Postcards from a Collective Ecosystem Article 3: Do publishers really need platforms or a common infrastructure?

by | Feb 11, 2019 | 0 comments


A piece that considers the changing landscape and how technology is developing and enabling change.

  • Heather Staines – Director of Partnerships,
  • Lisa Hinchliffe – Professor/Coordinator for Information Literacy Services and Instruction in the University Library at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign

Heather Staines is the Director of Partnerships for Hypothesis where she supports researchers and promotes annotation across all knowledge.

At first glance, answering these questions appears simple. Larger publishers with lots of resources can build their own platforms, and smaller resource-scarce publishers must utilize a platform. Common infrastructure is a nice to have–and we see glimpses of it, but getting publishers to cooperate is harder than herding cats. Like most topics, however, things in the mirror are more complex than they appear.

What platforms are there these days?

Certain platforms spring immediately to mind. Atypon, now a part of John Wiley & Sons, hosts approximately 45% of peer reviewed English language journals.  Other popular players include HighWire, Ingenta, PubFactory, and Silverchair. But smaller publishers use open source platforms like Open Journal Systems (OJS) or Pensoft’s ARPHA. Library publishers host publications in institutional repositories such as BePress. Other players concentrate on subject areas, like Open Library of Humanities, or regional content, like Erudit, or language, like Open Edition. Still others specialize in one content type, such as University Press ebooks, or around a business model like open access, OAPEN or Libero, for example.

One notable trend are solutions owned or underwritten “by the academy.” This growing list of players includes Editoria (Collaborative Knowledge Foundation and University of California Press), University of Michigan Publishing’s Fulcrum, University of Minnesota’s Manifold, University of London’s Janeway, Vega, and more. In conjunction with these projects, more university presses are looking beyond the aggregator platforms they have used in the past (Proquest’s Ebook Central, EBSCO’s Netlibrary, Books at JSTOR, and more) to launch their own sites for direct sales.

With increasing focus on public access, funders are themselves getting more involved in the space. Wellcome Open Research and Gates Open Research were launched a few years ago. A recent call for proposals by the European Open Commission aims to create a common platform for member research.

Platforms go well beyond hosting

Platforms enable publisher internal and librarian admin tools, user access and workflow features, author services, promotion and sales functions, metadata dissemination, digital preservation, and more.  They plug into publisher and researcher workflow platforms and production systems for upstream and concurrent flows. Platforms form an essential part of and must connect to the infrastructure that underpins scholarly communications today.

Larger commercial players like Elsevier, Clarivate, and Digital Science are cobbling together, through development or acquisition, researcher-to-reader workflow “platforms” that streamline access and improve efficiency but also raise fears about vendor lock in. Others fear that fewer players means increasing costs that will “lock out” smaller players. Today’s platforms strain to incorporate the growing array of outputs and tools essential to research, including datasets, code, annotations, video, 3D and VR components, posters, preprints, and more. Should these content types be housed on publisher platforms or in specialty repositories that connect with them?

What is common infrastructure?

When I first learned about Crossref in 2008, I was amazed that large commercial players would collaborate on persistent identifiers and common infrastructure to enable citation linking, cited by linking, and other features we have come to rely upon. Other infrastructure enables single sign on, author disambiguation, or search and discovery on platforms like PubMed or CHORUS. This infrastructure depends upon strong partnerships between platforms with different functions, often via API connections.

Another aspect of common infrastructure are the standards, maintained and expounded upon by organizations like NISO, ISO, COUNTER, and the W3C Consortium. Publishers and libraries rely on standards when journals transfer from one publisher to another, for dissemination and correction of metadata, assessment of usage, and more. Together with industry best practices, standards make it possible for systems to communicate with each other and organizations to move their business from one system to another when needed. Digital preservation, coordinated by publishers and platforms and supported by libraries, ensures that content will remain accessible irrespective of business conditions, technological failures, or natural disasters. Some see common infrastructure as so essential that they have called for 2 ½% of library budgets to be allocated for supporting such critical tools.

