Typesetting is a huge bottleneck in scholarly publishing. What can we do to make it easier?

Posted by Rob Walsh, community karma 1466

I wrote a blog post(http://bit.ly/1gDIOpq) over at Scholastica's new journal, Innovations in Scholarly Publishing about the fact that typesetting is an obstacle that slows down the dissemination of new knowledge.

It's not uncommon for it to take an article three months or more to show up in its final typeset form(http://bit.ly/1gtrx27).

With scholarship moving more and more to the web, I think that we've arrived at a point where scholars and journals have to consider putting work into web-friendly formats. Unfortunately, Microsoft Word isn't one of them.

What can we do to push things forward? 

over 10 years ago


Geoff Robbins, community karma 67

Great article, and one that applies far beyond academia.  I'm a web designer and programmer and receive content for publication on website daily, usually in MSWord format.  Approximately 10% of my job is converting MSWord to plaintext and then marking it up in HTML to fit, something which (frustratingly) my clients seem happier to pay for than to simply use notepad and very simple tags, nothing more complex than an HTML anchor. 

There's a very clear split between people who understand HTML and are willing to separate content and style in their heads, and those who feel that the font is as important, if not more so, than the informational content of the document concerned.  Some have even demanded to know why their website looks different on their iPhone and their Windows XP desktop.  Showing them what it looks like on a text based browser like Lynx ("this is how Google sees your website") is usually a shock to them. 

I think the solution to the problem is at the top of the editing window I'm typing into.  There's a series of buttons that let me do thing like bold, italics and

  • even
  • bullet
  • points

That's basically MSWord, yes?

OK, most people reading this will understand that it's a JavaScript browser plugin and very different to a standalone application, but to the people who don't understand why HTML is a good idea, it's basically MSWord.  They click buttons, their text looks pretty.  That's more important to them than semantic information and machine-readable structure, they have people to do that for them, the journal publishers.  The good thing about this system, however, is that the output is relatively clean HTML.

It's relatively simple to put together a browser based application that they can run locally, just like Word. It'll look a little different, but the difference is far less than asking them to learn a "programming language", which is how they think of HTML.

Basically, I'm suggesting a new word processing standard for academic publishing, based on existing, cross-platform and open source technology that uses a familiar GUI but outputs good, clean, easily edited HTML.  Just what it was meant to be back in 1990 in fact.



over 10 years ago
I think you hit the nail on the head when you said, "That's more important to them than semantic information and machine-readable structure." There are machine readable ways for scholars to write already, with tools like LaTeX – but those who aren't forced to use LaTeX will wail and gnash their teeth at the prospect of using it (I linked to an example in my original post). I agree with you that we need a new standard way of writing academic documents. With new applications like Draft(https://draftin.com/‎), Editorially(https://editorially.com/), and others gaining more traction over time, I think Markdown will come to fulfill the promises of 1990 that you mention.
Rob Walsh – over 10 years ago
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Martin Eve, community karma 37
With apologies for resurrecting this thread, I thought that the work that I am doing for PKP might be of interest here: https://github.com/MartinPaulEve/meTypeset

This is a (hugely in-development) automated JATS XML typesetter from MS Word. We are also working on a web interface to correct parts that are not currently handled.

about 10 years ago
Hey Martin! No problem, looks like an awesome project.
Rob Walsh – about 10 years ago
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Rosie Redfield, community karma 37

If journals started offering a BIG discount on manuscripts written in something other than MS Word, I'd consider it.  BIG means ≥$500.  Not that I like Word (I hate many aspects of it), but it's what I know and what the people I interact with are comfortable with.

Otherwise, rather than asking that many thousands of researchers each take the time to learn a new way of preparing their manuscripts, and to persuade all their collaborators to do likewise so they can all read the drafts, why can't someone with the necessary expertise write a program that converts MS Word docs into whatever works well for final typesetting.  They could sell it to the typesetters/publishers for some of the moey that would otherwise be used to provide the BIG discounts.

over 10 years ago
For clarification: did you mean a big discount for the end user (individual, library, etc.), or a discount for the submitting author (e.g. an Open Access author publication fee)? I wasn't sure to what degree you were referencing a system-level incentive so that all scholarship is cheaper if something other than Word is used, or if you were pointing to an individual incentive.
Brian Cody – over 10 years ago
As usual, I was just thinking of myself. The discount I'm thinking of would need to go to the person or people who had to do the work associated with using something other than Word. It would be simplest to provide it as a discount on the publication fee, but I can see problems if that isn't the authors. For example, my institution doesn't make any contribution to the fee, but if they paid it I could easily imagine them pocketing the discount while requiring the authors to do the extra work.
Rosie Redfield – over 10 years ago
Thanks for the interesting discussion here. It was enough to motivate me to sign up and comment! As far as I know, some people *have* written software to do much of the busywork required to convert Word documents into publication-ready formats (which in most cases for biomedical journals, due to the NIH public access policy, is the JATS XML format, http://jats.nlm.nih.gov/about.html ). The problem is that no tool can be 100% fully automatic, so it always requires a bit of manual effort. A few businesses make good money by using a combination of these automated tools, plus outsourced / cheap production labor, and selling this as a service to publishers. There has been some talk of offering publication fee discounts for submissions that are somehow "easier to handle" than MS Word, but no publisher has yet to decide what format that might be. At a recent "Markdown for Science" event (https://github.com/karthikram/markdown_science/wiki/workshop), it became clear that Markdown isn't quite ready for handling all that Word does. It's a bit of a chicken-or-egg problem: until publishers offer an incentive for the authoring tools to become better, there's no clear way forward. And until publishers can centralize around a single tool or file format, they can't justify incentives. In my own realm, as a co-developer of Paperpile (http://paperpile.com/), we've been exploring how to make existing and familiar tools work with academic writing. Our first target was Google Docs, and we've gotten lots of feedback over the past three months from scientists who have used our Google Docs integration to write papers. Some of the feedback was good (our Docs integration is in many ways better than what can be done with Word, and obvious benefits of real-time collaboration), but we also heard some negatives: Docs isn't nearly as full-featured as Word, and you can't simply track changes in the way most people are used to. I'll be interested in seeing how the field develops, with a number of nascent online editors vying for niche document drafting/editing market share. In the meantime, I'd be (pleasantly) surprised if the dominance of Word in the sci-publishing industry looks much different 5 years out than it does today.
Gregory Jordan – over 10 years ago
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Hashem Ahmed Hahsem, community karma 27

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over 6 years ago
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Joanne Thomson, community karma 27
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9 months ago
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