Research intelligence: Smart(phone) moves

Zoë Corbyn reports from Washington DC on journal publishers' plans to get a piece of the mobile action

April 22, 2010

Imagine being on the bus with a smartphone browsing your favourite journal, or at home, downloading papers to an e-reader for a spot of bedtime reading.

Journal publishers in science, technology and medicine are hoping that this could soon be normal behaviour as they strive to improve their offerings to readers with mobile devices.

Their eagerness to embrace this brave new world was on display last week at an annual conference in Washington DC, when delegates gathered to share information on emerging trends in scholarly publishing, evolving technologies and business models.

The conference, organised by the publishing services company Allen Press, was titled Scholarly Publishing: Boldly Going Where No Journal Has Gone Before.

"The internet, as we all know, has brought about profound changes in every stage of the scholarly communication process, greatly accelerating the pace of change," the conference blurb says. "For (science, technology and medicine) journal publishers, this means new opportunities, new markets and new business models. It also means that familiar paradigms are disappearing. Those who cannot adapt to the new ones may not survive."

Among the speakers was Samir Kakar, chief technology officer at Aptara, a company that has made a mark in advising publishers on how to "go digital".

"Everybody is thinking: 'What do we need to do to get our journals on mobile devices or on to an iPad?'," he said.

"Today's consumers want access to everything on any device, and it is something that we in the publishing community have to look at."

One notable trend is the development of dedicated iPhone applications for journals. Although journal websites are accessible on smartphones, users of the devices get a better experience through "apps", programs developed specifically for the device that enable content to be seen in a way designed to suit the form.

Nature Publishing Group launched an iPhone app for its flagship journal Nature in February, while the American Institute of Physics (AIP) kitted out all 13 of its journals with apps last year, with an average of about 2,000 downloads a month.

James Wonder, its director of emerging technology, shared the AIP's experience with other publishers at the conference.

He said the app was used to promote the information the body believes people want on their mobile devices, and he advised other publishers at earlier stages of development to think about how they design their websites so that they are accessible on mobile devices.

Howard Ratner, chief technology officer at Nature Publishing Group, said that if a journal's website looks good on an iPad, a dedicated app was unnecessary.

"But if your audience wants it, then it is something you should think about," he added.

Universality challenge

One of the challenges journal publishers face is how to provide remote access to content when they operate pay walls.

Another is making journal content available on electronic reader devices - such as Amazon's Kindle, Sony's Reader and Apple's new tablet computer, the iPad, which is due to launch in the UK later this year.

Academics can download PDFs of papers on to these devices, but there can be formatting problems, leaving graphs, tables and formulae unreadable.

Compatibility across different types of device also remains a significant issue.

What publishers would like - and believe their readers want - is for journal articles to be available to browse, buy and download via mobile devices in the same way that "e-books" or "i-books" currently are.

But the devices' manufacturers have other priorities.

Amazon and Apple, for example, have told academic publishers that books for the mass consumer market are their focus for now, and that specialist journals will have to wait.

Meanwhile, libraries are watching with interest from the sidelines. They see how the devices could be useful for their researchers, but with compatibility problems, the range of devices and the rapid evolution of the field, most are unwilling to invest at this stage.

So will scientific journals live or die by whether they can capitalise on the mobile market? That remains to be seen. What is certain is that scientists' habits are likely to evolve as society's do, and journals, like newspapers and other publications, will need to move with the times if they want to remain relevant and keep their heads above water.

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