Accessibility Drives Content Discovery, Usage, and Inclusivity for Libraries and Publishers

At UKSG 2021, I make the case for accessible publishing and why it’s a no-brainer for libraries, publishers, and their suppliers to be investing in their compliance with scholarly content accessibility standards. The trick is to recognize the ample benefits of ensuring our products and services are truly accessible to all readers, then start by road-mapping your journey towards accessible publishing.

We care about accessibility because anywhere between 10-30% of our target markets have some sort of disability. Conversely, the great majority of websites have some lack of accessibility for those with disabilities. Something like 1% of websites are fully accessible. Many manuscripts and documents important to our user communities are in PDF format; Adobe estimates something like 2.5 trillion PDFs out there in the world. Therefore, the more accessible our content and services, the greater our overall usage. The wider your base of users, the greater your pageviews, downloads, citations, and other metrics of success. In my breakout talk, “Accessibility: moving the (stuck) dial,” I offer numerous benefits of embracing accessible publishing that should motivate our industry toward ensuring equity of access to our user communities.

Law & Policy

A great deal of how we conceive of accessible publishing directly relates to legislation that aims to ensure equity of access to learning and research, and the lawsuits that arise where students or faculty or scientists find their necessary tools to be inaccessible. There are a range of US-based laws and regulations that hold our community responsible for providing accessible products and services to students, faculty, and researchers – these apply to colleges, universities, labs, hospitals, and other organizations, as well as their content and service providers. There are three main initiatives for UK-based companies to be aware of and seek cooperation with: the Marrakesh Treaty, the European Accessibility Act and the Equality Act.

These laws DO have teeth — members of our scholarly communications community are being taken to court when users find our products or service to be a barrier to their participation. My advice is to make accessibility compliance a priority now. Waiting too long may put you in legal jeopardy and, at least in the US, content and web providers are not successfully defending lawsuits.

Inclusivity

I’m sure we all want to avoid lawsuits and we want to do all we can to comply with industry standards – but we are also called to ensure equity of access to research and educational resources. This means accessibility compliance must be stitched into every organization’s values framework, where diversity and inclusivity measures are designed to reach those with physical or cognitive disabilities.

And, with accessibility compliance, comes multiple unintended benefits, from greater searchability, higher usage, and better navigation for all users. Accessibility offers us a “curb-cut effect” – where innovations to serve disabled users also enhance the lives of everyone in the community.

Discovery & Usage

Discoverability is another clear win – several functions that ensure easy access by disabled users are also expected for content architecture and metadata modeling that ensure high-quality indexing and search engine optimization. For example, adding alternative text to your images means everyone will have an easier time searching.

Similarly, implementing accessibility standards enables greater navigability by all users. Keyboard controls come to mind; we could all use short cuts to save us time. On the publisher side, the rich content meeting accessibility standards is also positioned to be repurposed and combined in new ways, your content is more mobile and interoperable, opening avenues for developing new products or services.

These all add up to greater overall usage and engagement with our products and services. The better we can serve all members of our user communities, the better we can drive up downloads, citations, and other metrics of impact in scholarly communications.

Standards

The web and information standards that define accessibility in research and educational publishing are now aligned with most institutional policy and regional law. While these information standards are not cited as legal standards, most of the regional or institutional requirements for accessibility conformance are integrated into these prevailing standards.

In particular, the W3C, an international community that develops open web standards, have taken pains to address the dominant expectations of international disability laws and access rights. First published in 1999, we’re now on WCAG 2.1 and there are a wealth of developer tools and compliance resources that make it easy to get your web products and services up to speed with these expectations.

Also governed by the W3C, the EPUB standard can apply to a range of content and some publishers offer both PDF and EPUB export options for both books and journals. Even better, accessibility is now baked into the EPUB 3 standard, and there are loads of easy tools out there for checking compliance during production and at various stages of development. For PDF content, the UA (or universal access) protocols were first put in place by ISO and is now part of the WCAG framework. The WCAG and EPUB checklists are among the diagnostic tools publishers can use to audit their current levels of accessibility. Many of them are free or low cost, the main investment is in taking the time to add the tools to your workflows.

Publisher Strategy

So, what exactly does it look like for a publisher to offer accessible products and services? Accessible publishing means shifting our mindsets to put our users at the center of our design decisions, we are naturally integrating accessible publishing principles to ensure that all readers have equal access. From there, it’s a matter of operationalizing accessibility throughout your organization.

I would suggest a handful of activities, some internally focused and others with marketing communications in mind. This would include an audit of websites, online services, and digital content platforms. These sorts of activities are often best served with a dedicated accessibility lead or a taskforce of folks across the organization. Since our patrons and customers and stakeholders have multiple touchpoints with our content and services, it often takes a range of experts across a company or institution to pull together a successful accessibility strategy.

Maverick has a team of experienced publishing consultants to help you implement the right accessibility strategy for your organization. If you are attending UKSG 2021, EMEA Head, Rebecca Moakes, and Senior Associate Julia Brockley, will be in the UKSG lounge on all three days offering free consultations on Accessibility and other topics key to your business. To meet with Rebecca or Julia or to book a separate call, contact them directly at rebecca@maverick-os.com and julia@maverick-os.com or via InMail.

For more information on Maverick’s capabilities, download Removing Barriers to Your Content: The Maverick Accessibility Program.

By Lettie Conrad, Affiliate Senior Associate, Product Research and Development

Lettie Conrad is North American Editor for Learned Publishing and is a ‘chef’ with the SSP’s Scholarly Kitchen blog. Lettie has a master’s degree in Mass Communication from California State University, Northridge, and is currently a candidate for the Information Science PhD Gateway Program from California State University, San Jose, and the Queensland University of Technology, Brisbane.

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