Aperta Halted

A part of my personal history is a platform called Aperta which was previously called Tahi. It was a PLoS project and I was hired to design and build it. I quit when the PLoS Board decided to close the repositories, effectively making it a closed project. The repos remained closed, and as far as I know, are still closed today. Ironically after I left, they renamed the project ‘Aperta’ – Italian for ‘open’. A really silly marketing move to reassure everyone that despite what they may have heard, the project was still open…that was perhaps true, albeit (ironically and literally) in name only.

Now, it seems, the platform dev has been halted. Feels good to me. From what I heard (and I didn’t hear much), PLoS didn’t take the project in a good technical direction and generated a significant amount of bad faith and market confusion while trying to develop it behind closed doors.

To quote the new CEO Allison Mudditt (who I respect very much, Coko worked with Alison when she was at UCP):

Part of this initiative will involve changes around the workflow system – Aperta™ – we set out to develop several years ago with the goal to streamline manuscript submission and handling. At the time we began, there was very little available that would create the end-to-end workflow we envisioned as the key to opening research on multiple fronts. But the development process has proved more challenging than expected and as a result, we’ve made the difficult decision to halt development of Aperta. This will enable us to more sharply focus on internal processes that can have more immediate benefit for the communities we serve and the authors who choose to publish with us. The progress made with Aperta will not be wasted effort: we are currently exploring how to best leverage its unique strengths and capabilities to support core PLOS priorities like preprints and innovation in peer review. This will be part of our planning for 2018.


I hope that PLoS releases the technologies that have been developed for Aperta (there was a lot more than just the submission system) into the open… with both open repositories and open licenses AND, more importantly, an open heart. Collaboration and openness is more to do with how people are than what open license they choose and several of the practices, including asking potential collaborators to sign Non-Disclosure Agreements (NDAs) before getting a demo of the system, were ridiculous and ungenerous.

Having said that, it would be awesome to see all that work released into the open, in open repos with open licenses, and no more blurring of the word ‘open’. Afterall the systems developed that included Tahi were all paid for by researchers. The PLoS Article Processing Charges fuels PLoS and they committed some of this revenue to the development of Tahi. When I was there, no external funding was secured for developing the system. Pedro Mendes made a good point in response to the announcement:


There is some merit to this, but I do applaud PLoS for being adventurous, and if it had worked then the result would have been APCs could be lowered, not just for PLoS, but for any Journal out there reliant on expensive and dysfunctional Manuscript Submission Systems. Allison also notes this in a discussion below the post mentioned above:

…the original idea was that Aperta would allow us to eliminate or speed up the slowest steps between a finished work and its publication in order to reduce the cost of our publishing services

That is true, and it was an admirable goal. However, whatever the journey was between then and now, the project should have always have been out in the open as a public asset. Open for science, open for access, open for source, open for all – and the fact researchers paid for it but it was turned into closed project mid-flight is reprehensible and in the end it worked against PLoS, in particular, it severely weakened PLoS claims to supporting all things open. What a mess.

But, it can’t be ignored that Tahi is about 5 years old now, which is old in software years. A entire generation of technologies that are better suited to solving these problems has arisen in that time. The system is now not much more than a still (just) relevant but outdated approach. That is the risk you take when you develop things behind closed doors. By the time you release it (or don’t in this case), it is out of date. That said, it would still be good to release it, but there are better technologies and approaches out there now.

So I look on with interest to see what will happen next.  I sincerely hope PLoS can return to cutting a path through publishing and exploring and enabling a viable Open Access model that others can follow. With Allison at the helm I am betting things are going to take a much needed turn for the better, not just with this project, but on all counts.

As for me, I learned a lot from designing Aperta (I prefer to call it Tahi). The design process was an introduction to scientific journal publishing for me. I learned a great deal. Tahi gave me, at the time, an unencumbered dream time to imagine something new. It had a lot of interesting innovative approaches and if I had stayed with the project it would have ended up close to where PubSweet is now as I wanted to completely decouple the ‘spaces’ (a concept important to Tahi). It would not have been as good as PubSweet at doing this as a complete ‘decouple’ really has to be imagined from the start, and isn’t as clean if retrofitted. Still, the system would have been a lot more flexible and reusable.