What might the future look like?

I was amazed at the plethora of platforms available and the new focus new players on supporting their own platforms. Might there be too many platforms for librarians or users to deal with? Will researchers be able to search and discover content housed across so many places? Will this proliferation open the door to new intermediaries?

Once all content is open access–assuming of course that this might someday be the case, which is the topic for another article–might these platforms then be unnecessary? A thought experiment could take this further. With the growth of preprint servers, might journals morph more into overlays? Might common infrastructure start to exist in a technical underlay? Might infrastructure ultimately be more important than platforms? The platform world is a dynamic and evolving space. I, for one, can’t wait to see what happens next.


Lisa Janicke Hinchliffe is Professor/Coordinator for Information Literacy Services and Instruction in the University Library and affiliate faculty in the School of Information Sciences at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign.

When I was given asked to react to the question “do publishers really need platforms or common infrastructures?” for this essay, I couldn’t help but think of the quip currently circulating that, any time you see a conference presentation with a title formatted this way, the answer is “no.” I suppose that in some ways, of course, the answer is “no” given that publishers did their work for decades, centuries even, without digital platforms and common infrastructures (though maybe the printing press was a kind of common infrastructure?). Nonetheless, except for those producing niche publications with a well-defined community audience, I think publishers do need expanded platforms and infrastructures to meet the demands of today’s scholarly communities, enable global discovery, and achieve efficiencies of scale.

In his keynote talk at the STM Conference in Frankfurt (2018), Daniel Ropers, Chief Executive Officer of Springer Nature, observed that “Some of the very core processes of publishing haven’t changed as much as I would have expected and coming, as I did, from a digital process business this was surprising. And the degree of cooperation and coordination is also significantly lower than I expected, leaving many opportunities untapped.” He went on to observe that “We need to build central repositories with easy interfaces and create open data standards, change and extend the metrics of quality and reputation, and develop new processes to stop fraud” and called for large publishers, such as Springer Nature, to lead the way in developing the kinds of platforms and infrastructures I’m considering here.

What do platforms and infrastructures offer publishers? By my observation, digital platforms offer increasingly integrated and seamless support for all stages of the research workflow. By limiting the need to transition from tool to another, scholars gain efficiencies in the overall process and the chances of errors being introduced during data transfer are decreased as well. While no platform offers complete workflow support at this time, Roger Schonfeld (2017) has been a key observer of trends in this area as well as implications for publishers that are not developing their own platforms and Jeroen Bosman and Bianca Kramer (2018) are documenting the kinds of workflow supports scholars piece together to meet their needs. I myself have been particularly tracking Elsevier’s acquisitions and patents and how they point to an integrated vertical stack for manuscript authoring, review, and publication (Hinchliffe, 2018).

Likewise, common infrastructures enable linkages through such affordances as uniform naming and numbering systems (e.g., DOI, ORCID). Standards are also a kind of common infrastructure. They enable interoperability and data transfer drawing on guidelines such as those for journal article versioning and resource discovery, fostering vertical and horizontal integration within and across platforms. As such, common infrastructures also support efficiencies in scholarly communications and publishing processes.

Librarians will recognize one of Ranganathan‘s five laws of library science shadowing in the background of my observations here. Specifically, “save the time of the reader.” Platforms and infrastructures save the time of the author, reviewer, and publisher. This means that they accelerate scholarship and collective inquiry, build knowledge, and foster the application of new information to solve problems and create opportunities.

Works Cited (and hyperlinked in above article):

Bosman, J., & Kramer, B. (2018). Workflows. Retrieved from

Hinchliffe, L.J. (2018). Advancing an integrated vertical stack of publication services.  Retrieved from

Ropers, D. (2018,), The quest for more value – challenges of the scientific ecosystem in the absence of coordination. Retrieved from

Schonfeld, R. (2017). Workflow strategies for those left behind: strategic options. Retrieved from


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