A brave new world

The explosion of social media use is having a major impact on how researchers promote their work

Is discoverability ready to take on the challenges of interdisciplinary research, data diversity and more? Rebecca Pool finds out


or more than a decade, librarians and publishers have rigorously tracked how readers discover

journal articles, online books and more. Myriad tools have been developed to help readers locate content but, given the proliferation of publishing platforms and rising data diversity, understanding the process of discoverability is more difficult than ever before. Scholarly publishing guru and founder of e-publishing platform, HighWire Press, John Sack, believes instant comprehension is now critical.

‘In the last two to three years, I have realised that more and more people need to take in information at a glance,” he says. “Within seconds they need to understand what something is and how it is relevant to them.’ But until recently, this user need has been largely at odds with published information, be it accessed on a publisher website, library catalogue or academic search engine. As Sack points out, a typical abstract from an academic’s research paper isn’t short and is generally targeted at the like-minded reader: ‘It’s as if the researcher is writing to a mirror

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of themselves,’ he says. ‘But this abstract should be directed towards somebody that is not as steeped in the field as the author.’

Charlie Rapple, co-founder of UK-based Kudos agrees, adding: ‘Study after study shows that the readers of published research are much broader than we realised.’ ‘We [in the scholarly communication industry] are beginning to realise that the audience for research is much bigger and much broader in demographic than previously recognised,’ she adds. ‘And this is something that we haven’t yet done a great job of addressing.’ Still, change is afoot. For starters, more and more lay summaries are now being written to accompany research publications.

These simple plain-language descriptions of a piece of

work have been required for research grant applications for several years. But now the likes of Kudos as well as many publishers are inviting authors to create these summaries to optimise discoverability for all. ‘We now see a clear trend from funders and institutions, that to arrest the decline in research funding we have to make more researchers understand the value of their research at all levels,’ says Rapple. ‘The readers really need to understand the potential relevance of a piece of research to their own lives.’

Case-in-point: several years ago, the then editor-in-chief of Science, Professor Donald Kennedy, introduced one sentence summaries to each paper in his journal. As Sack highlights: ‘He put these on the table of contents, of all places; you didn’t even have to go into


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