Accessibility at Elsevier – Aiming at the Moon and Back - A Publisher’s Perspective.

December 20, 2021

By Michiel Kolman & Rachel Martin

[Blog from an ABC Partner]

We are undoubtedly living in turbulent times with the continued global pandemic. It reminds us all about the importance and value of trusted information and content, and for everyone to be able to access such information regardless of their physical ability. During the time Michiel served as board member of the Accessible Books Consortium (ABC), we have seen the awareness and strategic importance of accessible publishing rise to the top of the agenda but not without some stumbling blocks. In this article, we hope to share the experience of the accessibility journey we have taken at our own publishing house – Elsevier.

Elsevier is a global information analytics business specializing in scientific, technical, and medical content. Ten years ago, we introduced our first accessibility policy and we were one of the first publishing houses to sign the ABC Charter for Accessible Publishing. For us, our accessibility policy has always been about making sure all of our users get the most benefit, insight and understanding from our content. To achieve this, we knew our accessibility commitment had to be embedded across our company and within our company culture.

Person seated at desk using a computer. Accessibility Elsevier consistently and proactively endeavors to make our products fully accessible to all users, regardless of physical abilities
(Photo credit: Elsevier)

Our policy, best practices and guidelines have been established across hundreds of digital products and websites. In 2020, our Accessibility Working Group logged over 200 accessibility projects across various domains such as Geology, Nursing, and Legal Research. This includes continuous improvements to ScienceDirect, our flagship journals and books platform. We started the ScienceDirect accessibility journey over 20 years ago, running research studies with people who are blind and who use screen readers. ScienceDirect recently ranked 424th out of the top million home pages in WebAim’s 2021 study. ScienceDirect also achieved a 97% gold rating by the independent ASPIRE organization for our platform accessibility statement. ScienceDirect was one of the first publishers to provide accessible math using MathML, a machine-readable format that can be read by assistive technologies such as text-to-speech. We have also upgraded our ePUB3 ebooks and PDFs with several new accessibility features, and our ebook template achieved 0 errors when evaluated using the ACE by DAISY accessibility checker. Our Voluntary Product Accessibility Templates (VPATs), (otherwise known as an Accessibility Conformance Report) have been updated in 2020 according to the new Web Content Accessibility Guidelines 2.1 standard.

The sheer amount of work accomplished by a modest and dedicated team has been astounding. However, we haven’t quite reached our goals yet. One target has been to achieve the Benetech certification for our workflow processes for ebooks. For us, a sticking point has been around alternative text (“alt text”) for images. Our books, depending on the topic, can feature complex formulas and detailed diagrams. Providing alt text for these are a challenge for our systems but also for our suppliers who typeset our pages, for authors and editors and others throughout the production process. The main issue here is awareness and understanding of what makes good alt text. It can be very hard to write a good alternative description for images, even with detailed guidance and even if you are a talented writer. It is harder still to have alt text be of consistently high quality across all content types at a scale and cost that keeps book production viable. This is an area of great opportunity where we can see that new artificial intelligence (AI) solutions could potentially play a key role in helping to generate these types of descriptions without overburdening authors or suppliers.

The type of collaboration that is needed to address key challenges in accessible publishing leads to a clear challenge for large publishers: how do you get everyone across an organization aligned and heading in the same accessibility direction?

One of the ways we approached this was to look at our own employees. Many members of our staff are either themselves or have friends and relatives who have visual impairments and other disabilities. These passionate individuals united to establish their own employee resource group focused on disability called Elsevier Enabled. The group has been very powerful in raising awareness of the challenges people with disabilities face at work and with our own internal systems and tools. Their personal stories have ultimately helped everyone better understand the challenges of our readers and inspired our staff to make accessibility part of our day-to-day work. We are pleased to say that there is now clear accessibility training and even a one-hour introduction to accessibility for all of our new technology employees. The other lesson our accessibility journey has taught us is that we need to collaborate. Elsevier had a number of partnerships and collaborations that needed to be refreshed and updated when we got involved in accessibility. We are delighted to have strengthened our partnership with the Royal National Institute of Blind People (RNIB) in the United Kingdom, a not-for-profit that provides an online library for people with print disabilities, that has resulted in the donation to RNIB by Elsevier of over 4,000 books last year. ;

Finally, the last step of our journey has to been to understand our progress and identify areas where we need to improve. Elsevier’s progress is annually reported in our parent company’s (RELX) Corporate Responsibility Report. Our accessibility group has created an internal accessibility maturity model that enables us to self-evaluate our progress on accessibility across 14 different categories. This allows us to go beyond one book or product to thinking through how accessibility is embedded throughout all levels and areas of our business. The model covers areas such as training, leadership, suppliers and customers. With our first critical self-evaluation in 2020, we found several areas for improvement that have helped inform our strategic approach in 2022 and beyond.

All of this activity makes us feel incredibly proud to work at Elsevier. As one colleague put it: “we are more than halfway to the moon”. Whilst we agree, on reflection our challenges today will simply evolve and develop as technology adapts and accessibility principles are further integrated into our day-to-day work. We like to think that accessibility can be a moving target where we continually strive to solve the challenges of today with a view to develop even better solutions for tomorrow. Perhaps we need to not only get to the moon but back again!

Michiel Kolman is Senior Vice President, Research Networks and Academic Ambassador at Elsevier. Rachel Martin is the Global Director of Sustainability at Elsevier.