The Future of Academic Publishing Lies in Supporting Interdisciplinary Collaboration

 

By creating opportunities for students, researchers, and other scholars to share information and interact with each other across disciplines, publishers of academic works will not only engage audiences more deeply; they can foster the kinds of interdisciplinary collaboration that can help tackle society’s biggest challenges.


Academic publishers are looking for ways to engage readers more deeply in their content. By creating opportunities for students, researchers, and other scholars to share information and interact with each other across disciplines, publishers of academic works will not only engage audiences more deeply; they can foster the kinds of interdisciplinary collaboration that can help tackle society’s biggest challenges.

A recent webcast sponsored by Emerald Publishing discussed some of the tools available for supporting deeper engagement with content across disciplines.

When Kent Anderson was working at the New England Journal of Medicine more than a decade ago, the editorial board tried many different ways to engage and involve readers. One of the most enduring strategies, he said, was an online feature called “Clinical Decisions,” which gave readers a platform to discuss the treatment of hypothetical cases. 

The feature debuted in 2007 with a case vignette of a 30-year-old woman with mild persistent asthma. “The editors asked three different people with different perspectives on the clinical implementation of the research what they would recommend to this woman, knowing her boundaries and preferences—and they each had to defend their choice,” Anderson said. Readers could vote for the treatment they most agreed with, and they could discuss the positions put forth by others.

Before this feature launched, the editors feared it would be swamped by spammers and frivolous comments. “But it turned out that it was taken very seriously,” he said. “Physicians from all around the world worked in good faith and answered questions quite professionally.” Readers could even filter poll results by geographic area, revealing differences in treatment between countries—which was “endlessly fascinating.”

But Anderson and his colleagues discovered a number of challenges with this service. For instance, they found that scholars wanted to go beyond the article itself and introduce other evidence into the discussion. Scholars wanted to bring in relevant content from disparate sources outside the NEJM, and moderating the conversations was a challenge.

“Fast forward many years, and we’ve seen the emergence of scholarly collaboration networks,” said Anderson, now CEO of RedLink. But what would really create value for scholars, he said, is a decentralized network for collaboration both within and across academic disciplines—one that lives on publisher web pages across multiple publishers and syncs comments across multiple file formats. 

Recognizing this need, Anderson’s company has created a tool called Remarq that gives scholars a single, unified experience for sharing, discussing, and collaborating around academic publications. Remarq is a browser plug-in, so “people can take the service wherever they go,” he said. It supports both public and private engagement with content, including the creation of private discussion groups.

Discussions can be moderated by publishers and editors, Anderson said, and users who are following a particular article can receive notifications when someone new has commented. Authors and editors can invite experts to give their opinions about an article, and editors can pin certain comments to the top of the thread to frame the discussion. What’s more, advanced analytics give publishers, editors, and authors valuable insights about how users are engaging with the content.

“We’ve found that abstract reading goes down 15 percent, and full-text reading goes up 21 percent, as readers become more engaged with Remarq,” Anderson said.

Another tool for engaging readers and fostering interdisciplinary collaboration is hypothes.is, an open-source service for annotating the web.

Like Remarq, hypothes.is works across all publishing platforms and formats and supports both public and private comments. Users sign up for the free service, then install a Chrome extension or add the bookmarklet to their preferred browser.

Heather Staines, director of partnerships for the nonprofit company behind the service, discussed how publishers are using hypothes.is to add notes, corrections, or additional context to their publications, as well as to improve the peer review process. “Authors and editors are introducing themselves, making clarifications, interacting with readers, and leading discussions,” she said—“making publications truly living entities.”

In January, hypothes.is is launching LTI integration with major learning management systems used on higher-education campuses, including Canvas and Desire2Learn.

Mira Waller, department head for research engagement at North Carolina State University Libraries, gave her perspective on why interdisciplinary collaboration is critical—and how academic publishers can support this work by adopting tools such as Remarq and hypothes.is.

As part of their strategic planning exercises eight years ago, university officials realized they needed to focus on new ways of approaching interdisciplinary research to solve global problems, Waller said. One of the goals that emerged from this process was enhancing interdisciplinary scholarship to address the “grand challenges” of society. 

In support of this goal, NC State has created interdisciplinary clusters around academic topics such as bioinformatics, forensic sciences, and genetic engineering and society. 

Grand societal challenges aren’t bound by one specific discipline, Waller noted; they cut across multiple fields. This is why “the need for interdisciplinary research continues to grow,” she said—and publishers can (and should) play a key role in supporting this work.

To learn more, you can listen to the full webcast here.
 

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