Monday, December 19, 2011

Towards an interactive taxonomic article: displaying an article from ZooKeys

One of the things I keep revisiting is the way we display scientific articles. Apart from Nature's excellent iPhone and iPad apps, most efforts to re-imagine how we display articles are little more than glorified PDF viewers (e.g., the PLoS iPad app).

Part of the challenge is that if we make the article more interactive we immediately confront the problem of how to link to other content. For example, we may have a lovingly crafted ePub view (e.g., Nature's apps), but what happens when the user clicks on a citation to another paper? If the paper is published by the same journal, then potentially it could be viewed using the same viewer, but if not then we are at the mercy of the other publisher. They will have their own ideas of how to display articles, so the simplest fallback is to display the cited article in a web browser view. The problem with this is that it breaks the user experience - the other publisher is unlikely to follow the same conventions for displaying an article and its links. If we are lucky the cited article might be published in an Open Access journal that provides, say, XML based on the NLM DTD standard. Knowing whether an article is Open Access or not is not straightforward, and different journals have their own unique interpretation of the NLM standard.

Then there is the issue of other kinds of content, such as taxonomic names, specimens, DNA sequences, geographic localities, etc. We lack decent services for many of these objects, as a result efforts like PLoS Biodiversity Hub end up being underwhelming collections of reformatted journal articles, rather then innovative integrations of biodiversity knowledge.

With these issues in mind I've started playing with ZooKeys XML, initially looking at ways to display the article beyond the conventional format. Ultimately I'd like to embed the article in a broader web of citations and data. ZooKeys articles are available in PDF, HTML, and XML. The HTML has links to taxon pages, maps, etc., which is nice, but I personally find this a little jarring because it interrupts the reading experience. The ZooKeys web site also surrounds the article with all paraphernalia of a publisher's web site:

As a first experiment, I've taken the XML for article At the lower size limit for tetrapods, two new species of the miniaturized frog genus Paedophryne (Anura, Microhylidae) and used a XSLT style sheet to reformat the article. I've borrowed some ideas from Nature's apps, such as the font for the title, displaying the abstract in bold, and showing all the figures in the article as thumbnails near the top. I've also added some basic interactivity, which you can see in the video below. Instead of figures being in one place in the article, wherever a figure is mentioned in the article (e.g., "Fig. 1") if you click on the reference to the figure it appears. If the article display a point locality using latitude and longitude, instead of launching a separate browser window with a Google map, click on the locality and the map appears. The idea is that the flow of reading isn't interrupted, figures, maps, and citations all appear in the text.

This demo (which you can see live at is limited, but most of its functionality comes from simply reformatting XML using XSLT. There's a little bit of jQuery for animation, and I ended up having to write a PHP script to convert verbatim latitude and longitude coordinates to the decimal coordinates expected by Google Maps, but it's all very light weight. It wouldn't take much to add some JSON queries to make the taxon names clickable (e.g., showing a summary of a taxon from EOL). Because ZooKeys uses the NLM DTD for its XML, some of this code could also be applied to other journals, such as PLoS, so we could start to grow a library of linked, interactive taxonomic articles.