And yet there are indeed a number of changes that are worth paying attention to and possibly carrying forward into whatever phase of this pandemic comes next. The Nielsen Norman Group recently looked at ways the pandemic is changing user behavior, and encouraged organizations to do more user research than ever now to make sure their products and services are still meeting audience needs.
At the same time, there is much being done now purely out of necessity, and as a parent of small children, I know there are many aspects and systems of this time to which I will gladly bid adieu.
In Silverchair’s first Platform Strategies Webinar Series event, “Opening Content for COVID,” our panelists discussed some of the changes they’ve experienced, some of which they hope will stick around, and those we should not expect to continue.
QUICK DECISION-MAKINGAt the onset of the pandemic, many publishers began freeing up access to their content as a way of contributing toward the global effort to understand and treat COVID-19 or reduce the barriers to access for end users now finding themselves away from campus, lab, or office. And though this flip to free access may not result in a swath of permanently free or open content, it certainly created a climate of quick decision-making concerning all the moving parts of various processes and stakeholders, including vendors, internal business and editorial partners, and so on.
“As a society, we have quite a strict governance process that we normally would have to go through,” says Clare Curtis, Publisher of Portland Press. “But the coronavirus has made us realize how quickly we can make some of these decisions when we need to.”
Vida Damijonaitis, Director of Worldwide Sales at the American Medical Association, agreed: “I think that a lot of decisions have been made really fast and it's led to some really accelerated workflows. And it's good to know that we can do it when it's necessary. Some of it is not sustainable indefinitely, though.”
The onset of the COVID crisis lead to an increased emphasis on the AMA’s multimedia content, namely videos and podcasts. These engaging content types allowed for easier ingestion of content by on-the-go doctors and by members of the public who might not be able to understand a traditional research article. However, the AMA’s audio/video efforts were being done at the same time that the amount of content being submitted to their journals drastically increased. The editorial department was still going through and reviewing all of the normal content that they received in addition to the added COVID-19 content. Based on the time sensitivity of that information, they also had to drastically decrease the time of publication for those articles, while maintaining their levels of peer review, copy editing, and production quality.
“I think the level of content that our editorial department has had to review has meant that certain people have been working 12- to 14-hour days, 7 days a week, months on end. They can do it. It's great. But it's not something that's sustainable forever without having some kind of negative repercussions down the road. And with information that could affect someone's health, you do want to be really careful,” said Damijonaitis.
USER INSIGHTSAs the predictability or sustainability of traditional revenue streams became uncertain, many organizations are doing exactly as the NNGroup recommends: getting to know their users. Diving into the massive amounts of data that flow through our systems is something that most scholarly publishers simply don’t have the bandwidth to do. The need to pivot and innovate, however, has made it a necessity for many organizations to examine their data for user insights, behaviors, and patterns.
Emily Farrell, Library Sales Executive at the MIT Press, notes, “Our data usage really gives us a better understanding of where value lies and how content is being used. We've also had feedback from libraries that it's useful for collection development. So even if libraries are not buying collections of ebooks on our platform, they are able to look at single titles that are particularly useful, and then purchase those as ebooks through our aggregator partners, for example.”
The STM Tech Trends 2024 report called for organizations to “Focus on the User,” and it seems likely that doing so will only continue to reap benefits when the pandemic has passed.
NEW FORMATS & EXPERIMENTATIONData trends gleaned from sites with lowered paywalls revealed new audiences and business opportunities. But the development of new products and offerings can take time to coordinate, assemble, and launch internally, which is why the AMA turned to different content formats than articles to quickly get information to the public and to respond to the needs surfaced in their usage data.
“One of the things we've really been paying attention to is how our COVID-19 audio/visual content has been driving engagement and I think we're still really evaluating how all of this is really going to affect us going forward," said Damijonaitis. "We're already talking about how we can create new products out of this and some of the best ways to market this content.”
Video and online community service providers have been flooded with new business as societies seek ways to keep their now-remote membership engaged. New partnership announcements greet us daily, and with so much experimentation with content formats, partner integrations, and new products and business models, some of these changes are guaranteed to stick.
CONTENT PROTECTIONThe opening of content in response to the pandemic resulted in massive increases in cyber attacks (828% month-over-month increase in illegitimate access in April 2020), according to Andrew Pitts, CEO of security solutions provider PSI: “Criminals like SciHub knew, I think, that IT professionals were going to be working from home, and that publishers were taking some of their guard down in respect to not having IP address recognition, and the fact that they were going to be using remote access, and therefore, usernames and passwords for access to their content.”
Many publishers have since implemented additional content protection measures to screen known malicious actors from accessing their content, keeping such services in place even as paywalls go back up.
REMOTE WORKSilverchair is a company whose internal culture has historically been very closely tied to our in-person office culture. Remote workers were rare, and many internal processes were built intentionally around the ability to quickly collaborate with someone by popping over to their workspace. So when our workforce shifted to fully remote, we were concerned with how it would affect our teams. But even a month in, we were all amazed by how well everyone adapted, spinning up new processes (as well as new shenanigans) to keep the same fun, connected culture intact.
Which is not to say we won’t be thrilled to return to the office when the crisis has passed – and many others are feeling the same:
“We are having some issues in new idea generation,” say Damijonaitis. “When you're working in an office, it's very easy to go over to someone's desk and do some brainstorming. And we're also losing out on not being able to continue a conversation with a colleague as you walk out of a meeting, or talking to someone from a different department when you're grabbing a cup of coffee in the kitchen. We’re a global industry, and the face-to-face conversations are something that's really valued in our industry. I know a lot of people are really excited about the new technology that's emerging. But I also think that it'll be interesting to see how quickly people move back into face-to-face meetings when this crisis comes to some kind resolution in the future.”
Of course, this list goes on, with the demise of conferences and offices and subscriptions all being widely predicted and refuted in equal parts. Which is why I think that the one thing we can predict will continue with some certainty is the first area mentioned—quick decision-making, a flexibility in mindset and models, and an openness to yet more change. Just don’t call it “the new normal.”