks in reader interest and participation and that puts their premium content and services in their most valuable light. Society publishers need not be the only ones benefiting from this approach, but since they work on a "membership has its privileges" basis anyway, being able to highlight the benefits of being accessible in powerful ways via a platform such as AIP UniPHY certainly highlights the benefits of society publishing and membership clearly.

As Fred Dylla pointed out in his talk, there is a long history to learned profesionals and scholars sharing their knowledge and a potentially exciting future for societies that can move toward new models of publishing to support those experts. Here's hoping for all who are concerned about the future of scholarly publishing that AIP UniPHY can serve as an important model for drawing together experts effectively in ways that will create both highly valued content and effective research.
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