But that wasn’t to be. Don’t get me wrong – I don’t think Tahi was the perfect platform, but it was a pretty good starting point with some significant innovations. At the time, I was looking forward to shaping Tahi with use and to mature it into an excellent system. The good news is, the next platform you design is always better.  I took a lot of what I learned (I have now been involved in instigating around a dozen publishing systems) to my next development, and worked hard to re-conceptualise a new system that avoided some of the mistakes I made with Tahi, and took some of the good parts a whole lot further. That new project is PubSweet and it is looking awesome, and leverages modern technologies and approaches to the max – mainly thanks to the bunch of amazing folks working on it within the Coko team (particularly Jure Triglav) and also now, increasingly, from the collaborators we work with (at this stage mainly eLife, YLD, Hindawi and ThinSlices). Also a huge thanks to the Shuttleworth for backing me, especially because it was at a time (I had just quit PLoS) when it was very much needed. Their backing meant Coko was possible, and consequently, PubSweet and everything else we have done.

Anyways… it was past time PLoS moved on too from Aperta and congratulations to Allison for making the right call, especially given that it would have been a difficult one given the cultural forces at play inside of PLoS.

1+1 Design Method for Workflow

So, I think I’m formulating something of a design strategy for publishing workflows. I’ll call it, for now, the 1+1 Method. It is not a facilitation methodology like the Cabbage Tree Method, but more of an approach for encapsulating workflows within the simplest and most flexible system possible.

This is very much a work in progress.

The basic idea comes down to this – workflows seem complex when you map them out. There are many forks and eddies and cul de sacs, as well as seemingly ad hoc tasks and unique circumstances. When you map out a workflow like this, you tend to get a complex route with many optional routes determined by a variety of variables and dependencies.

If you build a system that ‘hard codes’ that logic, then you face a number of problems, the most important being:

  1. you tend to create a system that reflects the present with only slight optimisation
  2. the system is prescriptive and inflexible and does not provide a path to future optimisation or, even possibly, radicalisation of workflow

So, how to avoid this? The answer is to design a system that is simple and can be optimised easily. I’m guessing you are thinking this is not really a very helpful answer! True enough… so let me attempt to break this down a little. What we need to do is first understand the organisational workflow, and then design a system that will enable this using the concept of ‘workflow spaces’. We need to create as few of these spaces as possible, and reuse as many of these spaces as possible. Further, we need to move people into these spaces at the moment that something is required of them.

I’ll get better at explaining this over the next months, I’m sure…I’m still working out a language and conceptual framing of this that is easy to communicate and understand….

But let’s look at a simple example… say, a Journal publishing workflow. In this example the workflow looks like this (keeping it relatively simple):

  1. an Author creates a new submission
  2. they fill out the required information and submit
  3. an Editor checks the submission and rejects the submission or assigns a Handler
  4. the Handler checks the submission and invites reviewers
  5. Reviewers accept or reject the invitation
  6. the Handler invites new Reviewers if necessary
  7. Reviewers write reviews and submit
  8. the Handler reviews the reviews and writes a decision to accept (goto (11)), reject (falls out of system), or ask for a revision
  9. the Author reads the decision and changes information if necessary and resubmits
  10. the Handler checks the revision, if all is ok it passes to production, else go to (4).
  11. Production
  12. Publishing

This is relatively a relatively simplified and generic Journal workflow, but you can see some forks in the paths… In my experience, most Journals have the above but with additional organisation-specific forkings and nuances. So the above is very much an ideal simplified state.

So… if you were to develop a system that takes the object, in this case a journal article, through this process, then you have a pretty complex conditional system. For example, there is two-fold circularity at play. First, there may be more than one round of reviews so the system has to be able to cope with this, second more than one round of reviews requires the same amount of decisions. That’s pretty complex already. The mistake most systems make is to try and program this path into the system in a very prescriptive and linear manner – which is difficult to do and, more importantly, hard to change once done.

