44

I believe that many people read articles from their computers. So, tiny fonts and many columns have no advantage.

Why don’t journals make alternative computer-friendly versions of the articles? For example, with a gray background, single column, double-spaced? I guess it wouldn’t be difficult because they are compiled with Latex, so, adding a single line of code would suffice.

I have heard about this problem from many students and professors. Aren’t journals aware of this demand? What can be done about it?

  • 16
    It might be more difficult than you think to change from two to one column, e.g. if there are page-wide figures. But anyway, if you read on your computer, can't you zoom in? I have never been disturbed by this (I'm much more disturbed by the terrible output from Word and similar when dealing with mathematical notations). – anderstood Sep 11 '17 at 2:22
  • 11
    @anderstood One can zoom in, but then the text does not flow correctly, in the sense that when one gets to the bottom of one column, one then has to scroll back to the top of the same page to begin the next column. Computers don't typically handle this as well as simply scrolling down. Plus, if the content is kept separate from the formatting (which is something that LaTeX does moderately well, for example), then formatting for the screen should be just one re-compile away, including reasonable placement of figures and tables. – user79517 Sep 11 '17 at 3:14
  • 3
    There are many efforts on the way to implement this. Here is one of the better examples lens.elifesciences.org/about – Ajasja Sep 11 '17 at 7:26
  • 4
    Digital rights management (DRM) is often in contradiction with computer friendly or user friendly documents. They prepare watermarks with downloader IP, and some want the user force to see advertising on the website before downloading. Much effort is done to prevent any automatic or assisted downloading from the website, even if the downloader has already paid for the access. A computer friendly format could easily bypass that. – Jonas Stein Sep 11 '17 at 8:58
  • 5
    I eagerly await the day the two column format breathes its last. It's horrendous. – mbrig Sep 11 '17 at 17:19
68

Why don’t journals make alternative computer-friendly versions of the articles?

They already do. It’s usually called HTML version. I couldn’t find any statistics on how widely available this is, but as far as I know, all major journals in my field (physics), all mega-journals, and Elsevier offer this.

  • Comments are not for extended discussion; this conversation has been moved to chat. – StrongBad Sep 12 '17 at 13:36
  • Ironically (?), I haven't seen this for CS papers—except for occasional authors who post HTML versions themselves. I could just have not been looking in the right places though. – Tikhon Jelvis Sep 13 '17 at 1:44
18

Actually, many columns still do have an advantage even on PC because shorter lines allow for faster reading. Conversely, double-spacing which unfortunately remains very popular in Word-written theses (probably because guidelines were written by people with no typographic background) would impair the readability of both on-screen and printed versions of a paper. And the good a grey background would do (reducing contrast between the background and text) is beyond me.

In fact, the present-day versions of articles in all journals I need in my field (chemistry) are well typeset and pleasing to read both on screen and on paper — mainly because a simple set of rules is followed that improves readability in both. Conversely, I only see ‘tiny font [sizes]’ in footnotes that I only need if I’m interested in the authors’ institutes. These font sizes are still large enough to be read well on paper and I can read them equally well on screen.

Furthermore, I wish to strongly question the assertion that ‘journals are compiled in LaTeX’. If they were, publishers such as ACS publications and Wiley-VCH would be much keener to accept LaTeX-manuscripts rather than Word-written ones. Their authors’ guidelines read to me as if Word is strongly preferred. I want to guess without having access to actual evidence that journals typically use high-end publishing software, way beyond what ordinary LaTeX does. They probably also perform a non-neglegible amount of tweaking to make sure the articles fit well on paper and that figures and tables are at least in the vicinity of their mentions in the text.

What I consider to be computer-friendly is actually only one last minor step: that citations are clickable and open to the paper which is cited. The big chemistry publishers actually do that — aside from in Elsevier’s case also providing a HTML version.

Finally, I have never heard anybody voice the concerns you voiced. Thus my conclusion is: there is no actual demand therefore nobody does it. If there were demand, there would be awareness.

