Reports & Publications

Friday 26 January 2018

Roadblocks to Accessibility

This post was published on 25 January 2018 in the Scholarly Kitchen

There’s been a lot of discussion so far this year about access. Some are concerned with how to forge new methods of authentication and others see piracy as a symptom of today’s complicated access pathways in scholarly discovery. Others have pointed out that ensuring inclusiveness means ensuring access to scholarly resources by readers with disabilities. Several voices have come together in the special January 2018 issue of Learned Publishing reminding us of the accessibility gaps in professional and educational publishing — through which many of our authors and readers continue to slip, limiting their ability to fully connect with the world of knowledge and progress contained in our journals, books, and databases. (Full disclosure, I serve as the North American Editor for Learned Publishing).

In reading these expert perspectives, I find myself scratching my head: Why does end-to-end accessible publishing continue to elude us?

I think we would be hard pressed to find disagreement with the sentiment that all scholarly and professional publications should be made accessible to all interested readers. It’s also very hard to argue that our publishing community has fully achieved that vision. So, if I have that right, what’s holding us back? With today’s technological advancements and many relevant digital standards globally ratified — presumably making born-digital publications ever cheaper and easier to produce — why is accessibility still an issue for publishers and our partners?

Perhaps most of us assume that the population of our readers with physical, learning, or cognitive challenges is too small to make a difference. Fake news! Measuring those with sight impairments alone, the National Institutes of Health report 285 million people are blind or have low vision worldwide. Research shows that US colleges have 10-20% disabled student enrollment. Beyond the ivory towers, the overall rates of disabled persons in the US is on the rise – students today could be life-long customers if we’re able to effectively reach them.

So, why is accessibility still not a top priority for most publishers? Perhaps we’re assuming that the overall return on investment will be too low, that accessible publishing is a loss leader with some nice PR, but not a real revenue opportunity. In addition to the marketshare facts above, accessible publishing is better for everyone, especially where it results in the “navigable, feature-rich” content envisioned by the folks at DAISY. I know plenty of able-bodied readers that appreciate listening to an article or book chapter with ReadSpeaker as a change of pace from the mountains of reading expected of most students.

Accessible publishing is better for the publisher, as we see so many improvements to metadata quality and interoperability. Following basic machine readability principles, many accessibility requirements also promote SEO and general discoverability. Where publishers and technology providers offer fully accessible workflows, from manuscript tender to publication, they are able to reap measurable benefits, from increased submissions to higher usage.

And, while I’ve not tested this assumption, I can imagine libraries would pay more for resources that did not demand so much attention from the already strained disabled student services at many US universities. Wasn’t that the Amazon lesson? Consumers of all kinds will pay for convenience, and often repay that kindness with loyalty!

Perhaps the roadblocks to accessible publishing are psychological, perhaps it’s an uncomfortable topic and some folks have a hard time relating to the disabled reader experience? As one Learned Publishing author points out, if you have struggled with the closed captions for a movie on an airplane, you can relate to the human need for accessible publishing. Not only have we all encountered at least one person who couldn’t read everything we publish, our own faculties are limited and not built to last. As our user experience peers remind us, if you do not identify as disabled, then you are only temporarily abled.

Even if we are aware of the readers and authors who are unable to access our digital resources, it can be difficult to convince budget committees that compliance with screen readers or new workflows that sync alt-text with images are more important than the latest snazzy widget. And there will be debate – for example, the beloved PDF that is a safety blanket for many researchers, who demand the portability and familiarity of the format, is also the user-hostile PDF that is an immovable barrier for many disabled readers, where content is either illegible or impossible to navigate. And it’s not as easy as just upgrading your most current journal content, as all publishing systems must be accessible, from soup to nuts.

Accessible publishing is better for everyone, especially where it results in the “navigable, feature-rich” content

Please understand, dear reader, these reflections are not coming from a place of sainted perfection. I am guilty of distracting product roadmaps with sexier features, like APIs and mobile apps, and prioritizing budgets toward website SEO over remediation to back-articles for higher WCAG ratings.

Accessibility in publishing is not a quick win, not a one-and-done effort. Instead, like the routine care and feeding that we’ve learned to apply to content discoverability, accessible content is a must-have ongoing investment. Rather than debating the relative priority of accessibility over other competing priorities, I recommend we spend time debating how we fund everything else after we’ve achieved basic accessible publishing.

I was a bit relieved when Bill Kasdorf reminded us that “nobody said it was easy,” as it’s good to be honest that accessibility does require some effort. That said, accessible publishing is now much easier than ever before. Thanks to the digital publishing standards and progress we’ve made together over the years, it’s now possible for the accessible publication to be the same publication everybody gets. Building on the foundation of global norms like HTML, EPUB, etc., we have a golden opportunity to leverage best practices, so that what comes out of industry-standard publishing workflows is fully accessible to all readers.

If we’re honest, accessible publishing is central to the mission of academic publishing, and to the vision of most publishing organizations. So, it’s high time to bring accessibility out of the margins and into our daily lives. All publishing programs must include a permanent budget line for accessibility. This does not mean millions of dollars for each release, but a drip-feed of improvements add up quickly to a more accessible way of doing business.

So, I join the voices in that special issue in their call to action to our global scholarly publishing community – accessible publishing must become standard practice, must become business-as-usual, must become the status quo. No more excuses, accessible publishing is more affordable, more doable than ever. So, let’s get to work!

Author’s note: Many thanks to Alice Meadows for her input on this post, as well to Bill Kasdorf for his visionary and editorial contributions here as well as in the latest issue of Learned Publishing.


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