It is obvious that publishing is in the midst of a cataclysm. If we can summarize this upheaval in just one line, it would be that publishing is moving from circulation and readership metrics to an engagement metric. For engagement equates revenue, not only for publishers, but also for researchers and authors. To authors, who are always looking to find their next grant in a publish-or-perish world, engagement with their community—and the extent of engagement—means the next grant.
So how do we engage?
Multichannel content delivery covering HTML, PDF, ePub, and apps, among others, has been advanced in recent times as the primary mode of engagement. The rationale being that the customer is hooked one way or the other. This logic is fundamentally flawed for various reasons.
One, multichannel delivery places multiple production and distribution overheads on publishers. It affects speed to market. Two, a file format such as PDF is more a means of disengagement than engagement. When a PDF is available to download, that is precisely what your customers will do: download and run away with it. There is very little chance for the publisher to find out what they do with the PDF and when. It is the same with ePub too, unless there is an app that opens this ePub, which then can send engagement signals back to the publisher. Rather circuitous, is it not?
In the meantime, HTML has been around and always evolving. HTML, together with Unicode and W3C, is the world's most open content standard. It is the richest content container. Cross-media support in HTML is unprecedented and unparalleled. But it has one fatal flaw: it does not download easily, and hence, it is not portable. If a portable HTML file is available as a micro file format of HTML, then other forms of content packaging and delivery can be rendered redundant. The production and distribution overheads that multi-channel delivery calls for can be done away with. The critical requirement is that this HTML be a "flattened" HTML, figures included, not a folder or a zip, as HTML is currently.
This flattened HTML can play along with the download/store/share behavior of a generation of digital content consumption. It will travel with ease and open on any standard browser on any OS, without a plug-in or an application. Beyond all that, the flattened HTML can be scripted to signal "engagement" to the publisher every time it is opened, and for as long as it is used. Conversations can be set up over the file, hinged to specific regions of content, and they, in turn, can be read for "engagement".
With the availability of a flattened and portable HTML, publishers can address the problem of gathering "read" metrics. Continuing engagement can be read continuously. But "read" metric is just one small part of this story. In the world of research, every reader is also a writer. How researchers write, and how they collaborate with other researchers—writers, peer-reviewers, and with the community as a whole—is a process that is scattered across opaque application environments.
The recent past has witnessed a push towards online collaborative authoring. Overleaf and Authorea have both experienced considerable success. However, these platforms are not WYSIWYG, intended as they are for migrating the TeX user community to the online space. They are also bound to legacy means of distribution (PDF). Now, a majority of science is written not in TeX, but in WYSIWYG. There are about 12 million research writers globally (according to a blog post on scholarlykitchen.sspnet.org) that are unable to enter the exciting world of online authoring due to the lack of a viable WYSIWYG environment, which is specifically engineered for collaborative research writing.
In an effort to bridge this chasm, TNQ has been working on a WYSIWYG collaborative authoring platform, AuthorCafe. Free and open to individual users, AuthorCafe is in private alpha, and is expected to be in public beta in June 2016.
The utility of this tool for publishing is that it straight away doubles engagement metrics, for it includes both "read" and "write" metrics. And when the writing is collaborative, the engagement increases exponentially. For authors working in this space, AuthorCafe provides a continuum. In other words, if the "write" app is also a "share" and "broadcast" app, then the entire activity log becomes engagement metrics.
Once the authoring and distribution spaces are integrated, and once the source and distribution file formats are unified, the world is ready for "single URL publishing". But what exactly is "single URL publishing"? Wikipedia is single URL publishing, as are all blogs, including microblogs. Stack Overflow is another example. So essentially, single URL publishing is nothing new. The concept however has not been able to expand for the requirements of industrial scale content production. The critical element lacking in present-day single URL publishing is a single URL production workflow. And without this production workflow, single URL publishing is irrelevant for publishers.
Since 2010, TNQ has been concentrating on engineering a single URL production workflow that works within the single URL publishing ecosystem, in which the cumulative record of activity and changes is available as the content evolves. The start was made when in October 2010, TNQ launched Proof Central, an online HTML-driven proofing process that attempted to replace traditional PDF proofing. As of now, over 1500 STM journals, across subject areas, use Proof Central. Over 800,000 article proofs have been returned via Proof Central twice as fast as PDF proofs used to be. And throughout the HTML proofing process, the authors stay engaged with the publisher, which is not a viable scenario at all with PDF proofing. TNQ is currently working on the fundamental principles of user and content interaction to the review and submission processes.
With these integrated in AuthorCafe, the real world of single URL publishing, in real time, arrives.