  • 9
    "Actually, many columns still do have an advantage even on PC because shorter lines allow for faster reading." - I fail to see the advantage in having to scroll up to the beginning of the page when I arrive at the end of a column. Yes, a column that is less wide than the screen is desirable, but many columns (read: more than one) are, IMHO, pointless on the screen when the goal is to sequentially read a document from beginning to end. "double-spacing (...) would impair the readability of both on-screen and printed versions of a paper" - it can help avoid losing the line when switching lines. – O. R. Mapper Sep 11 '17 at 10:15
  • 3
    "the good a grey background would do (reducing contrast between the background and text) is beyond me" - at least one possible advantage is to make the text more readable when the reader is in a dark-ish environment. Switching between that environment and a glaring white screen causes at least a perceived strain on the eyes, as far as I can tell. "Finally, I have never heard anybody voice the concerns you voiced." - to counter your anecdotal evidence with mine: Not only have I heard plenty, people actually publish on this. – O. R. Mapper Sep 11 '17 at 10:21
  • 4
    @O.R.Mapper No, double spacing helps lose trace of the line between the lines. Spacing of 1.3 or so is optimal. Contrast reduction can be done to the screen, there is no need for the paper itself to do that. – Jan Sep 11 '17 at 11:57
  • 16
    It is my suspicion that double-spacing actually comes from lower levels of schooling, where it is important to allow teachers to mark up a paper with edits, comments, and so on. I would guess that there are a good chunk of people in higher academia who have never given a second thought to typography and continue to double-space (and insist on it from theses they read) just because that’s how they’ve always done it and been told to do it and they assume there is a good reason for it. – KRyan Sep 11 '17 at 14:28
  • 6
    @Warbo depends on what you mean by short. A 200 character long line in pdf will still be a 200 character line no matter how you resize it. – gmatht Sep 11 '17 at 14:41
12

Some journals certainly do have HTML versions. For those that don't, the answer is probably a combination of institutional inertia and an eye on the bottom line.

In my "spare time" I am assistant editor on a very small, open access peer-reviewed journal. Even though it was born digital (meaning that we only publish online, and have for the entire decade or so of our existence), layout is done in Adobe InDesign1 and aims for a print-ready look. This is partly because the founders of the journal were used to that, and partly because so many of our readers actually print out and read articles, rather than reading them online (we know because we've surveyed).

Even though we are a small, new journal, I strongly suspect that many/most of the larger, more established journals also use traditional desktop publishing software rather than LaTeX, as they were (by definition) founded before LaTeX was a thing. I also suspect that most of these are specifically using InDesign, which currently dominates the professional market. Traditional desktop publishing may be part of their workflow even if authors submit papers in LaTeX.2

Over the years I have tried a few times to switch our journal over to a more onscreen-friendly format, but given the demands of our readers and board the only option is to add an online-version, not to do away with the print-friendly version. This is harder than it sounds. First, final-final edits aren't made until we are in InDesign, when they're easier to spot in proofs. That means that I don't have a raw file to work with, but rather need to output from the InDesign file if I want to be sure the text matches. This is not a very slick process (getting figures into the right place in the flow, for example, is very tricky). What that means is that I have to essentially type-set two different versions of each article.

Which brings us to the second major issue, the bottom line: I personally do not get paid extra for doing extra work to make a second version. You can probably guess how high my motivation is to do that gratis work when the first version is adequate for 99% of applications. Larger for-profit publishers would need to pay someone extra to do the extra work (people who do the grunt work of typesetting and the like are almost the only people who get paid for any part of the actual creation of academic articles); this again is likely to be a low priority if there is not an off-setting financial upside for them.

I do expect that there will be movement in this in the near future, however. For one thing, the technology for porting between one format and another is getting better/smarter, making the barrier to entry for HTML versions much lower. For another, there is a new focus at least in the US on accessibility of documents, and HTML is better for this because it is possible to embed more meta-data to facilitate technical accommodations. My brother works for a very large academic publisher, and he tells me that they also all work in InDesign. However, they are currently in the process of making HTML versions a higher priority, due to accessibility requirements.


