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HighWire’s New H2O Platform Updates Epublishing for Publisher Partners
Posted On March 31, 2008
HighWire Press (, a division of the Stanford University Libraries, has provided online technology and services to scholarly publishers since 1995. It now offers access to 1,126 peer-reviewed sci-tech journals including some 4,724,288 full-text articles from more than 140 publishers. Some 1,870,883 of those articles are available free. The new HighWire 2.0 (H2O) electronic publishing platform is built on an array of publishing standards, including XML, Atom, MarkLogic Server, etc. It was designed to provide publishers with flexibility in features and functionality to suit any and all formats and output devices. HighWire will phase in its publishers individually. The first site to upgrade to H2O is the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences (PNAS), displaying the beta site at In February, HighWire announced a new publisher partner, the Royal Society, with eight publications dating as far back as 1665. This publisher will launch on the new H2O platform in 2009. (For a video introducing the new platform, go to

John Sack, HighWire’s director, described the purpose behind the new platform. "H2O supports the evolution of content as portable, allowing publishers to move information to where the user is. Our new platform ensures that the HighWire-hosted sites are a valuable service to users: a place for people to do research, interact with information, ideas, and each other. This new platform ensures our publishers’ content will work with a wide variety of Web 2.0 applications, feeds, widgets, and web services and be ready to handle new technologies as they emerge."

Sack describes H2O as a way of "future-proofing technology." While scholarly publishers must still fulfill their mission of keeping content "validated and pedigreed," Sack reminds them that "the online business is the business of publishers now." They need to help users "unlock the box of the article" to free the information users want to find. He points out that half the traffic to a typical online journal comes from a search engine. New business models and monetization should take advantage of network effects. "H2O will interact with many other systems, mashups, pipes, tag clouds, widgets. It can transform a traditional website into a new force for marketing, a place to explore."

The new architecture provides publishers with tools for innovating services, expanded branding, monetization, etc., and end users with the possibility of features such as social networking, forums, RSS, etc. In addition to a fully XML-based environment for handling input and output, H2O is built on a wide range of standards: XSLT version 2, XQuery 1.0, XPath version 2, Atom Publishing Protocol (APP), Atom Syndication Format (ASF), XHTML, CSS2, Unicode, etc., ASF and RSS, RESTful architecture, Web Services, WebDAV, Microformats, NVDL, Schematron + SVRL, and RELAX NG. The infrastructure is flexible and modular, designed to interact with other systems, and extensible to new web services and technology. It should allow HighWire and its publishers to expand their content types beyond journals to books, reference works, and nonjournal web content. HighWire expects the "standards-based content" to be able to supply a variety of devices, including the iPhone, the iPod, Amazon’s Kindle e-reader, etc.

According to Kristen Fisher Ratan, marketing manager at HighWire Press, H2O has been in development for 18 months. HighWire is planning to migrate publishers to the new platform one by one, keeping the old system operating in parallel. Fisher Ratan expects all HighWire’s publishers to agree to the migration. "The advantages are significant. Everyone has been looking forward to it." How long it will take to complete the transition she could not say. When asked what would happen if a publisher already had a Web 2.0 functionality under way with another vendor, she responded, "One of the beautiful things about H2O is that it’s built to be interoperable. Other tools, products, services should be able to accommodate it. Publishers can choose to use it as a whole complete solution or a piece of a larger system of services the publisher is using. That is where standards are so important. They can make us flexible to accommodate services we don’t even know about yet. Web 2.0 has led to rapid development. We wanted to design a platform able to work with all just as rapidly."

The first site to use H2O—PNAS Online—began in 1997 and contains full text for all articles dating back to 1915. The site receives some 11.6 million hits each month. The PNAS Early Edition publishes articles online before they appear in print, but after peer review and final author changes. In applying the new H2O platform, PNAS has introduced a number of new features: 

  • Abstract preview—Mouse-over the table of contents and search results page for an instant pop-up preview of the article abstract, without leaving the page. 
  • Figure expansion in place—Figure and table thumbnails can be enlarged from within the article. 
  • Tag-along navigation—The navigation box follows alongside as one scrolls down the article page. 
  • Feature hideaway: Author affiliations, related links, and other article enhancements can be expanded or hidden. Article enhancement preferences are remembered when the user next visits the site. 
  • Popular-articles list—A list of the Most Viewed and Most Cited articles is readily available. 
  • Related-articles search—From within an article, users can click to search for articles by author, keyword, or subject classification. 
  • Easier scanning and reading—Better positioning of the title and abstract, improved text fonts and formatting, plus quick previous/next links to scan by article section make it fast to scan an article online.

Fisher Ratan pointed to the experimentation that today’s publishers are doing to test new business models. "People are testing before taking the plunge. One of the requirements for H2O was if it could accommodate new models. Now we’re also building tools for publishers to experiment directly with new business models and new interactive marketing opportunities. Now that we’ve reached the implementation phase for H2O, our R&D team is working on new tools for publishers." Such new possibilities will include re-using collections in different feeds, integrating blogs and networking sites, offering widgets, attaching advertising, personalizing offers and ads, and providing context based on the content displayed and user demographics.

According to Diane Sullenberger, executive editor of PNAS, one of the reasons the academy enjoys working with HighWire is that "they respect the independence and complex decisions each publisher brings to the table. HighWire stays ahead on the technology and asks us if we want to use it or to pass. They give us a menu of options." Dana Compton, production manager at PNAS, echoed her satisfaction with HighWire’s strategy for supporting publishers. "HighWire is very good at going out and staying up-to-date and reporting back to publishers with their suggestions and recommendations. But they don’t make the decisions for us. In the end, it’s the publisher’s decision."

One expert on the commercial publisher scene commented, "HighWire is the smaller aggregator who is the thorn in the side of the bigger guys like Ovid, EBSCO, etc. It is generally used to keep those guys honest. They don’t pull in the big bucks." So far, this expert did not consider HighWire to have cutting edge technology, but H2O may mark a change. Compton remarked, "The two biggest benefits we’re getting from H2O are first a more up-to-date platform on a par with more modern sites, including news media sites, with a fresher and more modern design and more functionality incorporated into the design. It also gives us more flexibility as a publisher. It lets us as publishers make individual decisions on page design. If there are nifty little things we want to add, they can be molded to individual needs, but the content is still standard in tagging and so forth. For example, as a multidisciplinary publication, we can be flexible to tag content according to discipline."

When I asked Compton if she thought the new platform would bring PNAS new users, she replied, "H2O may not accomplish that per se. We know we’re getting more users from Google than come direct to PNAS, but once they’re at our site, this platform makes it more likely that they will stay. It gives us an integrated way to get to related search results without leaving the body of the article they got to from a Google search. On the same page, they’ll see related content, related search results. That’s where the platform will be helping our traffic—not in bringing users in, but keeping users on." Sullenberger added, "It gives publishers the technical capability to take advantage of RSS, social networking, etc. We’re thinking ahead for more flexible uses."

Barbara Quint was senior editor of Online Searcher, co-editor of The Information Advisor’s Guide to Internet Research, and a columnist for Information Today.

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