Why formats matter more than ever….

Exact Editions has been conducting a small-scale experiment with the new UCL Press. This relatively new publisher is the “first fully Open Access University Press in the UK” sponsored and supported by University College London, one of the biggest and best research universities in the UK. The Exact Editions platform has been used for showcasing some of the books produced by this new open access publisher of monographs and periodicals. The books can be accessed in various formats here or:

as an Exact Editions collection

The Exact Editions solution works especially well with the heavily illustrated titles: Treasures from UCL and The Petrie Museum of Egyptian Archaeology.

A page from Treasures from UCL in the Exact Editions format

Now the thing that interests me at the moment is how different the various offerings for the same book are in these cases. We have on the one hand for some of the books an ebook offering, but not for the heavily illustrated books; and there is bound to be uncertainty about the quality and reliability of an ebook format even for ‘ordinary’ books — if there are any such — when we know that ebooks can stumble over design issues with complex work. For all the books PDF downloads are available, for all the books print copies are also offered, and for the heavily illustrated books, UCL Press, working with Armadillo Systems is providing a web version of the book. The enhanced version of Treasures of UCL is a reasonably standard web site that can be navigated sequentially (click ‘next article’), or via classificatory menu that runs along the top of the web page (Introduction/Bookbindings/ History/Manuscripts/Nature etc). This web service works well and contains useful content that is not by any means included in the book (eg Professor D’Avray explaining medieval scrolls) the informative and educational video that results is clearly not a part of the book (indeed D’Avray is neither an author, contributor nor even mentioned in the print book). A web version of the subject matter of a book has certain advantages, over a print book or an ebook: for example, searchability and findability via Google, ease of citations, but as these examples show, web sites — to the extent that they are enhanced — are arguably not versions of books, but something else.

I am not dismissing the advantages of web-repurposed books, and it is obvious that interactive web sites have considerable educational and explanatory uses, but when it comes to delivering books in digital formats, it would seem that we still have plenty of options each with specific use cases.

The main problem with the ebook format for academic or scholarly books are well known

  • ebooks are hard to cite (usually no page numbers)
  • ebooks are impossible to link to
  • many books do not happily format as ebooks (especially with complex layouts or high end design)

The main problems with PDF formats are not so well known, but they are real

  • PDFs of typeset books may contain fonts that cannot be freely distributed
  • PDFs are hard to cite with page-specific direct links from a digital document
  • PDFs may be too easily shareable from the point of view of a publisher or author who is not committed to Open Access
  • even when committed to Open Access, an exclusively PDF distribution channel risks losing information on usage that the sponsoring institution may require, and a lesser but real problem, the provenance of a PDF may be uncertain.

The Exact Editions platform solves many of these problems because for each publication in the platform, every page will have a unique and easily cited and easily shareable URL. Access — whether open or ‘closed’ can be easily controlled by the publisher, and the reliable citeability of open access publications seems to be at least as important as for walled-off publications. In the longer run, the most important factor working for books and magazines on the Exact Editions platform, may be the value which is crystalized in the name: the digital edition can be counted upon to be exactly like the printed page. Exact Editions should fulfil the promise or guarantee in the name.

Publisher and then web publisher