The format of a research paper hasn’t changed much throughout history, despite the enormous changes in platforms available for their consumption and the near extinction of the library issue. Convenient electronic files such as PDFs still resemble printed-and-bound-in-issues papers in their layout instead of exploiting the seemingly endless capabilities of the electronic format.
For instance, why do we still need to have page numbers? a DOI is a full, traceable and unique identification for each work and there are so many nowadays that publishers have to pour them out as e-first, ASAPs, and just accepted before having them assigned page numbers, a process which is still a concern for some researchers (and even for some of the organizations funding them or evaluating their performance). Numbers for Issues, Volumes and Pages are library indexes needed to sort and retrieve information from physical journals but in the e-realm where one can browse all issues online, perform a search and download the results these indexes are hardly of any use, only the year is helpful in establishing a chronological order to the development of ideas. This brings me to the next issue (no pun intended): If bound-issues are no longer a thing then neither should be covers. Being selected for a cover is a huge honor, it means the editorial staff think your work stands out from the published works in the same period; but nowadays is an honor that comes to a price, sometimes a high price. With the existence of covers, back-covers, inner-covers and inner-back-covers and whatnot at USD$1,500 a piece, the honor gets a bit diluted. Advertisers know this and now they place their ads as banners, pop-ups and other online digital formats instead of -to some extent- paying for placing ads in the pages of the journals.
I recently posted a quick informal poll on Twitter about the scientific reading habits of chemists and I confirmed what I expected: only one in five still prefers to mostly read papers on actual paper*, the rest rely on an electronic version such as HTML full text or the most popular PDF on a suitable reader.
— Joaquin Barroso (@joaquinbarroso) June 3, 2019
What came as a surprise for me was that in the follow up poll, Reference Manager programs such as Mendeley, Zotero, EndNote or ReadCube are only preferred by 15% while 80% prefer the PDF reader (I’m guessing Acrobat Reader might be the most popular.) A minority seems to prefer the HTML full text version, which I think is the richest but hardly customizable for note taking, sharing, or, uhm hoarding.
A follow up on the previous poll. Dear #ChemTweeps, if you mostly read papers in electronic format what is your preferred platform?
— Joaquin Barroso (@joaquinbarroso) June 10, 2019
I’m a Mendeley user because I like the integration between users, its portability between platforms and the synchronization features but if I were to move to another reference manager software it would be ReadCube. I like taking notes, highlighting text, and adding summaries and ideas onto the file but above all I like the fact that I can conduct searches in the myriad of PDF files I’ve acumulated over the years. During my PhD studies I had piles of (physical) paper and folders with PDF files that sometimes were easier to print than to sort and organize (I even had a spreadsheet with the literature read-a nightmarish project in itself!)
So, here is my wish list for what I want e-papers in the 21st century to do. Some features are somewhat available in some journals and some can be achieved within the PDF itself others would require a new format or a new platform to be carried out. Please comment what other features would you like to have in papers.
- Say goodbye to the two columns format. I’m zooming to a single column anyway.
- Pop-up charts/plots/schemes/figures. Let me take a look at any graphical object by hovering (or 3D touching in iOS, whatever) on the “see Figure X” legend instead of having to move back and forth to check it, specially when the legend is “see figure SX” and I have to go to the Supporting Information file/section.
- Pop-up References. Currently some PDFs let you jump to the References section when you click on one but you can’t jump back but scroll and find the point where you left.
- Interactive objects. Structures, whether from X-ray diffraction experiments or calculations could be deposited as raw coordinates files for people to play with and most importantly to download** and work with. This would increase the hosting journals need to devote to each work so I’m not holding my breath.
- Audio output. This one should be trickier, but far most helpful. I commute long hours so having papers being read out loud would be a huge time-saver, but it has to be smart. Currently I make Siri read papers by opening them in the Mendeley app, then “select all“, “voice“, but when it hits a formula, or a set of equations the flow is lost (instead of reading water as ‘H-Two-O‘, it reads ‘H-subscript Two-O‘; try having the formula of a perovskite be read)
- A compiler that outputs the ‘traditional version‘ for printing. Sure, why not.
I realize this post may come out as shallow in view of the Plan-S or FAIR initiatives, sorry for that but comfort is not incompatible with accessibility.
What other features do you think research papers should have by now?
* It is true that our attention -and more importantly- our retention of information is not the same when we read on paper than on a screen. Recently there was an interview on this matter on Science Friday.
** I absolutely hate having a Supporting Information section with long PDF lists of coordinates to copy-paste and fix into a new input file. OpenBabel, people!