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Hypertext by Mindy McAdams and Stephanie Berger
Important Though Not Entirely New
In reaction to the recent hypertext paper published in JEP, I would like to start by saying that the authors take up a very interesting and important though not entirely new discussion (as also shown in their reference list). In my opinion, they treat the subject seriously and adequately.
If you consider changing the format of JEP from articles-ready-to-print (electronic delivery of linear texts) to hypertext-for-online-reading-only, the implementation (layout) should be reconsidered carefully. Most responses to the text so far correctly point at the readability issue which is not only a question of the right (or useful) ordering of the chunks of texts (or modules) and the links between them, but also one of layout and navigational aids. In the vast hypertext literature, this is being discussed intensively.
I would like to make the editors, the authors, and the readers aware of two recent publications, addressing, among others, this issue of the readability of hypertexts. The first by Bruce Douglas Ingraham, entitled "Scholarly Rhetoric in Digital Media" is to be found in two versions: http://www-jime.open.ac.uk/00/ingraham/ is the version currently under revision for JIME, the Journal of Interactive Media in Education, and http://www.navihedron.com/php/view.php3?navihedron_id=780 [link no linger active] is a navihedron implementation of the same text.
The second "paper", entitled "The Future of Academic Knowledge Representation in the Age of Cyberscience" is authored by me and was presented to last year's American Political Science Association annual conference. This paper comes also in two versions. One for online reading (printing is not recommended) http://www.oeaw.ac.at/ita/ebene5/dsk/APSA/ and one which is also apt for printing in PDF format: http://www.oeaw.ac.at/ita/ebene5/dsk/APSA/apsa2000.pdf. In addressing the issue of readability practically, I have added "paths" to follow and a site map ("structure") for orientation. I hope that my theoretical discussion of readability will be fruitful also to this audience.
Note: Dr. Nentwich is the author of "Quality Filters in Electronic Publishing" in JEP's September, 1999 issue.
Applause — and a Site Map
I applaud the attempt to create a true hypertext document out of a research article and take advantage of the possibilities of the medium. I think, however, that the article should have had its own site map as the underlined phrases on the right of the text did not enhance comprehension of the what the article was about in its entirety. Secondly, the titles on each Web page did not print out, causing some confusion in putting the text together after printing it out.
I would also suggest a print-out version in old-fashioned linear format for those who want to print out, rather than read online. Also, I concur with another reader who mentioned the difficulties of reading on Web pages with blue backgrounds. Not easy.
Like the New Look
If you want to encourage on-screen reading, this look will do nicely. However, from the letters you've posted, it seems many of your subscribers read JEP after printing it out. I know I would have found "Hypertext" to be difficult to print out; i.e., did I get all the pieces, in what order should I read them, etc.
That said, I personally like the new look and would continue to read articles in this format.
Intriguing, Disorienting and Frustrating
While I find the concept of hypertext intriguing, and the arguments for its use compelling, I found the actual reading of the article "Hypertext" disorienting and frustrating.
The authors write (somewhere within the article, but I would be hard-pressed to indicate where): "If the writer provides access to all the components from the very start of the hypertext (by linking them there), and maintains that same complete access in each component, then the reader can construct a thread almost at will — whatever path the reader takes will become the thread for that reader."
This kind of complete access wasn't provided, and if it was, I missed it even though I was looking for it. The top page only had links to four components, and each component had its own set of links. Just when I thought I had perused all the components I'd find there was another link to something I hadn't seen yet. Although I welcome the opportunity to skip around and "construct my own threads" that hypertext has the potential to give me, I don't want it at the expense of having a sense of the whole, even if that whole is nonlinear.
Online Reading vs. Printing
I'd like to toss in my personal view on the issue of reading materials online or printing them for later viewing. When I have the time and access, I read online. Like most, when I find an article that I want to read at a later time, and I know I will not have access to a computer, I print it out. Although I consider myself something of an environmentalist, the issue of "saving trees" doesn't enter into this discussion, at least for me. This is an issue of knowledge transfer and media choices.
The medium in which the journal is presented to me (online, print, CD, etc.) is often entirely separate from the medium in which I choose to read it. There is nothing inherently better in reading a straightforward text article online vs. printed on paper. This changes dramatically, however, when the material is in hypertext format or other interactive format that has non-linear flow and doesn't often allow easy printing (as neatly discussed in the recent JEP article "Hypertext" by Mindy McAdams and Stephanie Berger).
One suggestion to address this in the short-term: publishers of these varying types of materials (linear text vs. non-linear hypertext) ought to provide a compact, printable version of the document for download as an appendix to an electronic article. Treat the hypertext as footnotes or end-text. Some context and information flow may be lost, but that is a loss accepted by the person printing an article in a non-hypertext format.
Perhaps in the near future, we will all have personal readers (E-books, PDAs, etc.) available to us at all times that will allow us to transfer selected materials and peruse them in their native format at our leisure. Although that day isn't here, yet, it's coming. . .
I gave up on the McAdams and Berger article in the March issue of JEP because I couldn't read it. The font is okay but it is set against a background of blue wallpaper. Black on blue makes for poor contrast and, therefore, eye fatigue. Times New Roman on plain white would better serve both your authors and readers.
When hypertext is better
To the Authors:
I'm scared and confused. As a reader I've always counted on the writer to lead me through his or her text in whatever tortured manner the writer felt best. As an electronic-publishing specialist I strive to return that control to the reader through the interfaces I create. Until I made my way through your article, I never fully realized how disoriented a user can become when they really do have control.
You succeed with your article where many others fail. The result, for me, was the decent into anomie and the very strong desire to stop reading before I got to the end — or beginning, in a non-linear sense. Suddenly, I was not in an orderly place being led paternalistically toward a logical story conclusion, I was in a Chinese restaurant with so many choices, I couldn't even get a glass of water.
I have to go now so that I can re-read your work.
The Latest Issue
The excellent Landesman/van Reenen piece prompts me to ask whether anyone has remarked on another possible "zero-sum" feature of the economics of electronic publishing:
Except for high-priced scientific journals, the conventional publication and dissemination of scholarly information tends to be inherently unprofitable because of the fixed cost of preparation and limited demand for the output. If electronic availability does not significantly increase that demand, the unprofitable relationship remains. Hence you now have providers of electronic scholarly resources announcing that their profits will actually be generated by accompanying sales of related books, courses, or advertising. But to whom, if the user universe remains essentially the same size?