Articles of the Future

Elsevier’s “Article of the Future” seems to be the blogging topic du semaine. Take a look at their press release and the two prototypes demonstrating the concept. According to the press release, key features are:

*A hierarchical presentation of text and figures – readers can elect to drill down through the layers based on their current task in the scientific workflow and their level of expertise and interest.
*Bulleted article highlights and graphical abstract – readers can quickly gain an understanding of the paper’s main message and navigate directly to specific sub-sections of the results and figures.
*The graphical abstract encourages browsing, promotes interdisciplinary scholarship and helps readers identify more quickly which papers are most relevant to their research interests.

Another planned feature is a short audio interview of the primary author with the journal editor. This is all very eye catching and whiz bangy. Marshall Kirkpatrick at ReadWriteWeb asks whether this is “ground-breaking stuff or yesterday’s news repackaged.” He links to various blog opinions, which range from “another key development in an interesting transitionary period for both the publishing and media sectors” to “a collection of everything that is possible to do now, but for which there is no commercial demand.”

Kent Anderson of The Scholarly Kitchen says it “looks like an article from the past, with some embedded hyperlinks, some AJAX tabs, two basic social media elements, and not much else.” Paul Carvill at the Online Journalism Blog calls the prototypes “underwhelming, cumbersome and shortsighted.”

I’ll let others argue the usefulness of these prototypes, and how they might be improved. What has been unsaid about the prototypes are the obvious costs associated with pulling apart a traditional article and putting it back together with tabs, bullets, JavaScript, clickable images, audio interviews, live citation counts, and other bells and whistles. Elsevier, like most STM publishers, has been criticized by researchers and librarians for the high prices they charge for articles freely given to them by authors. Publishers typically respond by pointing out the overhead costs of refereeing and editing the papers (even though the referees provide their services at no charge). It’s obvious that “articles of the future,” if they come to exist in a format similar to these prototypes, will necessarily require scores of web designers, graphic artists, audio engineers, and others to turn a simple manuscript into eye candy. This is much more expensive than a few copy editors. This would allow publishers to easily point out the “enhanced value” the readers are enjoying, and justify even higher subscription prices. And what will most readers do? Locate the article, print out the pdf, and leave.


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