Last week we blogged about how publishers are beginning to re-engineer the textbook. In this blog we looked at how these publishers are using developments in publishing technology to turn the process of learning something from a book into a more dynamic experience. This week we turn to the academic sphere to look at how journal publishers, having now tackled the challenge of publishing research on the internet, are thinking seriously about how that content can be more effectively consumed.

In a blog post published on Elsevier Connect earlier this month, Dr. Elena Zudilova-Seinstra summarises the progress made by the publisher’s Article of the Future project, which “explores better ways of presenting online journal articles and enriching their content”.  This project consulted more than 150 researchers, authors, publishers and editors on how articles in their research field could be improved by supporting recent developments in online publishing, such as dynamic data, (which we have already identified as a defining industry trend for 2013).

The feedback the project team received from this group was then used to brainstorm, prototype and test new ways of presenting articles. Early in the process Elsevier discovered that researchers were deeply attached to the traditional way of presenting articles online as PDFs, which persuaded them to keep this format at the heart of the Article of the Future experiment. The project team then concentrated on developing discipline-specific improvements that could be layered on top of the PDF, adding value to the research experience while still enabling the researcher to work in the way they found most effective.

The resulting Article of the Future prototypes were all based on a three-pane presentation layout of navigation bar, main content area and main side bar. These panes were designed to be scrolled independently and make it possible for an image and text to be viewed simultaneously. The article content itself was displayed in the middle pane, which also gave readers the ‘ability to interact with the underlying scientific data: for example, via interactive Google Maps, graphs, tables and plates’. The right-hand pane was designed to provide access to content-specific supplemental information and features, such as access to 3D fossil models in palaeontology articles, while the left-hand bar was primarily used for content navigation.

All of these prototypes were guided by three founding principles ‘designed to get maximal user value out of the online article’:-

  • Readability. Make the article the center of the design, with typography that makes it easier to read from the screen

  • Discoverability. Present content and functionality at the right place on the screen and the right time in the user’s workflow

  • Extensibility. Have a generic layout that can accommodate subject-specific content enrichments without sacrificing readability

In terms of outcomes, a public release of the Article of the Future prototypes, drew a 75% approval rating in a public poll. The project team also performed their own usability tests, tracking the eyeball movement of researchers using the new article display format, which showed that the Article of the Future was successful in concentrating users’ eyes on the all-important central pane.

Interestingly, these eyeball tracking diagrams also show that while researchers are famously concentrated on their research areas, their online behaviours broadly fall into line with the F Pattern for reading web content.

This pattern, which was first identified in research conducted by the Nielsen Norman Group in 2006, showed that when reading web pages people do so in an F-shaped pattern: two horizontal stripes followed by a vertical stripe.

This research had important implications for the way publishers of all types developed and displayed content for the web, with its authors making the following recommendations.

  • Users won’t read your text thoroughly in a word-by-word manner

  • The first two paragraphs must state the most important information

  • Start subheads, paragraphs, and bullet points with information-carrying words that users will notice when      scanning down the left side of your content in the final stem of their F-behaviour

With the possible exception of the first-point in the case of research content, these recommendations indicate that academic publishers are already remarkably effective in getting their point across to readers. Indeed they indicate that the properly structured article, headed with a crisp abstract is now the paradigm of effective web content. As we have seen, what academic publishers are now working hard on is finding new ways to present it.