Barbara Meyers Ford opened the session by reviewing the history of the scientific article. Before the 15th century, scientific information was communicated orally or via handwritten descriptive letters exchanged between scholars. Scientific communication was facilitated by the establishment of learned societies (starting in 1323) and by the invention of the printing press in 1450, although the first printed journals (Journal des sçavans and Philosophical Transactions of the Royal Society) did not appear until 1665. Those early journals, which were essentially collections of letters and essays, enabled scientists to share their findings with a wider group of colleagues. Over the next 2 centuries, science became institutionalized, and letter-based communication yielded to more structured formats: the first modern research institution was founded in 1809, and the IMRAD format was introduced in the late 1880s (and standardized in 1972 as ANSI Z39.19). In the 1980s, the development of the first full-text online database (by the American Chemical Society) and the World Wide Web brought scientific publishing into the digital age. However, although scientific articles are increasingly distributed on the Web, online articles generally do not differ substantially from their printed versions in either form or content. The use of digital technology to enhance those aspects is one goal of Elsevier’s Article of the Future (AotF) project, which was announced in 2009.
IJsbrand Jan Aalbersberg, senior vice president of journal content and technology, Elsevier Science and Technology, discussed the development and current status of the AotF project. The primary goal is to address the loss of content that occurs when information-rich, multidimensional, digital scientific data are compressed onto the two-dimensional journal page, whether in print or in digital form. In the past, scientists had only pen and paper to record, process, store, and disseminate data, but a vast array of digital technologies are now available for these tasks. However, although journal publishers have embraced digital dissemination of scientific articles, they have been slower to use digital technology to enhance article content.
Elsevier began by evaluating existing article prototypes and conducting focus groups, both in person and online, first with life scientists and later with scientists in more than 10 additional disciplines. The initial work suggested that the AotF should retain the readability of a PDF but contain discipline-specific add-ons that enhance without being distracting. In 2011, Elsevier introduced prototype articles that had three panes: a left-hand navigation pane, a central PDF-style pane containing the article text, and a right-hand pane with disciplinespecific content and context. General features of the prototypes include independent scrolling in each pane, an interactive crosshair functionality for extracting values from data plots, and clickable links for viewing reference abstracts without scrolling to the end of an article.
Usability testing of the AotF prototypes revealed that only 45% of users of a traditional-style article on Elsevier’s ScienceDirect engaged extensively with the online HTML content, whereas the percentage was 80% for the AotF prototypes. More than half the users of the traditional-style article went immediately to the PDF after reading the abstract, whereas only 15%–20% of the prototype users felt the need to do so. User responses also indicated that the new design allowed scientists to evaluate an article’s relevance to their research more quickly.
Since 2012, a stream of AotF disciplinespecific content enrichments, all available from within the articles, have been implemented on ScienceDirect:
- Interactive protein viewer.
- Genome viewer.
- Links to data set repositories (such as PANGAEA).
- Molecule viewer for chemical structures.
- Interactive Google maps, generated from author-provided KML files, for geographic data.
- Interactive phylogenetic tree viewer.
- MATLAB figure viewer for data figures.
- Interactive viewer for three-dimensional archeologic models.
- Viewer for author-prepared Webinarstyle presentations.
- Three-dimensional neuroimaging viewer for brain structures.
For examples of those enrichments, see http://www.elsevier.com/about/contentinnovation. In addition, the original prototypes for the various disciplines and examples of other add-on features (including interactive Venn diagrams, statistical charts, tables, and plates) are still available at http://www.articleofthefuture.com/.