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Archive for January, 2008

Design and Open Access

Posted in Uncategorized on January 25th, 2008 by darcusb – Comments Off

Dan Cohen has a note about an open access scholarly book project. It’s interesting because the discussion gets beyond the idealistic notion that scholarly content ought to be open access, to examining some of the challenges that work against it; perhaps most notably how administrators and colleagues will value such contributions in promotion and tenure decisions. It’s refreshing the participants found many of these issues to be more-or-less non-issues.

I published my first book with a traditional publisher, and I think it would have probably been insane for me not to as a junior faculty member without an established name. The publisher advertised and promoted the book, and they were the ones that submitted it for consideration for a book award; something I would have never considered.

However, looking beyond that, I have the technical skills to have produced that text in electronic form of a quality virtually equal to that of the publisher. All it takes is TeX and some high-quality professional fonts, along with some design sense. So maybe the next book …

This leads me to one issue that I find problematic with most of the open access publications I’ve been exposed to: their production quality is absolute crap. The book that Dan points to, for example, is typeset directly from Word, using atrocious fonts like Arial and Times and Verdana.

I realize I may be rather unique in my attention to typographic detail, but I’m hardly alone. It negatively affects the quality of a reading experience if one has to read a poorly designed and executed text. Compare, for example, this PDF from the book that Dan discusses to this one. Both are open access publications. All else equal, which would you rather read?

[note: Alf Eaton had a really cool demo of using XHTML and CSS for scientific articles linked from this page, but for some reason it's now 411. Suffice to say I'm not suggesting prioritizing PDF at the expense of HTML.]

Obviously, there are some challenges in getting from here to there: in allowing the production of open access texts to be as easy as clicking a button on Word (or OpenOffice), but the results to be of much higher-quality. Am not sure exactly what the way forward might be, but one idea is to identify, as Alf has, the core structure one might want to see in output XHTML, and to design some openly available XSLT and CSS stylesheets that can achieve this. TeX is, unfortunately, more difficult given all the installation and compiling headaches, but PDF is arguably less important to the future of the open access world than HTML.

Citations in HTML

Posted in Technology on January 24th, 2008 by darcusb – 5 Comments

So how to markup citations in standard (X)HTML that conforms to the rigors of scholarly standards? I’ve wondered about this periodically, and have again been wondering about it when looking at the recent (X)HTML5 draft.

Goals: simple, standards-compliant, information-rich. In short, I should be able to author my manuscript using the approach. It also ought to be trivial to add the support to applications, like, say, Google Docs.

How about:

<cite>
  <a href="http://ex.net/1">Doe, 1999</a>;
  <a href="http://ex.net/2">Smith, 2000</a>
</cite>

… then add a bit of CSS:

cite { font-style: normal; }
cite:before { content: "(" }
cite:after { content: ")" }

… and voila:

HTML citation

With this sort of encoding, automatically generating the reference list with, say, Javascript, would be trivial.

Potential issues:

What to do about reference lists? They’re quite common across the sciences and social sciences, and in an HTML document, it’s useful to link the in-text citations in some form to their reference entries. But with the approach above, I’m in fact linking directly; bypassing the internal reference.

So one way around this is to use some indirection:

<cite>
  <a href="#do99">Doe, 1999</a>;
  <a href="#smith00">Smith, 2000</a>
</cite>

… and in the reference list:

<li>
  <a id="do99" href="http://ex.net/1">Doe, 1999</>;
</li>

Hmm … can I do that; link to a link?? Seems to work fine in Firefox at least. So that seems like the best approach for at least my workflow.

The other issue is that some fields (notably law and the humanities) often don’t use reference lists, and put all the information in notes. I suppose a hidden reference list is a possibility, but that’s rather awkward for a reader.

Inspired Television

Posted in General on January 8th, 2008 by darcusb – Comments Off

Over the past year, my wife and I have slowly worked our way through the first four seasons of the HBO serial drama The Wire. We found the first episode or so of the first season a bit slow, but before long were utterly hooked. We just finished the recent DVD release of the fourth season last week.

Wow, what a breath of fresh air this series is! In an article in Slate, Jacob Weisberg proclaimed the show surely the best TV show ever broadcast in America. I have a hard time arguing with him. The story-line is sprawling and intricate and absolutely compelling, and the characters—every single one of them—have a three-dimensionality that makes everything else on television look like cardboard cutouts.

Perhaps most importantly, this shows deals with issues that matter deeply to the contemporary present with an intelligence and nuance and even humor that makes the current presidential campaign disturbingly shallow by comparison: the changing role of cities like Baltimore in an increasingly globalized and liberalized political-economy, the politics of race in urban America, the hypocrisy of failed federal anti-drug and education policy, and the dysfunctions of institutions all come together the Wire in a way that works beautifully.

Since we don’t subscribe to HBO, I guess we’ll have to wait another year to see the fifth, and final, season. Sigh … it’s going to be a long year!

MakeCSL: A Proposal

Posted in Technology on January 7th, 2008 by darcusb – Comments Off

The following is the introduction to a proposal document I just checked into the XBib SVN repository. Unfortunately, while I can do a lot on the design end, my Javascript skills aren’t good enough to achieve what I think we need, and I don’t have the time to acquire that level of skill. If someone out there has those skills and the interest to experiment, let me know, or post a note to the xbib dev list.

Anyway, the nutshell of the idea …

CSL is at the stage where the language is virtually stable, and has gone through enough refinement that it has achieved its objective of being a powerful, open and accessible language for encoding citation styling information. It has been implemented fully in Javascript, and there is another implementation in progress for Ruby. In addition, styles are being written and deployed in publicly accessible style repository that allows styles to be accessed directly over HTTP.

However, it remains difficult for the average user to create new styles. There remains a large gap between the number of styles there are and the number of styles there needs to be to be declared a success.

To rectify this situation, one obvious approach is to build a full-blown editing GUI, which allows a user to load existing styles modify them, etc. However, such a task is not straightforward. Citation styling can be quite complex, and CSL is designed to accommodate that complexity. While it is certainly possible to do such a GUI, it will take time to realize.

Rather than to take the next step for a fully implemented editor than can both read and write CSL styles, then, I propose instead a much simpler and more incremental enhancement that borrows from lessons of the past. Like the MakeBST utility that allowed BibTeX users to more easily create new citation styles by answering a series of questions, MakeCSL will make it much quicker for users to create new styles by focusing on writing new styles.

It seems to me such an approach is likely to have the most bang-for-buck in building the infrastructure that will allow the dramatic expansion of the number of freely available styles. Since it could be done using standard web technologies, it should open up the number of potential style contributors. In turn, the lessons learned from it can benefit more comprehensive editing GUIs.

Oh, I did start to put together a somewhat amateurish example of what I have in mind.