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A Scientist and the Web


Open Writing and Scholarly HTML

I have been struggling to put my thoughts in order about an underprivileged being – the scholarly author. This post is slightly ahead of a well-formed idea but it’s prompted by Peter Suber’s call for a new term for (?collaborative) authoring ( ). Peter is striving for a term describing author-side openness and writes:

I want this new term for several reasons.  For example, some OA resources which originally lacked author-side openness add it later, and I (and they) need a succinct way to describe what they’ve done.  Sometimes I speak about OA to audiences that know wikis better than they know scholarly journals, and I’d like to say that OA articles have reader-side openness but generally don’t have author-side openness.  Likewise, I want a short and non-pejorative way to say that Wikipedia is not the poster-child of the OA movement. 

I have been increasingly concerned about the increasing restrictions and constraints on author freedom. In the Internet age author should feel relieved of its shackles and instead scholarly authors are burdened with unnecessary constraints. Part, but only part, are of their own making – chasing the chimera of publishing prestige rather than following a more natural course of saying what they want to say. (“You can publish there – it’s not got an impact factor yet”).

A typical example today. My co-author – acting as amanuensis – grizzled that she had to reset the references in Harvard format. This is about as rewarding as whitewashing coal. It has only one purpose – to save the publisher work at the expense of the author doing the work. There are, of course, much better ways of doing references/citations – and in Open Bibliography we are hoping to develop some of them. But scholarly publishing is – bizarrely – one of the least innovative activities in the information age.

So we need to give back freedom to authors. I think I’m taking a slightly different tack from Peter but the motivations are broadly the same. When NCSA made HTML – and more importantly HTTP – accessible in 1993 it changed the world. The message was that ordinary people could publish. I could set up a server. A little arcane, but until then I had assumed that servers were only possible for those who bought expensive tools from vendors. NCSA httpd was an instrument of liberation. Anyone – anyone – who had access to port 80 (and that wasn’t difficult in those days) could set up a server.

And tell the world anything.

HTML could be authored in any simple text editor. No special tools. And you didn’t even have to get it right. Broken HTML was rendered as best as possible. For those who didn’t experience 1993/4, Wordsworth captured the spirit in




     Bliss was it in that dawn to be alive,

But to be young was very heaven!

Not in Utopia, subterranean fields,

Or some secreted island, Heaven knows where!

But in the very world, which is the world

Of all of us,–the place where in the end

We find our happiness, or not at all!


Of course it couldn’t last, but there was the sense of overthrowing the established order – that everything was possible.

HTML is truly an agent of revolution and liberation.

By contrast the publishing industry with its tools such as double-column PDF has trapped us in a digital neo-colonialism which I am struggling to understand. Academia, with its much greater wealth and potential power is increasingly cowed by the shackles of metrics and adopts the dysfunctional and asymmetric relationships. It shows no signs of wishing to break out and control its own destiny. The British Empire flourished by “divide and conquer” and rewarding the heads of the controlled states. There is no need to divide academia – it’s already divided.

And this is to the great disadvantage of the author. Authors should be exploring the potentials of the new media instead of being constrained to the vision of the Victorian printing press. Changing the role of the author is a revolutionary act, made more difficult because the author does not realise how shackled they are.

That’s one of the things we tackled in #beyondthepdf, where some of us were developing the next generation of authoring tools. A primary motivation is to remove the dependence on vendor-controlled formats and tools but completely based on Open Source tools. That’s why I’m inviting Peter Sefton and Martin Fenner for a publishing hackfest in March. The fundamental medium is still HTML, but now enhanced to carry semantic payloads – and those under our control.

Can a handful of people change the world? We have to believe so and there are now an increasing number of examples where individuals have done exactly that.

So, Peter, I don’t have a good term for you. I’m using a general term of “Open Scholarship” but that includes much more. I thought of “Open Authoring” but OA clashes with Open Access. (BTW I always felt Access was a noun!). My best so far is “Open Writing” which doesn’t do justice to the non-textual aspects. The theme of our hackweek will be “Scholarly HTML”.





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