Image Credit: Bruno Emmanuelle on Unsplash
Image Credit: Bruno Emmanuelle on Unsplash

Think about the (staggering) amount of digital content you consume on any given day. Are you reading all of it from a computer perched on a desk? Odds are, the answer to that question is a resounding no.

If you’re like most people, you’re probably using a mobile device at least some of or, potentially, the majority of the time you spend surfing the internet. And by the term mobile device, we mean any portable computer that is small enough to hold and operate in your hand — whether it be a smartphone or tablet.

Since 2016, mobile web browsing has consistently exceeded desktop worldwide. Reports on web traffic from January through March 2021 show that mobile devices generated 54.8 percent of total global website traffic (and that number excludes tablets).

When it comes to rising mobile use, universities and research centers are no exception. Scholars are increasingly using smartphones and tablets to search for relevant research content. The only trouble is, not all academic journals have mobile-friendly websites.

If you work with one or more scholarly journals that don’t yet have mobile-ready websites, now’s the time for your publishing team to initiate the transition to mobile-friendly website design. Otherwise, you’ll likely miss out on discovery opportunities and the chance to give readers the best article browsing experience possible.

In this blog post, we break down why all scholarly journals should have mobile-friendly websites, how to check whether journal websites are mobile-friendly, and what to do if not.

Why all journals should have mobile-friendly websites

Scholars are spending more time online and increasingly using mobile devices

Since the early 2000s, internet use has surged in academia, with scholars and students now primarily relying on online discovery services for their research needs. If mainstream media is any indicator, it seems that with this apparent transition to digital-first research discovery, mobile searches and content consumption will likely grow significantly in the coming years.

Student and faculty surveys show that a shift towards mobile research browsing has been underway since as early as 2012, with a Utah State University libraries survey of over 3,000 students finding that 54% of undergraduate and 50% of graduate students used mobile devices for academic purposes. When asked if they would access resources via mobile if libraries made them available in mobile formats, 70.2% said they would likely access resources on a smartphone, and 46.9% said they would likely access resources on an iPad.

The latest 2015 and 2018 “How Readers Discover Content in Scholarly Publications“ surveys from Renew Publishing Consultant confirm researchers have indeed been using mobile devices more. The reports find growth in mobile use, particularly in the medical sector. Among the many benefits of using mobile devices for health and medical research, as noted in a recent Academic Medicine commentary, are their portability and the potential for mobile apps to enable rapid research collaboration on a more global scale.

All of that is to say — as mobile use grows among the general public, it’s also increasing in academia, and journals should be taking notice.

Mobile-friendly design improves website discoverability

As scholars have transitioned to conducting the majority of research online, many have also begun using mainstream search engines more, especially Google Scholar and Google — and it’s another leading reason to make journal websites mobile-friendly. That’s because Google’s algorithm favors mobile-friendly websites when determining which content to return in search results. Google began moving to “mobile-first” website indexing, or prioritizing mobile-friendly content in its search review and rankings, in 2018 and officially enabled mobile-first indexing for all websites in September 2020. So even if you don’t think scholars in your discipline are using mobile devices to search for articles, if they’re on Google Scholar and Google, your mobile website performance matters.

And it’s very likely that scholars in your discipline are using Google Scholar and Google, especially in early research discovery. The latest “Ithaka S+R US Faculty Survey“ and “How Readers Discover Content in Scholarly Publications“ report both found that while most scholars still rely primarily on academic databases like Scopus and Web of Science for research, Google Scholar and Google are gaining ground. The Ithaka survey notes, “faculty are increasingly beginning their exploration of scholarly literature with Google Scholar and other general-purpose search engines.”

It appears that one of the main reasons more academics have begun turning to mainstream search engines to do research is having limited access to tethered library databases while away from campus, which brings us to our next point.

You’ll be able to reach more scholars wherever they are

Making journal websites mobile-friendly is also a way to literally make your content “mobile” and accessible to researchers wherever they are. With students and faculty spending more time off campus, the demand for scholarly content available from search engines that don’t require jumping through location-based campus access authentication hoops has never been greater.

Academics out in the field or working in developing countries also often don’t have immediate access to desktop or laptop computers. As such, many rely on mobile devices for their research needs. Particularly in developing countries, the latest “How Readers Discover Content in Scholarly Publications“ report finds, “it seems that desktop computers are legacy devices mostly used in the developed world and that more mobile forms of computing are favored in poorer countries.” As noted, healthcare practitioners are also emerging as early mobile research adopters, given that mobile devices can be more conducive to clinical settings.

