Article of the future? Let's talk about scholarly communications.

It has taken me a while to get to commenting on the Article of the Future examples from Elsevier and Cell Press. If you look at their two prototype articles you will see an attempt to sex-up the presentation of a research articles, with a few social-web trimmings via a share/save button. I already know how to tweet or delicious-tag an article all by myself, but OK maybe it’s useful. I’d be more impressed if the delicious tagging thing put in a DOI/Handle instead of the URL of the page I’m looking at, though.

I can’t match the level of detail in Paul Carvill’s piece; Elsevier’s ‘Article of the Future’ resembles websites of the past which I will quote from here. My conclusion is that the Article of the Future is merely a distraction from the real issues so I would not bother dissecting the thing in detail even if Carvill had already not already eviscerated it:

these Articles of the Future are not tools, and they are no more innovative than using a page layout application to alter the appearance of some printed matter.  Hyperlinking and the ability to add media files to a page have existed since the web was created, and these articles add nothing more to that basic paradigm of linked data files [PS: I don’t think this is a reference to Linked Data in the Berner’s Lee semantic-web sense].  There are some nods towards current trends, with a comment feature and social bookmarking links.  But overall the feel is clunky, lacking research and distinctly amateur.

http://onlinejournalismblog.com/2009/07/27/elseviers-article-of-the-future-resembles-websites-of-the-past/

Read the whole critique, there are lots of good points in there.

My first reaction was that most of what is presented in the prototypes is interface trickery that is being driven by the XML structure behind the articles. The most obvious example is that there is a kind of tab-driven Table of Contents (ToC); I guess that is a compact way to present a ToC if you have a small enough number of main headings, but it’s a trivial programming exercise and I’m guessing that if the idea had legs it would be in wider use; and it’s masking a deeper concern. Carvill notes that you simply can’t access the prototypes without Javascript turned on and I agree this is very bad. There is no reason that these articles could not be presented in purely declarative, semantically rich HTML, as per my post describing a potential Scholarly HTML, with the interface trickery loaded in on browsers that support it, for users that want it. Not exposing the complete structure of the article in one go, or with plain links is an effective way of blocking machine processing of the text and data (if data happens to be linked, which does not seem to be the case here), not to mention potentially blocking reader’s ability to archive the page in a tool like Zotero or save it for later reuse.

This brings me to some of the bigger issues. When interviewed for a recent Times Higher Education article on scientific communication, Peter Murray-Rust points out that publisher policies on the use of tools to process online papers are a drag on scientific communications:

“You are actually barred from using modern techniques to enhance your science … it has taken us back ten years in the use of scientific information,”

Peter is talking about policy there, but he has also campaigned against locking up publications in PDF which is a technological approach to the same end. What we see here is potentially a way to lock up HTML, too. I don’t know whether this is a deliberate policy or not, but the lack of emphasis on data and the lack of a one-page HTML and/or XML view point to a maybe unconscious attempt to keep up the divide I pointed out in the paper I posted here yesterday, the gap between author’s versions of papers and those held by the publisher. I said there:

To illustrate the potential divide between the authors version and the publishers, consider that Elsevier, the publisher of this journal, recently ran a competition, Article 2.0 to show the future of a scientific article. The competition winner shows that a journal article may be the Web locus for discussion, annotation and semantic relationships, but this competition was built on XML source documents which are created and held by the publisher, so there is no way that a typical institutional repository could easily provide the same services. This is a case where the publisher is shaping scholarly communications, or at least exploring how to do so, but a lack of tools means that repositories are unlikely to be able to do likewise. This creates a distinct divide between the publishers more richly marked-up version and the version held by the author in word processing format or the typesetting system LaTeX, neither of which allow high quality HTML unless the author has used a particular set of templates and/or macros and has access to specific conversion software.

[doi:10.1016/j.serrev.2009.05.001]

What we really need, I think, is Scholarly Communications 2.0, not Article of the Future or Journal 2.0. Articles and Journals are constructs that we may not end up needing. To find out, we should work out the new model for research that a number of those interviewed in the Times Higher Education article were talking about. My article suggests some ways that USQ might proceed, recommending that we (a) start with research theses and (b) build from our strength in flexible educational delivery to build a new scholarly communications process around the scholarship of teaching and learning.