The Netherlands’ Elsevier: Global Accessibility Certification

In Feature Articles by Porter Anderson

As Benetech’s iconic certification turns five years old, the research giant Elsevier receives its Global Certified Accessible designation.

In Amsterdam, a guide dog trained by the KNGF Geleidehonden, the Royal Dutch Guide Dog Foundation, at work. Image – Getty iStockphoto: Robert vt Hoenderdaal

By Porter Anderson, Editor-in-Chief | @Porter_Anderson

‘A Huge Amount of Collaboration and Iteration’
With the 10th anniversary of the World Intellectual Property Organization‘s (WIPO) Marrakesh Treaty coming on Wednesday (July 12), the news today (July 10) is especially timely: the Netherlands-based research publisher Elsevier has been designated by Benetech, based in Palo Alto, as a “Global Certified Accessible” publisher.

Benetech’s certification provides this accreditation to publishers that Benetech determines are producing EPUB units that meet various criteria for accessibility features in order to support the needs of all readers, including those with disabilities and learning differences.

Certification confirms that a publisher meets “EPUB Accessibility 1.0 Conformance and Discovery specification” and surpasses a publishing standard level coded in the industry as WCAG [Web Content Accessibility Guidelines] 2.0 AA. Benetech’s recognition means that these publishers are considered creators of fully accessible ePub files. Content evaluated to be free of all WCAG 2.0 AA code violations generates a “Benetech Born Accessible score” of at least 80 percent or better.

When Benetech reviewed three Elsevier EPUB files using Palo Alto’s set of validation tools, the three books blew right past the 80-percent requirement and were given 100-percent scores in each category.

Those guidelines used to test such EPUB files are designed to assure four points about an accessible file. Its accessibility must be:

  • Perceivable
  • Operable
  • Understandable
  • Robust

Benetech’s Global Certified Accessible initiative reached its own fifth anniversary in late June, as a matter of fact, a point recognized by the DAISY Consortium, which collaborated on the development of this first-of-its-kind accreditation. This page lists 52 publishers—some of them among the largest in the world—that have achieved the Global Certified Accessible accreditation to date, including Elsevier.

And one of the most useful things that Elsevier has done in approaching this accreditation is offer some factors in terms of exactly what various accessibility and usability features are involved to, as the publisher states its goal, “enable all learners to succeed in science, health, and technology.”

For example, a reader with low vision, when encountering Elsevier’s content, should find:

  • Full Text Search
  • Tables marked with headers
  • Content capable of being magnified without loss of functionality or wrapping
  • Text content using WCAG 2.1 compliant contrast
  • Text content that’s screen reader compatible
  • Text that’s high-contrast and adjustable with the users app
‘The Growing Need’ for ‘Fully Accessible Content’

Publishing Perspectives has had a chance to have an exchange with Ted Gies, whose role as Elsevier’s accessibility manager falls under the company’s Information Security and Data Privacy group (ISDP). That prompted us to start by asking Gies how his work as accessibility manager comes to lie under the aegis of the security and privacy group.

Ted Gies

I head up the digital accessibility team,” Gies says, “which sits within the wider ISDP group. Customers often review cyber security, data privacy, and accessibility when purchasing our digital products. Another tie-in is that Web Content Accessibility Guidelines 2.2 (WCAG) provides two new criteria around making authentication more accessible.

“Accessibility goes way beyond compliance,” Gies says, “and is all about empowering people with easy-to-use products and services. A member of the team, namely Sudhakar Haridoss, is the functional technical lead for all global ebook activity, owns the technical specifications, and is the leading Elsevier expert in translating the Benetech requirements into the subsequent ebooks.

“The team has worked for a number of years,”  he says, “to find the best way to execute the growing need for Elsevier to publish fully accessible content.”

In terms of hurdles in bringing such a large and multifaceted  corporation as Elsevier into its Global Certified Accessible accreditation, Gies says, “The greatest challenge in making Elsevier ebooks accessible is the provision of the required alt-text for image content, given the scientific, technical, and often complex verbal and visual content.

“This certification is just the beginning of what needs to become an end-to-end ‘content creation-to-consumption’ ecosystem.”Ted Gies, Elsevier

“The team is investigating use of generative AI in providing an automated solution for creating this content, and additionally we’d like to partner with authors to help produce alternative text for image content.”

