Printer With Character
Image by Evan Hamilton via Flickr

The most important technology in the world of online dissemination of scholarly materials today is the Hewlett-Packard printer.

For users of Canon, Lexmark, or printers of any other origin, worry not — the HP printer is here merely symbolic.

What it symbolizes is that, for the most part, online scholarly communications is not digital and, paradoxically, it’s not even online.

Welcome to the world of Web 0.5, where the Web meets the printer. For all the talk of Web 2.0 and beyond, Web 0.5 is where the academy is for the most part today.

These thoughts are prompted by the recent announcement that Google is now making about one million public domain books available in the ePub format (in addition to PDF).  ePub is an evolving standard with a lot of publisher support behind it, and it speaks to the goal of a publisher to create an electronic document in a “neutral” format, which can then run on any viewing device. Publishers could save a great deal of money if ePub were to prevail, and users would have the benefit of not being locked in to a particular format or device.  For example, at this time the Amazon Kindle uses a proprietary format, which gives Amazon enormous influence on how digital books are bought and sold.  Not surprisingly, publishers would like to check Amazon’s enormous and growing power.

Let’s think about how we use online material.  We begin a search for something in any number of ways:  a link or citation in an article we are reading, a comment from a colleague, a Google search, a reference in Twitter, and so on.  We find the article online and skim the abstract.  If it looks interesting, we download the article and print it out.  It’s awkward to read online for multiple reasons; hence, the importance of printing.

With new e-reader technologies, however, the printer is mostly bypassed, as online text is now disseminated to be viewed digitally.

Google’s announcement is yet another step in the migration or digital reading from PCs, whether desktops or, more likely, laptops, to other devices — netbooks, iPhone, iPods, mobile phones, and a growing number of dedicated ebook readers.  (As someone remarked on a Twitter feed I saw recently:  “Another day, another ebook reader.”)   This creates some problems for publishers.  First, which of these many devices should a publisher support?  Second, what about all the money I’ve sunk into creating a database of books and articles in PDF format?  Will I be able to use them?

Different users will have different requirements, but my view is that PDFs are not suitable for sustained online reading.  They are good for finding things (they can be indexed by Google, for example) and skimming abstracts, and they can conveniently be mounted on a Web server. But as a reading format, PDFs leave much to be desired — they are hard to fit to a screen; if their size is altered, the text looks grainy; and some people find them sluggish to use (slow to load, etc.).

All these problems with PCs are multiplied when a user switches to a handheld device.  Even netbooks, the fastest growing category of computing device, with screens much larger than mobile phones, display PDFs poorly.  It’s odd to consider the fact that it is easier to watch a feature film on an iPhone than it is to read a scholarly article in PDF.

The challenge for publishers of scholarly materials is that all that work, all that investment, in creating forests of PDFs, is now going to have to be supplemented with new investments in retrofitting the scholarly archive.  Publishers who are already working in XML can breathe easier, but the amount of material that simply won’t comfortably and inexpensively migrate to the new generation of reading devices is very large.  And it is growing, to judge from the plans many people have of going even deeper into PDF production.

The point here is not the limitations of PDF, an outstanding technology for certain uses. It has a long life ahead of it.  The point is that academic publishers may not be forecasting the need for ongoing investment in their materials.  I call this phenomenon “once and for all computing” — the belief that once you get something into a digital format, your work is done.

To use a baseball analogy, there are nine innings to the game, and this is simply the second.  You have a lot of pitching before you.

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Joseph Esposito

Joseph Esposito

Joe Esposito is a management consultant for the publishing and digital services industries. Joe focuses on organizational strategy and new business development. He is active in both the for-profit and not-for-profit areas.


7 Thoughts on "Retrofitting Scholarly Communications"

I like your “Web 0.5” analogy–I’ve always thought of online publishing of PDFs as a “digital photocopier”.

We’re running a poll over at on how people read papers today. Not unsurprisingly, printing out PDFs is in the lead, but a significant minority are reading PDF files on screen.

I’m looking forward to more widespread adoption of ebook-type readers in the academic community, and what we’ll then be able to do with functionalized, connected papers.

All publishers should create ePub and all eBook readers should render ePub. PDFs could be automatically generated from the ePub. We are small company and we are writing an ePub reader for iPhone. It’ working nicely, including complex math. Surely the bigger companies should do even better.

Horses for courses?
Digital delivery/local print works well for certain document types (individual articles from scholarly journals, conference proceedings or specific documents from archival files) but no one surely wants to print and read book length works as an unbound stack of laser printed pages…unless they absolutely have to. In the end too, routine printing on desktop lasers and (God forbid) inkjets of most book length works is vastly more expensive given cost of consumables. It’s here that I expect the ereader to excel, especially as it evolves from today’s near-prototype models with improved packaging and technology.

Shorter composite works are where this model excels. At the American Chemical Society, publisher of 36 STM Journals, our audience will download something on the order of 60 million + articles this year – many in PDF format which will be locally printed for individual use. This distribution model has not just essentially replaced traditional journal distribution, but vastly extended the global reach and usage of these peer reviewed materials from a decade ago. The instant gratification of 24/7 access and instant retreival is disintermediating the library from this content pathway (except as funder) and increasing the relationship between enduser, author, and publisher.

Hey Joe: Brady sure seems like a long time ago, doesn’t it?

One thing to think about is the environment in which the material is going to be used. As part of a science publishing house, much of what we publish are lab manuals and science protocols. These are essentially cookbook-type instructions for various lab techniques. Would you really want to keep your expensive and delicate e-book reader on the lab bench next to you while working with caustic chemicals, radioactive/carcinogenic substances and large quantities of potentially spillable liquids?

Most people print out the article or run off a Xerox copy of the pages from the manual they’re going to use rather than risk this sort of destruction/contamination in the laboratory environment, and I don’t see that changing any time soon. Besides, it’s hard to work a touchscreen while you’re wearing gloves.

@David – this is the reason I hand copy recipes instead of taking my laptop or iphone into the kitchen (no working printer in the house, alas). Some refrigerators come with displays and there are specialty devices that are more “rugged” for the kitchen. Do you think there’s a market for a rugged ereader for lab use for protocols?

I don’t know if there’s enough of a market by itself–you have to sell lots and lots of a device to bring the cost of manufacturing down to a reasonable level (which is why the iPhone costs $99 and the Kindle costs $300 plus). But I’d be willing to bet there will be a more general market for ruggedized devices as these sorts of things catch on, and perhaps scientists (and cooks) can get what they need in combination with other industries.

I’m still strongly of the opinion that stand-alone e-readers are a niche product at best, but ruggedized tablets or phones or, given the way most kids treat things, gameboys make a lot of sense.

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