Xenon: Product strategy and digital product design for Royal Society of Chemistry

Imagine the ultimate reading experience for scientists

The Royal Society of Chemistry asked Modern Human to redesign their publishing platform to focus on the needs of scientists. Modern Human created a publishing platform designed around scientific research workflows.

Chemistry and the chemical sciences are essential to our modern world, and will be vital in responding to some of the biggest challenges that face humanity both now and into the future. The Royal Society of Chemistry has an ambitious international vision for the future, one that goes far beyond the remit of a typical academic publisher. They invest in the education of future generations of scientists; raise and maintain scientific standards; partner closely with industry and academia to promote collaboration and innovation; advise governments on policy; and promote the talent, information and ideas that lead to great advances in science. The Royal Society of Chemistry is a significant international publisher of scientific advances in Chemistry and the Chemical Sciences.

The Royal Society of Chemistry approached Modern Human to redesign their publishing platform around how academics really search for academic literature, keep up-to-date with their field and use content within their research workflows. We began by closely examining the research workflow of scientists and investigating the drivers behind their publishing behaviour. Our design research inspired a design that perfectly provided for scientists’ 3 different reading modes, helped them to keep up with the latest developments in their sub-field of Chemistry, and integrated into their research workflow. We looked ahead to ensure the platform anticipated the seismic shifts currently rippling through academic publishing, including open access, open data and the increasing importance of markets like China and India. We continually iterated on our concepts,testing them at 11 institutions around the world before providing a full design system and feeding into the product roadmap for the publishing platform.

Modern Human applied our Knowledge Chain model of academia and academic publishing. Over the course of many projects in the academic sector we have amassed a great deal of qualitative and quantitative data about the process of academic research; from the initial idea, to scientific discovery, to publishing that discovery to the scientific community and then, potentially, commercialising that discovery. Our knowledge chain is analogous to a supply chain for academic research; a macro-level model of how funders, researchers, research labs and publishers generate value. It represents how value flows between those parties and how value chains are impacted by changes such as preprint publishing, open access or post-impact factor decision making. It allows us to predict the effect that innovations in scholarly communication might have on all of those parties, and how that might change their behaviour and needs.

knowledge chain in academia

Modern Human also developed a set of behavioral archetypes that describe the 4 different motivations that an academic may have for publishing their work. These are useful when designing products related to scholarly communication, because the 4 distinct motivations help us to predict how someone will behave - for example, which journals they might choose to publish in and how they might communicate their research beyond the paper.

While this combination of the knowledge chain and behaviour archetypes provided us with a strong starting point, we felt we needed to further investigate the behaviour of chemists beyond the knowledge chain. We wanted to understand more about their scientific workflow and their reading behaviour in order to ensure that the concepts we created really met their needs. We engaged in a period of intense ethnographic design research, during which time we observed and interviewed a range of academics as they went about their research.

We quickly realised that scientists have just 3 goals in all of their reading of scientific literature. It also became apparent to us that many scientists find it difficult to remain abreast of all the developments in their field; with a massive amount of research published each week, many scientists struggle to escape the sense that important articles in their sub-field might be passing them by. They mitigate this feeling in a number of ways, one of which is to peer review other articles in the field, however most people feel that their strategies for keeping up-to-date are suboptimal.

One thing that became clear early on in the process was the importance of the PDF. When asked why PDFs are so important, many of our research participants carefully explained how they download and keep the PDF so they can find the article again and so that they don’t lose access to it. Not only did these explanations fail to align with our observations of their behaviour, upon further investigation we discovered that they did not align with the research participants’ own memories or the prior behaviour that they described. Contradictions between what people say and what they do are always interesting to designers, and so we set out to reconcile the two. Investigating this anomaly gave us a range of new insights into the scientific workflow, which in turn impacted heavily on our product design.

