Accessibility in journals: What are the roadblocks and how to overcome them?

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Publishing accessible content is no longer an added feature but a requirement of today’s changing landscape. It is especially pertinent for educational institutions and scientific journals. But it is not without its challenges, which can often delay adoption by smaller publications. We look at a few of the publishers’ concerns and the solutions that have risen to help overcome them.

Challenges for accessibility in journals

  • Complex information – The more complicated the information, the longer the lead time to create accessible content, which is particularly relevant with journals, where the reading structure might not be clearly defined and can lead to inconsistencies. Image descriptions are essential in technical writing. A pie chart might be straightforward to describe, but the complexity increases with multipart images, boxes, sidebars, insets, tables, or even surrounding information. In mathematical equations, images are often used instead of MathML, adding complexity.
  • Cost – Creating accessible content can be a costly affair for publishers, especially if they don’t see an offset in their revenue. Manual intervention and the additional time required can increase the costs involved, which rise even further with the complexity of the information.
  • Lack of expertise – Not every publisher has the required resources and internal capacity for creating accessible content. Internal expertise is sometimes needed to identify areas of improvement and enforce guidelines. Outsourcing this role can often increase the cost burden.
  • Technical and technology limitations – Various technical requirements can disrupt the traditional workflow. Navigation, multi-column content, reading order, colour ratios and contrast, file formats all can become technical obstacles to overcome. In addition, many publishers do not have access to the required assistive technology that can simplify their process.
  • Inconsistencies on regulations – Inconsistently implementing requirements is not new in the publishing industry due to cost or time considerations. It impacts the final product. Implementing closed captions but with incomplete tags, for example, can lead to fines for publishers and become problematic for the end-user.
  • Workflow and retrofitting – Workflow that does not create accessible content is the starting block of all problems. The workflow of scholarly journals is built on JATS XML or PDF instead of EPUB or HTML standards. PDF is accessible only if the starting file is accessible. Retrofitting inaccessible content is time-consuming, and millions of books will probably never get retrofitted with accessible features.
  • Quality – Ensuring high-quality, accessible content is a pressing concern as it can devalue the learning process for the end-user. The quality of the source material, training and expertise of the technicians, time allotted for the process, and availability of resources are important factors that impact quality assurance.

What are the solutions?

  • Training and guides – Various training programs and quick guides have been created across the industry to increase knowledge about accessibility proving helpful for upper-level management and others on issues and opportunities.
  • Technology – There is growing development in technology that can assist publishers in building accessible content. Machine Learning and Artificial Intelligence tools have increased for accessibility conversion of EPUBs. Technology can help remove manual intervention, increase efficiency, improve quality, cut costs, and reduce turnaround time.
  • Workflow – It is necessary to carefully design and execute a production workflow right from the start. If there is an XML workflow, the design should include EPUB3 as its deliverables. This becomes particularly relevant when dealing with MathML, where specific browsers might not have the capacity to render MathML. Creating an accessible workflow is also required when using assistive technology down the process.
  • Tools and services – Publishers can now access tools, services, and software such as DAISY, Document Accessibility Toolbar (DAT), CommonLook PDF Accessibility software, AChecker, etc., for accessible publishing. Publishers might not need to automate the entire publishing process but rather its sub-processes. 
  • Keep an eye on regulations – Although the restrictions were quite chaotic just a few years back, it has mainly been streamlined. Publishers can look at the WCAG 2.1 or DAISY guidelines. EPUB Accessibility 1.0 also lists what publishers should do, what metadata to include, the access modes to consume the publication and whether the content is optimised for a particular form of accessibility.
  • Certifications and audits – Organisations like Benetech exist to review publications and give feedback. They have a certificate based on a yearly review that checks whether the content is aligned with current regulations. Such organisations also have tools and training that can be useful for personnel skilling.
  • Start small – The required resources can be a barrier to entry for some publications, but one can start small. Certain prominent publications began accessible content for disciplines such as Social Sciences, with less math and tables allowing for capacity building and set the base for expansion to other fields.
  • Formats – PDF is a presentation format that is quite popular in journals but has challenges with accessibility. It is critical to publish in formats that ease the transition to accessible content. MathML should be used for equations, HTML5 to tag any tables, and the EPUB3 format for publication.
  • Work with authors – Working with an author who is a subject matter expert, quickens the process and improves the quality of accessible content, reducing the burden of the copy editor.

More importantly, publishers should realise why they’re making accessible content. A lack of accessible publishing can directly impact the opportunities available to the differently-abled. And although there are challenges in creating accessible content, the writing is on the wall. Forthcoming international regulations will mandate accessible content from publishers. Publishers can navigate these temporary roadblocks and help in the equitable dissemination of knowledge.

Lumina Datamatics is a strategic partner to global publishers and ecommerce retailers, providing content, analytics, and technology solutions. We enable publishers to be at the forefront of digitalization by managing the entire publishing process – from content creation to product delivery, including feedback from readers and buyers. Lumina Datamatics’s expert solutions are a combination of its various in-house platforms, partnerships with global technologies, and more than 2800 professionals spread across Germany, India, and the United States. This global footprint services our customers across four continents: North America, Asia, Australia, and Europe. Visit luminadatamatics.com or go to LinkedIn.