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How a Partnership Over Annotation Software Fits Into Bigger Changes in Research Workflow

By Jeffrey R. Young     Feb 28, 2018

Elsevier, one of the world’s largest publishers of scientific journals, hasn’t been shy about shifting away from just publishing to offering a set of tools for scholars to use throughout the research process. Last week the company took another step along that path by announcing a partnership with a nonprofit named Hypothesis, which makes annotation software that lets readers make margin notes on online articles.

Jud Dunham, director of product management for Elsevier, said in an email interview that he expects the main use case will be for professors to take personal notes on digital scholarly journal articles, though the company hopes professors will also use the feature in the peer review process as well.

Hypothesis is free to anyone, and even before the partnership professors could have used the annotation service to mark up Elsevier articles (or any other page on the web). But the new arrangement will mean that scholars can make the annotations to Elsevier articles using their Elsevier login and password, without having to setup an account on Hypothesis.

In the past few years Elsevier has also purchased several other tools used by reserachers, including Mendeley, a service to help scholars manage their references and online documents, the Social Science Research Network, an online community where scholars in the humanities and social sciences freely share preprints of their academic work, as well startups that provide laboratory notebook and research collaboration tools.

Higher education leaders have been watching Elsevier’s overall strategy with caution—and some concern. The fear is that Elsevier, or some other entity, could make tools that become so well integrated that colleges end up locked in to that vendor, limiting competition.

“Providers will pursue a lock-in strategy to maximize switching costs, if not outright bundling, for individual research workflow tools,” argued, Roger C. Schonfeld, director of Ithaka S+R's Libraries and Scholarly Communication Program, in a white paper published last month called Big Deal: Should Universities Outsource More Core Research Infrastructure? “If universities cannot hold down these switching costs low enough to ensure they can take advantage of market competition, they will quickly find themselves locked into a single provider or set of providers.”

Officials for both Elsevier and Hypothesis stressed that the partnership supports open standards for annotation, and that Hypothesis is an open-source technology.

The deal is not exclusive, and Dan Whaley, CEO of Hypothesis, says he hopes to get many other publishers to adopt his group’s open standards or use its service. Other publishers that the nonprofit has forged agreements with include MIT Press, the American Geophysical Union, the journal ELife, and the pre-print service “We think that this tech is powerful and think it should belong everywhere,” he says.

Lisa Janicke Hinchliffe, a professor in the school of information sciences at the University of Illinois at Urbana Champaign, says that the promise of integrating annotations with some kind of verified identity will likely appeal to many scholars. “We’re in this world of wild commentary on things," she says. "In some ways you could see this as an attempt to create an authoritative conversation or an expertise-based conversation around some of these works.”

She says she has used Hypothesis annotations in a virtual book club and found them useful. The technology could be used both in conversations among scholars about papers, or in the classroom by having students annotate articles, which could add more value to the Elsevier journals. The technology allows creating different layers of annotations by different groups, to avoid one public wall of graffiti.

Hinchliffe shares Schonfeld’s concerns about the potential danger of a company like Elsevier controlling too much of the research workflow in a way that limits competition. And she thinks one of the earliest scholarly research tools, the campus library, could help limit that risk and also bring instructors to the table to weigh-in on publishing decisions.

“I think libraries can play a leadership role on campuses in raising these conversations,” she says. “We shouldn’t be deciding what electronic notebooks support the chemistry lab,” she adds, “but we should be included in the conversation about these decisions” to talk about the college’s overall strategy in buying tools across different parts of the research process.

As Schonfeld’s recent white paper puts it, “a university should act with single purpose to establish strategy, set objectives, coordinate budgets, and act operationally. To do so, individual units might need to give up some autonomy to ensure that they can act with other units together in the university’s overall best interests.”

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