Tuesday, August 31, 2010

Viewing scientific articles on the iPad: iBooks

Apple's iBooks app is an ePub and PDF reader, and one could write a lengthy article about its interface. However, in the context of these posts on visualising the scientific article there's one feature that has particularly struck me. When reading a book that cited other literature the citations are hyper-links: click on one and iBooks forwards you (via the page turning effect) to the reference in the book's bibliography. This can be a little jarring (one minute you're reading the page, next you're in the bibliography), but to help maintain context the reference is preceded by the snippet of text in which it is cited:


To make this concrete, here's an example from Clarky Shirky's "Cognitive Surplus."


In the body of the text (left) the text "notes in his book The Success of Open Source" (which I've highlighted in blue) is a hyper-link. Click on it, and we see the source of the citation (right), together with the text that formed the hyper-link. This context helps remind you why you wanted to follow up the citation, and also provides the way back to the text: click on the context snippet and you're taken back to the original page.

Providing context for a citation is a nice feature, and there are various ways to do this. For example, the Elsevier Life Sciences Challenge entry by Wan et al. ("Supporting browsing-specific information needs: Introducing the Citation-Sensitive In-Browser Summariser", doi:10.1016/j.websem.2010.03.002, see also an earlier version on CiteSeer) takes a different approach. Rather than provide local context for a citation in an article (a la iBooks), Wan et al. provide context-sensitive summaries of the reference cited to help the the reader judge whether it's worth her time to fetch the reference and read it.

Both of these approaches suggest that we could be a lot more creative about how we display and interact with citations when viewing an article.