Elsevier’s ‘Article of the Future’ resembles websites of the past

Elsevier, the Dutch scientific publisher, has announced details of their grandly titled Article of the Future project.  Their prototypes, published at http://beta.cell.com, are the result of what Emilie Marcus, Editor in Chief, Cell Press called,

“…a challenge to redesign from scratch how to most effectively structure and present the content of a traditional scientific article in an online environment.”

Several things strike me about the prototypes — and let’s bear in mind that these are prototypes, and so are likely to change based on feedback from users in the scientific community and elsewhere; but also that they are published prototypes, and so by definition are completely open for comment — the most obvious being their remarkable lack of futuristic qualities.  Instead, the prototypes resemble an enthusiastic bash at a multimedia-infused online encyclopaedia circa 1997, when multimedia was still a buzzword, or such as you might have found on a CD-ROM magazine cover mounted giveaway around the same time.

Now, I know relatively little about the scientific journal community, or how they consume their publications online.  But I imagine they will be intrigued though underwhelmed by an international publisher of scientific journals presenting them with these prototypes as the future of their work online.

There is a lack of nuance, uniformity and overall cohesion in the article designs which immediately make me feel uneasy.  From a scientific journal I expect highly structured, easily accessible data.  The inconsistency in design and layout here means I have to work harder to know where I am in the document and what exactly I’m looking at.  Additionally, the wide text columns, combined with poor linespacing, lack of subheadings and lack of general hierarchical structure within the text contribute to overall poor readability.  I’d also suggest that the tabbed element leaves little room for expansion should the number of article sections increase.  There is also too much emphasis on distracting design elements like pop-ups and modal dialogues to present small snippets of data which would have been far more suitably presented within their referencing context.

Information architecture
There is a poor overall data structure, and to much repetition of content elements such as the figures.  Although this data structure undoubtedly encourages an initial period of browsing and discovery it also precludes an easy, linear reading of the content and lengthens the user journey considerably.

From a development point of view it is important to note that these prototypes are completely reliant on JavaScript to present all of their content.  Without JavaScript the browser will only render the first tab’s content visibly.  Needless to say this is unacceptable on the modern web.  Separation of content, presentation and behaviour were long ago accepted as the minimum standard for a modern, user-friendly and broadly accessible web page.  Any web pages being designed now by international publishers should display this characteristic, especially this which claim to represent the future of the medium.  Similarly, these prototypes both have an obnoxious amount of inline JavaScript, making machine readability and text-browser readability a major pain, verging on the unusable.

Perhaps the most important point of all — where’s the data?  XML and specifications like RDF are capable of representing structured scientific data online in such a way that it can be consumed by browsers, applications and other user agents we haven’t yet developed.  Scientific research data would seem to be a perfect candidate to display the power of the semantic web, and yet Elsevier appears to have shown a complete ignorance of its availability, its ability to open up data to a wider audience and to normalise data and allow consumers of data and information to use it in the manner most appropriate to them.

Are there authoring tools for creation and maintenance of these articles?  Is there a published schema and validator to ensure consistency between producers?  Which user needs does this article format address?  Will Elsevier publish their user research so we can better understand the problems users have with current scientific paper formats?  The whole format seems not to have been thought through properly.  Why not work with the W3C and other organisations dedicated to the description and ongoing development and maintenance of online document specifications.  Use the power of groups already working in this space instead of reinventing the wheel, badly.

Jan Aalbersberg, Vice President of Content Innovation for Elsevier Science & Technology Journal Publishing, says “We are confident that these tools will enhance the presentation of scientific results and improve the interpretation and speed of results analysis. They are central to driving innovation in scientific publishing and represent our investment in the future of research, enabling scientists all over the world to access, interpret, and create better science more efficiently.”  But I say that these “Articles of the Future” are not tools, and they are no more innovative than using a page layout application to alter the appearance of some printed matter.  Hyperlinking and the ability to add media files to a page have existed since the web was created, and these articles add nothing more to that basic paradigm of linked data files.  There are some nods towards current trends, with a comment feature and social bookmarking links.  But overall the feel is clunky, lacking research and distinctly amateur.

Articles of the Future?
Finally, there are two noteworthy features which may tell us more about the project, its origins and its ultimate destination than the prototypes themselves.  Firstly, the copyright notice, which proclaims the pages to be copyright of Elsevier 2008.  Are these prototypes already at least 6 months old?  Marcus herself notes,

“The rapid pace of technological advancements means this will undoubtedly be an evolving design,”

but is this an indication of the kind of turnaround we can expect for amendments and improvements to the article’s format?  Secondly, the entire article can be downloaded as a PDF, in its original published format, and which is perfect for printing, and I suspect that, excepting casual browsers, this will be how most users choose to consume their scientific research and analysis.

I think this area of publishing is indeed long overdue a complete overhaul of its staid online publishing practices, and any move to define a new specification for doing so should be welcomed.  Even the otherwise impressive nature.com only goes so far in its presentation of research papers, and there is much room for improvement.  But when the result is as underwhelming, cumbersome and shortsighted as this, I despair.


8 thoughts on “Elsevier’s ‘Article of the Future’ resembles websites of the past

  1. Mouli Cohen

    I’m sure the scientific community will settle on a format for online journals which will address all of these problems. That may not be tomorrow or even next year, but this is certainly where the momentum seems to be going. I find it hard to believe that science as a whole realizes the esoteric nature of journals hurts the overall interest and investment in sciences not only in the United States, but also abroad.

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  6. Matt Wardman

    There’s plenty of activity in this area, and I think that Reed-Elsevier are probably tripping over themselves trying to catch up with reality.

    The Open Archives Initiativee has been around for a decade:

    Prominent open access scientific papers areas are Medical, and I think Astronomy (partly still an amateur science) and Maths.

    Even the EU have a pilot.


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