Alternative ways of sharing my PhD output

“Online journals are paper journals delivered by faster horses”

– Beyond the PDF 2

I’ve started a process of creating a case study of my PhD project, using my blog as an alternative means of presenting and sharing my results. Most of the chapters have already either been published or are under review with peer-reviewed journals, so I’ve played my part in the publishing game and jumped through the hoops of my institution. The full-length thesis has also been lodged with the institutional repository, so it is available, but in all honesty it’s a big, unwieldy thing, difficult to navigate and work through for all but the most invested reader.

Initially I thought that the case study would simply be a summary of the entire project but quickly realised that this would defeat the object of using the format. If people want the “academic” version, with the full citations, reference lists, standard headings (Background, Method, Results, etc.) then they’d still be able to download the published paper or even just read the abstract as a summary. The online case study should be more blog / wiki, than peer-reviewed paper. I’m starting to realise that one of the great things about the PhD-by-publication approach is that with the papers already peer-reviewed and published, I’m freed from having to continue playing the game. I get to do whatever I want to with the case study, because the “serious, academic” stuff is done.

After exploring a few other options (see list below), I decided that HTML was the best way to share the process in a format that would be more flexible and engaging than a PDF. HTML is a text-based format that degrades well (i.e. old browsers, mobile browsers and slow internet connections can all deal reasonably well with text files) while at the same time allowing for advanced features like embedded video and presentations. Also, being an open standard, HTML is unlikely to suffer from the problems of software updates that disable functionality available in previous versions. Think how many people were (and continue to be) inconvenienced by Microsoft’s move from the .doc to the .docx format.

Here are some of the features I thought were important for whatever platform I chose to disseminate my research. It should:

  • Be based on an open standard so that it would always be readable or backwards compatible with older software
  • Have the ability to embed multimedia (video, audio, images, slideshows)
  • Enable some form of interaction with the reader
  • Have a responsive user interface that adapts to different devices and screen sizes i.e. it should be device independent
  • Allow the content to be presented in a visually attrative format (“Pretty” is a feature“)
  • Be able to be adapted and maintained easily over time
  • Be able to export the content in multiple formats (e.g. Word, ODT, PDF)

Before deciding on using HTML and this blog, here is a list of the alternative diseemination methods I considered, and the reasons I decided not to go with them:

  • ePub is an open standard and can potentially be presented nicely, but not all ePud readers are created equal and I didn’t want anyone to have to jump through hoops to read my stuff. For example, an ebook published to the Kindle may not display in iBooks.
  • PDF is simple, open standard, easy to create but too rigid in the sense that it conforms to “digital paper” paradigm. It wouldn’t allow me to be flexible in how content is displayed or shared.
  • Google+ is visually pleasing but it is not open (the API is still read-only) and I have no idea if it will be around in a few years time.
  • Github was probably never a real option, but I like the idea of a collaborative version control system that allows me (and potentially others) to update the data over time, capturing all the changes made. However, it is simply too technical for what I wanted to do.
  • Tiddlywiki actually seemed like it might win out, since it’s incredibly simple to use, and is visually appealing with a clean user interface. I even began writing a few notes using it. The problem was that once I decided that HTML was the way to go, there wasn’t a strong enough reason to use anything other than my own blog.

If you’re interested in exploring this idea further, check out the Force11 White Paper: Improving The Future of Research Communications and e-Scholarship as a manifesto for alternative methods of sharing research.

“Papers” aren’t really papers

Can LinkedIn and Academia.edu enhance access to open repositories? | Impact of Social Sciences: “The paper explores other possible reasons for the high visibility of these papers – and one possibility worthy of further investigation is the provision of many papers in HTML formats and not just PDF and MS Word. “

I don’t understand why it’s taking so long for journals to consider the vast possibilities afforded by a move from PDF to HTML as the format for research presentation. And I don’t just mean displaying the PDF as a web page. Journals can’t seem to move away from the idea that a paper should be presented as if it were actual paper, with all the constraints of that format.

We should be able to embed video (e.g. processes), audio (e.g. participant or author interviews) and external links (e.g. relevant blog posts as commentary) in the document, as well as provide access to the raw data in ways that make it easy to export. We could have commenting on and within papers, as a form of “after-the-fact” peer review.

We talk about publishing as a way of contributing to an academic conversation, but journals don’t allow readers to really engage with author/s, other than providing us with an email address. I was excited when I read about the “Article of the future” in 2010, but I’ve been disappointed with the lack of innovation from journals since then.