At the core of what Modern Human designed is a responsive reading experience that looks great and works effectively whether viewed on mobile, tablet or large screen. The reading format of the article is tailored to the screen on which it is being viewed to ensure maximum reading comfort. Realistically, for most users, the reading experience will start from third-party search tools such as Web of Knowledge, Reaxys or SciFinder, which will then link them directly to an article from a search result. Our research had already shown us that scientists do 5 things when appraising an article. Before deciding whether or not to read the article in depth, they will first read the title, skim the abstract, read the last few lines of the introduction, skim the conclusion and examine the abstract figure. We have made it quicker and easier to scan these components no matter which device the article is viewed on, in turn making it easier for scientists to decide whether the article is worth further reading.

On a large screen device, the article screen is split into two columns. The left-hand, main column presents the article text in full. Common sections of the article are shown with a large heading to help facilitate skim reading of the article.

The right-hand, secondary column presents a series of tabs that contain secondary or supporting information, such as an outline tab to enable a reader to navigate between sections of the article, and a figures & data tab that includes all of the figures, tables, chemical structures and data included in the piece. The intention is that the reader can line up content in the right pane, while reading the relevant section of the article in the left.

On a smaller screen, priority is given to the main article text, with the secondary information presented below this in a single column. This allows users to access the same level of information available on a large screen device, while ensuring a comfortable reading experience on mobile devices.

Perhaps the primary role of a journal is to convey reputation upon the author and gravitas upon their work. Even in post-impact factor markets, journal brands are still hugely influential in the decisions that research groups make about where to publish their research. In a context where most academics will start their reading journey by searching Web of Knowledge, Reaxys or SciFinder, the journal screen becomes a place to exhibit the curation of science conducted by the editorial board and staff. The new journal screen Modern Human designed presents the reader with a coherent, curated collection of articles and a quick, easy route to reading the latest articles from a particular journal.

As we deconstructed the current Pubs platform, the lack of any presence of people within the platform was surprising. Science, including chemistry, is a community endeavour. A scientist’s reputation within the community is important, as is their network - those people within the community that they know, influence and are influenced by. Scientific publishing is also a community endeavour. Individuals within the community provide content, reviews, and editorial guidance. Modern Human created a profile feature within the publishing platform, in order to provide a presence for authors, reviewers and editors. The profile contains an individual’s OrcID, their institutional affiliations, a list of their RSC publications and a list of their RSC positions (for example, if they sit on the editorial board of a journal). They can customise the page by adding a photograph, an additional biography, tags representing their research interests and links to to Publons, ResearchGate, Academia.edu and ImpactStory profiles. A viewer of a profile may follow the author through an RSS feed or email notification when they publish.

Modern Human also reimagined the search experience within the publishing platform. The new search is powerful enough for an academic to find the exact article they are looking for, but intuitive enough that they don’t have to learn how to use it. The left column is used to present a range of search filters which allow the user to winnow their results until they find what they are looking for. Selecting an item in the filter immediately updates the results shown in the right column, which displays search results ordered by relevance. The user may also decide to display results by recency.Where the search recognises a field, an author, a journal name, a book title or the name of a set/series, it will then provide a best bet result for that item above the results returned by relevance.

Modern Human also designed the new Field screen, with the intention of making it easier for academics to keep up-to-date with new research in their field. Our research, and that of others, had already shown us that finding and reading articles is well catered for, but keeping up with their field is still something that chemists struggle with. The Field screen addresses this unmet need. RSC journals represent a broad cross section of the scientific literature in Chemistry and are well placed to highlight important new developments and to enable people to successfully keep up with broad and deep selections of the literature.. The field screen successfully aggregates a selection of content from across the whole of RSC publishing curated specifically for a single field.

With the concept complete, Modern Human worked with the Royal Society of Chemistry through their first few sprints, helping them to establish their product roadmap and design, and delivering a minimum viable product based upon the concept. We continue to work with RSC on their author experience and other aspects of their products and services.