Date

[Update: immediately after publishing I changed the title a little bit]

I did a series of articles here a while back ** about trying to use various word processors and editing tools to write scholarly works for publication in HTML. Then this year, I looked in more detail at what Scholarly HTML might be like.

Now it’s Google Wave’s turn. I got my invitation (thanks Jim) and immediately had a look at how it might be used for collaborative authoring for papers. I’ll cover two things here; (a) document structure and formatting tools and (b) citations. I won’t say too much about the collaborative aspects until we have tried it out, but they seem to work as advertised, a few of us were able to muck around in a document together without too much trouble.

Formatting

The first thing I do with any editor is see how it structures documents. Wave has a slightly weird (to me) set of choices. It has headings, which is a start, and a whole lot of direct formatting tools, which is disappointing, and lacks both numbered lists and block-quotes which is a real pity.

But the really interesting (to me) part is the way it handles bullet lists.

If I put in a little list like this:

  • List 1

    • List 2

    • List 2

  • List 1

Then the HTML it produces is like this:

<pstyle="margin-left: 14px;" class="simulated-li bullet-type-0">List 1<br></p>

<pstyle="margin-left: 28px;" class="simulated-li bullet-type-1">List 2<br></p>

<pstyle="margin-left: 14px;" class="simulated-li bullet-type-0">List 1<br></p>

Not a list-element in sight! It uses plain-old paragraphs with a mixture of classes (which is fine by me) and direct formatting which is a bit less so: “margin-left: 28px;”. This will probably get some people riled-up, but actually I think it is a reasonable approach for an editing environment, provided one can export to proper HTML later and make something like this:

<ul>

<li><p>List 1</p>

<ul>

<li><p>List 2</p></li>

<li><p>List 2</p></li>

</li>

<li><p>List 1</p></li>

</ul>

Why is this approach of using plain-old paragraphs reasonable? It’s because of the mess that most editors get into when editing lists. All the in-browser editors I have seen have major problems making sensible structure, they let you do stupid meaningless things like have two adjacent bullet lists, but don’t let you collapse them. I last wrote about this looking a Mozilla Seamonkey Composer, which is a desktop tool.

The Wave approach is very similar to what we do in ICE. ICE uses styles in a word processor (MS Word or OpenOffice.org Writer) to imply structure. In an ICE document the above list would be made using styles, shown here in braces. The ICE Toolbar has buttons just like the Wave ones to toggle bullets and promote and demote.

  • {li1b} List 1

    • {li2b} List 2

    • {li2b} List 2

  • {li1b} List 1

So, provided there is a way in Wave for us to add an export as HTML feature like the one in ICE which I’m sure there is, then I’m happy with the flat-paragraph approach. I would really love to see blockquotes supported and custom styles would be really great. But even if blockquotes aren’t supported we can look for indented paragraphs and map them to blockquote elements.

Citations

The other thing that’s essential for writing a paper is good reference and citation support. I asked on Twitter if there was a Zotero gadget yet, and Bruce Darcus pointed me toIgor, which doesn’t support Zotero, but does connect to PubMed, Connotea or Citeulike. It works by looking for text like:

(cite sefton 2006)

Then inserting a reference and updating the bibliography. I have not tried Igor but it looks like it is limited to one citation style.

All I would want would be a plugin to look for links to an online Zotero account like this: http://www.zotero.org/ptsefton/items/77278 or to a DOI, as I described back in April and provide a variant of the Zotero word processor plugin feature to format citations and bibliographies. One issue might be that as I understand it parts of the Zotero citation code depend on Firefox specific libraries, so can’t be made to function across-browsers.

Conclusion

I think Wave shows some promise as a collaborative editing tool, but it’s only going to be useful for simple documents to start with, what with the lack of table and numbered list support. I’d be surprised if Zotero support doesn’t manifest soon, but if it doesn’t then we’ll probably get around to that in my team at some stage.

Of course there’s lots more to talk about with the potential for embedding scientific objects etc, as discussed in this post. I’ll come back to that.


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