1 When I started, the journal was actually still being formatted in Word, so InDesign is actually an improvement.

2 For example, even though Elsevier asks for submissions in LaTeX, they tell advertisers that they use a "PDF workflow" and a recent job posting for a Graphic Designer asks for "High level proficiency with Adobe Creative Suite (InDesign, Illustrator, Photoshop)" but doesn't mention LaTeX.

  • 2
    I am really glad that you mentioned accessibility, as in accessibility for people with disabilities. LaTeXed PDFs are very much not accessible to people with a variety of disabilities. From my personal experience, the mathematical community at least doesn't seem to care very much about this. It would be ironic indeed if the hated academic publishers are the ones who pull the field out of the dark ages in this respect. – Elizabeth Henning Sep 11 '17 at 19:57
  • 3
    @Elizabeth What sort of things make LaTeX'ed pdf's worse than other formats? – Tobias Kildetoft Sep 11 '17 at 21:29
  • 2
    @TobiasKildetoft For starters, they don't work well with screen readers and they can't be adjusted for color, font, or font size as individual needs demand. – Elizabeth Henning Sep 11 '17 at 21:35
  • 5
    @ElizabethHenning If you have specific examples and needs, it might be worth asking over at TeX.SE what can be done to improve the accessibility of the pdf. I think that such a question could be very useful to everyone. – Massimo Ortolano Sep 11 '17 at 21:51
  • 1
    @MassimoOrtolano: Accessibility is still a Major issue for TeX. Even MS Word creates tagged PDF nowadays, LaTeX is not able to do so. The problem is quite complex unfortunately, so an easy solution to implement it in LaTeX is not near. – Uwe Ziegenhagen Sep 13 '17 at 13:06
6

In mathematics, among other fields, it is common to post preprints to the arXiv. It is quite typical to read these versions in lieu of the officially published version.

A little-noticed feature is that you can download the LaTeX source for papers. Among other things, this lets you tweak the formatting if you like. Indeed, once I did this myself: I didn't like the formatting on a paper that I wanted to read carefully, and so I downloaded the source, changed the formatting, and recompiled it to my liking.

  • 2
    How do you download the latex source? I've often wanted to do that e.g. to get an idea of how they were type-setting an equation. – Lyndon White Sep 12 '17 at 8:56
  • 5
    @LyndonWhite On the right there is a part called "Download" where you can choose either "PDF" or "Other formats". Under the latter one you can find the source (usually). – Tobias Kildetoft Sep 12 '17 at 9:19
5

In my field (mathematics) I find that many PDFs are "computer-friendly" with features such as

  • hyperlinks
    with target both inside the PDF (e.g. cross-references) and outside (e.g. link to the DOI of an item in the bibliography)

  • searchable

  • table of contents

Besides papers with HTML versions, there are also journals which offer print & screen versions of their PDFs. For example, the journal Algebra & Number Theory:

enter image description here

Of course, it is up to the "customers" to ask for extra features and up to the journal to decide whether implementing extra features is worth the extra effort.

0

I believe this is for technical reasons -- it is common to use LaTeX, and LaTeX is very, very bad at producing HTML versions of papers -- there are various hacky ways of doing it, but none work well.

While it's easier to get HTML out of Microsoft Word, it still isn't entirely automatic, or nice to look at.

  • 1
    But preprints/reviewer copies are often single-sided PDFs just by selecting a couple of different options. They would be better for reading on screen. the question says nothing about HTML – Chris H Sep 12 '17 at 15:07
  • LaTeX is a markup language- it can be used to generate any desired style of output you'd wish. That's the point of separating the specification of content from the display and layout of the content. It's often as easy as finding someone's carefully crafted document class and changing one line of code. Whether anyone actually uses LaTeX to generate HTML or screen-compatible output is a separate question, but you definitely can. I've done it with good success in the past. – David Sep 12 '17 at 17:02
  • 3
    LaTeX isn't a markup language, it is an executable text replacement language. It's impossible to understand a LaTeX document without executing it. That's why it's so hard to write alternative back-ends for LaTeX. If you want to say "what about MathJax", that only parses a small part of latex, and doesn't support writing extensions in latex. – Chris Jefferson Sep 12 '17 at 20:35

Not the answer you're looking for? Browse other questions tagged or ask your own question.