Print, Digital, and Process: Duke University Press Publishing Technologies with Allison Belan

We recently spoke with Allison Belan, Associate Director for Digital Strategy and Publishing Systems at Duke University Press to delve deeper into publishing technologies for our Journals Publishing Series. Allison has worked on several digital publishing and technology projects at the Press over the past few years, so we asked her about the experience she gained in those projects and about some of the specialized technology publishers use every day.

Tell us a little about yourself and what you do.

Allison Belan

Associate Director for Digital Strategy and Publishing Systems Allison Belan

I am the Associate Director for Digital Strategy and Publishing Systems; I have spent the last four years in this role and I have been at the Press for about eleven years. I came into this role from journal production, where I got to work very closely with all of our journals and managed journal production coordinators. During the years I managed the journals production workflow, we learned a lot about online publishing, to the point where we were really internalizing digital publishing practices and became deeply familiar with all its demands.

As our book publishing program started to wrestle with that same digital challenges, the Press recognized an opportunity to ease that transition from print-centric to format-flexible by learning from our journals program and by proactively managing the transition. My position was created to not only help with that transition but to help transform us into a successful publisher of digital works and to ensure that all of our efforts were aligning with our business and content strategy. One of the ways I do that is to articulate our digital publishing and marketing strategies across all of our divisions in order to unify that experience for our authors, editors, readers, and users. Publishing and content marketing are really starting to blur, as we wrestle with what is a content unit, and the technology that powers each is coming closer together. So, as someone going to industry meetings and hearing about the latest technologies, I am trying to see what’s ahead around the curve, and make sure when we reach that curve we don’t go off the road. I bring that knowledge back to the Press and see where it fits strategically with what we are currently doing.

What are some the different types of publishing technologies that go into making a journal?

There are a couple of categories of publishing technologies at work across the enterprise, starting from our journal editors and running through production and ending with storage and access. We can group them into the following sets of technologies: project management, workflow management, bibliographic and metadata management, digital asset management, digital asset distribution, and content management systems (specifically those for publishing-specific tasks). Any given task can combine one or more of these groups of systems. It’s perhaps easiest to talk through this following the path an article or issue takes from its initial submission.

A common set of tools that our editors rely on are peer review management programs, which provide a convenient place to track every element of the peer review process. These were developed because of the need to get critical scholarship out into the world, especially in the sciences, and now are widely adopted. At the Press, we provide the option of using Editorial Manager by Aries. With our assistance, the editors can set up the system to completely manage their contact database and manuscripts under review. It means they don’t have to deal with emails, version control, scheduling, and reporting outside of a predefined structure. Authors enter their own data, so you don’t have to even worry about misplacing an email or phone number. In that system you get project management, scheduling/resource management, and workflow management because you have modeled the process and it manages moving everything from stage A to stage B and so on. Once all the articles are selected and organized, it is (theoretically) push-button easy to group and send all the documents together to our production team.

We have our own project management and workflow tools in our production department. We have 50 journals producing over 170 issues in a year—each of our production coordinators is always managing up to eight journals, with several issues of each in process at the same time. There are a lot of workflow and product management tools available out there but not a lot designed to deal with journals, especially since we publish our journals as issues as opposed to article by article. We worked with Firebrand Technologies to take their Title Management product and optimize it for our journal workflow process.

Title Management is also where we manage bibliographic information and metadata for a journal, such as its price, its ISSN, which articles it contains, and so on. We do that for every volume as well as the issue. A lot of this information goes straight out of the Title Management database and on to the consumer because of special feeds we have set up.

At this point we start to get into the realm of digital asset management. Everyone who uses a computer has his or her own personal digital asset management system, namely our file folders, and we have all had our system fail us at some point when we misplace a file that we need to access. A professional digital asset management system tries to solve that problem by attaching information to an asset and enforcing rules on how it is stored and can be accessed. When you have a hundred years of a journal’s articles as PDFs and XML files this is critical. There are technologies that just manage content, but usually asset management is bundled with another system. With journals, it is usually bundled with a content management system, which not only stores this metadata and the file but also stores the actual text and image files along with the PDF. We currently use a Sharepoint server as a final location for our assets.

So what happens after the issue is all assembled and all the files are ready to go out into the world?

Well, we don’t escape technology completely when we are preparing for the print publication event. Printing itself these days is a highly digital process that just happens to output onto paper. So we have to prepare files so they will come out well when they go through a digital imaging and printing process, which involves formatting PDFs in such a way that they look good both on a computer display and in print, and so that they keep their integrity when being stored and downloaded from our server.

When we send information to our online hosting site, there is more to it than just sending the files. We have to make sure metadata displays well, and there is a particular XML format that we have to use just to get a table of contents to be displayed. Online publishing best practices also really push the need for abstracts: these are important for digital discovery because this is how search engines are able to deliver the appropriate content to consumers. We partner with a company that is closely tied with Google Scholar, and they provide us with good guidelines to make content discoverable. We want to retain the content and display at a high quality but make it a pleasant display in both the print and online versions. Our journal editors are primarily experiencing the print version, but their readers are mostly using what is online, regardless of the discipline.

What sort of publishing technologies is a researcher running across in their work that they might not be aware of?

If a researcher is starting from a search in their library catalog, for example, our books and e-books will appear in that search because we have created MARC records that fit into their library’s database. Our journals will come up in that search because we work hard to get all of our article-level information into library discovery services. Our online hosting partners do a very good job of making our content discoverable to all of the services that librarians use.

A Google Scholar search will also likely find a relevant result, because we are exposing accurate metadata to indexes so Google can find it. We assure the accuracy of the metadata attached to the digital object identifier (DOI), that strange string of slashes, letters, numbers, and dashes you often see attached to an article. It is a serial number that will lead you to an article in its canonical home online. The DOI future proofs a reference to an article: URL structures change over time so they may not be reliable references, but DOIs are reliable because they are indexed by an independent agency that keeps up with publishers.

What’s an interesting project that you’re working on?

One of the unique things about Duke University Press is that our books and journals lists are unusually synergistic, so there is a lot of opportunity for inter-reading between articles and chapters. We have been working on bringing our books and journals into a single online space,, a place that brings them together into a cohesive whole and makes it easy to move between relevant journal articles and books. Scholars tell us they desperately want hyperlinked references, so they can go to reference lists and mine that for important references. For those journals that have references, if we can link to an article, we link to it in our reference lists, and we are working on bringing that to books as well.

Any final thoughts about publishing technologies?

I believe that some of the negative feeling about the digital transformation of publishing come from an anxiety that the perceived artisanal nature of publishing is being lost and subsumed by limiting and inflexible rules. But even before the digital transformation, publishing was as much a scientific manufacturing process—born of technologies such as the Gutenberg press—as an art. There have always been rules to publishing, and the digital process is not that different: it is a change in the means of production, in the same way that limiting a book’s length was a manufacturing issue. But with the introduction of digital technologies, these anxieties really all point to new opportunities that are now available. And that’s what we are trying to do at the Press: we look at how to take advantage of those opportunities and share them with our partners.

Another researcher tool that we offer is our email alerts system, which sends updates automatically when new content is published. You can sign up for automatic alerts at Stay up to date on journals publishing by checking out our Journals Publishing Series.

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