Having a mobile-friendly website can also improve your journals’ reputation

Finally, another reason to prioritize mobile-friendly journal website design is to strengthen the reputation of your publications among readers and potential authors. The discoverability and appearance of a journal’s content directly affect visitors’ perceptions of it. If scholars have to dig through multiple search results pages to find a journal or awkwardly zoom in and out to navigate its website from their smartphone because it’s not optimized for mobile search and use, it’s not the best look. Such experiences can make even well-known publications appear less professional.

On the other hand, journals that provide seamless mobile browsing experiences are likely to impress readers. And authors are likely to take note of publications that show up on the first page of search results when deciding where to submit, as many are weighing journal discoverability more heavily in publication decisions to boost the potential impacts of their articles.

Ensuring your journal websites are mobile-friendly

How to check if a journal website is mobile-friendly

You may be reading all of this and thinking — I’m actually not sure if the journal or journals I work with are mobile-friendly. If not, it’s easy to tell. You can use Google’s free tester to find out if Google and other search engines recognize any website as mobile-friendly.

If you’re working with one or more journals that publish articles in PDF only, you’ll want to be mindful of that and check the mobile-friendliness of your article pages specifically. Generally speaking, PDFs are not a mobile-friendly file type, so you may have a tougher time getting them indexed by search engines.

That’s not to say that PDF publishing can’t work for mobile indexing at all — it just depends on how you host your PDFs. We highly recommend that any journal publishing via PDF hosts its PDF articles in an in-browser viewer on responsive HTML web pages for a few reasons. First, when you host articles on responsive HTML web pages, those pages will be registered by browsers as mobile-friendly. You’ll also be able to add rich machine-readable HTML meta tag metadata to each of your articles’ web pages, which will make it much easier for search engines to find and index them. And, finally, hosting articles on separate web pages is a Google Scholar indexing requirement.

For the best mobile indexing and reading experience, publishing articles in responsive HTML is the way to go. And, of course, your publishing team doesn’t have to become HTML experts to do this. There are production services you can use for HTML, PDF, and XML article typesetting. At Scholastica, we offer an affordable digital-first production service that generates all of these article file types simultaneously, straight journals’ original DOCX or LaTeX manuscript files. So there’s no need to change your publishing workflow to become XML first etc. — our advanced software handles all of the technical steps for you.

If you find that your journal websites and article pages are mobile-friendly, that’s great news for you and your team! Now you’ll want to ensure your website developer or hosting provider can regularly check your mobile website performance and take steps to optimize it as needed based on changing mobile indexing best practices (because requirements do change!).

What to do if your journal website isn’t mobile-friendly

If you find that one or more journals you work with are not yet mobile-friendly, bring it up at your next publishing meeting and begin working with your team to form an action plan. Your two main options are upgrading your current website to a mobile-friendly format or transitioning your content to a new responsive HTML publishing platform/website design that will work on desktop and mobile.

If your current website is well-coded and you have tech-savvy team members and/or access to a web developer, you may find that you’re able to convert your existing site to responsive HTML with relative ease. Some Content Management Systems even offer the option to upgrade to a mobile-friendly template.

However, if that’s not the case and you find that updating your current website to a mobile-friendly design will require significant development work, don’t fear. You can always move to a new mobile-friendly publishing platform, and the process is a lot easier than you might think. For example, Scholastica’s Open Access journal hosting platform features a responsive website template journal publishers or editors can easily set up in a few clicks using our simple editor tool. And we help journals quickly move their back issues over to our platform as needed. We’re constantly taking steps to ensure all websites hosted via Scholastica adhere to the latest search engine standards, so they’re optimized for mobile indexing and general search best practices.

Explore your options and see if using a web designer or a new ready-to-go mobile publishing platform will be the best fit for your needs.

We hope you’ve found this article helpful! If you have any questions about mobile-friendly journal publishing, we invite you to post them in the comments section or tweet us at @scholasticahq.

Update Note: This post was originally published on the 26th of September 2017. It was updated and expanded on the 26th of June 2021 to include the latest mobile-friendly web browsing stats and publishing benefits.

Tales from the Trenches