A company working in so many international markets, of course, also faces special challenges in staff unity on new initiatives.

“We provide a structured accessibility training ‘belting’ program for our staff,” Gies says. “Jill Luber, our chief technology officer, is the primary sponsor of this program, which is now starting its sixth year. With the belting program, we aim to increase accessibility expertise in the company.”

By way of illustration, Gies points out several big numbers:

  • So far, 286 Elsevier employees have completed Deque University’s “Web Accessibility Specialist” training to earn their yellow belts since 2018. That, Gies says, comes to an aggregate 7,000 hours of accessibility training across more than 25 office locations
  • What’s more, 65 Elsevier employees have graduated with accessibility yellow belts between May 2022 and the same month this year
  • To date, Elsevier has published around 150 fully accessible EPUB ebooks with quality alternative text.

The program is growing, Gies says, and all editorial and operations employees are building awareness and skills needed to expand to all Elsevier content. 

Nevertheless, he says, “This certification is just the beginning of what needs to become an end-to-end ‘content creation-to-consumption’ ecosystem, i.e. one in which book content creation starts with authors following accessibility best practices and are provided with the right tools such as Elsa, which allows authoring image descriptions.”

Elsa, for our readers not yet familiar with it, is Elsevier’s platform for authors, a software designed to support manuscript submission with automated formatting, organization, and collaboration elements.

“We’ll continue to communicate and train around accessibility,” Gies says, “including updating staff about our latest certifications. Indeed, we’ll be required to do that, given the launch of the European Accessibility Act, which requires ebooks sold in the EU to be accessible starting June 2025.”

‘It Was Tough for Us to Achieve’

Gies outlines ways in which Elsevier has also worked on raising awareness about disability factors as an element of inclusion. “In 2022, he says, “we launched a ‘Building Disability Confidence’ training course in partnership with Disability:IN.” That course, Gies says, has been taken by more than 1,000 employees, which “allows us to better serve the communities we support” That’s vital, he says, with the United Nations reporting that as much as 15 percent of the world population—as many as 1 billion people—are living with some form of disability.

“We didn’t pick easy titles to go through the assessment, but we achieved a perfect score.”Ted Gies, Elsevier

And while many might think that for a company with the resources of Elsevier, getting Benetech’s certification was easy, that’s not the case.

Elsevier submitted books in 2017 as a pilot before the Benetech Global Certified Accessible [designation] was well known,” Gies says. “Elsevier, together with a few other publishers, helped [test] the service, which allowed Benetech to create the more formal system we have today. The current certification process started in earnest in October 2021 with the submission of the first of three ePub books. All three books were complex examples of our content, to ensure a thorough test of our accessibility was undergone.

“There’s a huge amount of collaboration and iteration required to achieve the certification,” he says, “and several suppliers, operations, and my accessibility team worked together. There were several rounds of iterations on books with improvements.

“The collaboration theme is pervasive throughout Elsevier accessibility initiatives,” he says, “and it’s reinforced at the conferences when we make presentations. My colleague Hadi Rangin at the University of Washington instilled this open-collaboration principle with me back in 2010 when he helped test Scopus and ScienceDirect products.”

Clearly, the path to accreditation has been a long one for Elsevier and means a lot to Gies and his colleagues.  

“The Benetech certification is a major milestone,” he says, “and was tough for us to achieve. We didn’t pick easy titles to go through the assessment, but we achieved a perfect score.”  

More from Publishing Perspectives on issues in accessibility and publishing is here, more on Benetech and its accreditation programming is here, and more on Elsevier is here

About the Author

Porter Anderson

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Porter Anderson has been named International Trade Press Journalist of the Year in London Book Fair's International Excellence Awards. He is Editor-in-Chief of Publishing Perspectives. He formerly was Associate Editor for The FutureBook at London's The Bookseller. Anderson was for more than a decade a senior producer and anchor with, CNN International, and CNN USA. As an arts critic (Fellow, National Critics Institute), he was with The Village Voice, the Dallas Times Herald, and the Tampa Tribune, now the Tampa Bay Times. He co-founded The Hot Sheet, a newsletter for authors, which now is owned and operated by Jane Friedman.