Thursday, June 17, 2010

PLoS doesn't "get" the iPad (or the web)

PLoS recently announced a dedicated iPad app, that covers all the PLoS Journals, and which is available from the App Store. Given the statement that "PLoS is committed to continue pushing the boundaries of scientific communication" I was expecting something special. Instead, what we get (as shown) in the video below is a PDF viewer with a nice page turning effect (code here). Maybe it's Steve Job's fault for showing iBooks when he first demoed the iPad, but there desire to imitate 3D page turning effects leaves me cold (for a nice discussion of how this can lead to horribly mixed metaphors see iA's Designing for iPad: Reality Check).

But I think this app shows that PLoS really don't grok the iPad. Maybe it's early days, but I find it really disappointing that page-turning PDFs is the first thing they come up with. It's not about recreating the paper experience on a device! There's huge scope for interactivity, which the PLoS app simply ignores — you can't select text, and none of the references. It also ignores the web (without which, ironically, PLoS couldn't exist).

Instead of just moaning about this, I've spent a couple of days fussing with a simple demo of what could be done. I've taken a PLoS paper ("Discovery of the Largest Orbweaving Spider Species: The Evolution of Gigantism in Nephila", doi:10.1371/journal.pone.0007516), grabbed the XML, applied a XSLT style sheet to generate some HTML, and added a little Javascript functionality. References are displayed as clickable links inline. If you click on one a window pops up displaying the citation, and it then tries to find it for you online (for the technically mined, it's using OpenURL and bioGUID). If it succeeds it displays a blue arrow — click that and you're off to the publisher's web site to view the article.

Figures are also links, click on and you get a Lightbox view of the image.
You can view this article live, in a regular browser or in iPad. Here's a video of the demonstration page:

This is all very crude and rushed. There's a lot more that could be done. For references we could flag which articles are self citations, we could talk to bookmarking services via their APIs to see which citations the reader already has, etc. We could also make data, sequences, and taxonomic names clickable, providing the reader with more information and avenues for exploration. Then there's the whole issue of figures. For graphs we should have the underlying data so that we can easily make new visualisations, phylogenies should be interactive (at least make the taxon names clickable), and there's no need to amalgamate figures into aggregates like Fig .2 below. Each element (A-E) should be separately addressable so when the text refers to Fig. 2D we can show the user just that element.


The PLoS app and reactions to Elsevier's "Article 2.0" (e.g., Elsevier's 'Article of the Future' resembles websites of the past and The “Article of the Future” — Just Lipstick Again?) suggests publishers are floundering in their efforts to get to grips with the web, and new platforms for interacting with the web.

So, PLoS, I challenge you to show us that you actually "get" the iPad and what it could mean for science publishing. Because at the moment, I've seen nothing that suggests you grasp the opportunity it represents. Better yet, why not revisit Elsevier's Article 2.0 project and have a challenge specifically about re-imagining the scientific article? And please, no more page turning effects