So… how to get around this? Well… the answer is to use this emerging 1+1 Method I’m trying to articulate here. It is a simple way to encapsulate workflow, leaving the door open for further optimisation and innovation. To achieve this, you must walk an article (or whatever object it is) through all the steps of the workflow, but while doing so keep in mind the following:

  1. for each step, you are only allowed a maximum of 2 spaces. A common Dashboard, and one other space.
  2. push all light, single issue, tasks to the common Dashboard (space 1)
  3. if necessary, push the other tasks for that step to another space (space +1)
  4. reuse as many +1 spaces as possible, merge as many +1 spaces as possible
  5. indicate to each player/role they have something to do through Dashboard status/notifications, providing links to +1 spaces only at the appropriate moment (when they have a reason to use that space)

That’s pretty much it. What we are doing is telling a story to each participant (those that have something they need to do at a certain time), that there is something they need to do now and they have to go here (Dashboard or +1 space) to do it. When they have completed that task, the next participant gets their notification that something needs to be done and they are provided with the means to do it (an action provided on the Dashboard, or access to a +1 space).

So the journey of the article is managed through notifications at the appropriate time to the right people. This means that if we need to optimise the workflow, by either collapsing some steps or adding some steps, we don’t need to redevelop the whole prescriptive, linear workflow logic of the system. We simply need to tweak the order of notifications. Additionally, if we decide that some new innovative process should be introduced, we can do so by either tweaking an existing +1 space, or adding a new one (introducing it to the relevant participant at the relevant time through Dashboard notifications).

That keeps the system intact, and allows us to tweak and optimise/radicalise, as we go.

In the case of the Journal workflow above…. a 1+1 solution might look something like this:

  1. an Author creates a new submission  – Dashboard
  2. they fill out the required information and submit – Submission Page
  3. an Editor checks the submission and rejects the submission or assigns a Handler – Dashboard (notification) + Submission Page (to check the Submission) + Dashboard (to accept or reject an assign Handler)
  4. the Handler checks the submission and invites reviewers – Dashboard (notification) + Submission (to check submission) + Reviewer Assignment Page (to manage Reviewer Assignment)
  5. Reviewers accept or reject the invitation – Dashboard
  6. the Handler invites new Reviewers if necessary – Dashboard + Reviewer Assignment Page
  7. Reviewers write reviews and submit – Dashboard + Review Page (includes submission)
  8. the Handler reviews the reviews and writes a decision to accept (goto (11)), reject (falls out of system), or ask for a revision – Dashboard + Decision Page (includes Submission and Reviews)
  9. the Author reads the decision and changes information if necessary and resubmits – Dashboard + Submission Page
  10. the Handler checks the revision, if all is ok it passes to production, else go to (4) – Dashboard + Submission Page
  11. Production
  12. Publishing

Of course, the above could be simplified still, or you could move some elements around. The reviewer assignment could, in some workflows, occur from the Submission Page. Or, perhaps, the reviews could be placed on the Submission Page…. these decisions are dependent on your organisational needs, what information needs to be shown to who etc…

The point is, the entire workflow above, with all its loops and eddies, has been created with just the following spaces:

  1. Dashboard (primary space for everyone)
  2. Submission Page
  3. Reviewer Assignment Page
  4. Review Page
  5. Decision Page

Just 5 spaces.

Now, the above is still in need of a better explanation. If you want to get a feel for how it works, I suggest you think of a workflow that you are involved in. Simplify it a little, since this is just a first exercise, and then write down all the steps in order. Now… work through this 1+1 method. Start with the Dashboard, rely on notifications to keep everyone in the flow (exposing to them to the right Dashboard action or space at the right time), and conservatively add a new space only when you are sure that:

  1. that action couldn’t easily be handled in the Dashboard
  2. there isn’t another space that could ‘house’ this action sensibly

Walk through it once. You could even do it with Post-it notes representing the spaces if you like. Then sit back, look at it and ask yourself could it be simpler?

Then play with it a little. When you have a good system you could even play with some innovative new spaces – put them into the steps and ask yourself what that space would look like and who should it appear to and when…. you’ll see how easy it is to innovate with a system that enables this kind of workflow….

Needless to say…. that is why we created PubSweet… There might be more technologies like it, but if there are I’m not aware of them (let me know if you know of any). Also, if you have any feedback or thoughts on the above, especially on how to improve the explanation, then please let me know!