Every now and then you go to a conference and find yourself inspired while listening to a talk. This happened to me recently at the Researcher to Reader Conference held in London in March. The talk was entitled, “The Rise of the User”, given by Jan Reichelt. Jan is a co-founder of Mendeley – an innovator. His message in many ways was simple: In every publishing organization you need a rebel. This rebel by nature should be a thorn in your side. The rebel should see the publishing landscape from the point of view of the user, recognizing that in understanding user behavior you are also approaching solutions. Jan implored us to think about how software changes user behavior and business models. As publishers we need to “…empower the software talent generation to create, innovate, inspire, and influence.”
As I listened to Jan, I realized that at the American Mathematical Society (AMS) we are lucky enough to have access to such a rebel, a rebel able to conceptualize the unique complexities of replicating the precision of math on the web. Peter Krautzberger, who is the project lead for MathJax (a magical tool for universal rendering of math on the Web), is one such rebellious individual. Peter is a mathematician, a project manager, a software developer, and just fascinated by the Web. Peter looks at the publishing world a bit differently than most of us do and, as a consequence, provides valuable insights that push us to consider new ways of thinking. We don’t always want hear what the rebel has to say, of course. It can be hard to listen to someone who is capable of turning your world upside down, and harder still to see how to translate this world view into business reality. For this post, I sat down with Peter Krautzberger to see if I can find out what makes our rebel tick – what really excites him – and suggest that as publishers we all need a Peter to push us to innovate.
So, Peter Krautzberger – who is he? Peter is a consultant and developer for Web based production workflows in STEM publishing. He works primarily with the AMS on MathJax, as well as developing the future of ebooks. Peter is a mathematician, who serendipitously became fascinated with how the web as a medium transformed mathematical communication. At that time, the MathJax project was underway. In 2009, AMS, Design Science, and the Society of Industrial and Applied Mathematics (SIAM) formed the MathJax Consortium to enable the creator of MathJax, David Cervone, and others to design MathJax from the ground up. Peter had been experimenting with MathJax to create an ebook with reflowable mathematics, and eventually became a part of this world. As AMS became the managing partner of MathJax, he gradually began applying his worldview to publishing more broadly.
I asked Peter to tell me how he views the ebook landscape. Peter says it is all about the Web. In Peter’s view, the ebook landscape is both wonderfully flexible and frustrating at the same time, especially for a subject like mathematics, which is enormously difficult to represent. Peter’s main frustration is that publishers, and in fact academics – the users – do not focus enough on the potential of the Web as a medium – they still think about the web in general and ebooks in particular in terms of a print products. Whether it be the Kindle, PDF, or even EPUB, these formats are used to produce derivatives of print and do not take advantage of the Web’s own grain.
Peter is clearly fascinated by the Web. He sees the Web as a “beautiful canvas” — a medium that breaks down communication barriers for good and for bad, but has the potential for depth in this communication.
As with all good innovators, Peter is frustrated. He feels, for example, that advocates of open science focus heavily on sharing of supposedly neutral data, but are still not able to see beyond the PDF. For him open science should be more about how the Web can facilitate communications. Peter commented on Kent Anderson’s recent excellent Scholarly Kitchen article, “The Tyranny of Amusements, Science, Spectacle, and the Lowly PDF”, taking issue with Kent’s assertion that:
“The PDF’s power may run deep, in ways that scientific and academic publishers need to contemplate. After all, in the “alternative facts” world we find ourselves, conveying quality, expert accurate information easily and memorably may be more important than ever. Research suggests print conceits — “the typographic mind” — convey these benefits. PDFs are our best print proxies.”
While Peter concedes that the PDF is important, he feels we are needlessly limited by our print mindset. In his view, studies showing that the human brain is wired into a print reading format ignore the fact we spend years training our brains to use the print medium, but have virtually no training in digital reading.
“The evidence given seems a bit sparse. I haven’t seen many studies that allow such strong conclusions to be drawn, most fall short in some way e.g., testing subjects with decades of print reading experience but no training in digital reading, questionably designed web content, poorly executed skeuomorphic interfaces. For example, http://www.newyorker.com/science/maria-konnikova/being-a-better-online-reader produces and https://www.scientificamerican.com/article/reading-paper-screens/ provide a more nuanced picture.”
At this point in the conversation, I realize that much of what we have discussed is about Peter’s frustrations. What about the future? What excites Peter? What is he doing to change things?
Peter is engaged in two main projects, MathJax, and new econtent workflows. He believes that these are beginning to change the way readers and publishers approach the Web — most of this centering on mathematics, of course, as this is his field.
For example, MathJax recently introduced a fundamentally new approach to responsive rendering of equations on the Web where math is no longer broken up, artificially, line breaks curbing the flow of expression. Instead, subexpressions dynamically collapse, exposing a high-level overview that fits on the screen while still allowing for detailed exploration if that is the task at hand. The rationale behind it is simple: on a small screen, the predominant reading behavior does not require a large equation in detail but instead is interrupted by it, especially if line-breaking suddenly spreads it across multiple screen heights. If you can present equations more artfully, he believes, you will enable the actual process of mathematical writing and, in extension, thinking. In this modern context, the requirements of artful writing enable not only better understanding in the medium that is the web but helps make mathematical equations machine readable. In fact, this flexible rendering of math also helped in the development of accessibility tools enabling math consumption for people with visual and cognitive impairments.
As a publisher, I want to enable Peter to innovate, and translate his work into our business, which is and will likely remain a mix of models. As a publisher I need to encourage Peter, and simultaneously ensure that we don’t discard the old service in favor of the new. Our business relies on being pragmatic.
Peter has also spent much of his time working with the AMS thinking about how to create full text HTML article workflows. He has now created the AMS MathViewer, which takes a manuscript and turns it into a website, not attempting to mimic a print or a PDF view. The idea is not to compete with the reading experience of a print layout, instead focusing on the strengths of the Web, be it a dynamic presentation, accessibility, offline functionality or just connecting you to content inside and outside of the article. Interestingly, this all started with LENS, a product of the Austrian start-up company Substance in collaboration with eLife, but after a period of experimentation, Substance moved on to develop other products, and Peter created a new tool tuned to the needs and strengths of mathematicians.
As a part of all of this the tool chains involved in creating AMS MathViewer are now being deployed in service of creating ebooks. Of course, ebooks are a harder nut to crack. EPUB is dominant, and yet its ecosystem is actually next to useless for reproducing complex mathematics. In the broader ebook world, Kindle rules, except that Kindle is, in Peter’s view, a bit of a mess. It is a proprietary format with a tool chain that just lacks transparency, is riddled with bugs, and yet it is really what many of us think of first when we think about ebook readers.
Peter is working right now on HTML books, or web publications as they might soon be called, and for him the next step is to convince people like me that we can convince authors to write in a way that is Web enabled. I am both sympathetic and yet sit where Kent Anderson sits, recognizing the importance of both the PDF, and indeed print. As a publisher, I want to enable Peter to innovate, and translate his work into our business, which is and will likely remain a mix of models. As a publisher I need to encourage Peter, and simultaneously ensure that we don’t discard the old service in favor of the new. Our business relies on being pragmatic.
So, perhaps this is where I will end my post. The message is that as a publisher you need to encourage innovation, foster those rebels in your work force, and be ready to deploy new technology, all the while recognizing that from a business perspective there is value in what we know and love – print and the PDF.