Monday, January 31, 2011

the next step in digitization

I was skeptical of complete digitization of the written word for a long time. Not anymore. I can't imagine any more barriers to abolishing paper that are permanently insurmountable. I don't think you can either, if you honestly set aside your sentimental attachment to physical books for a second and acknowledge that that is no more crucial than the jewel case and album art booklets that kids growing up now already hardly ever encounter, despite that formerly being the heart and soul of the (demand-side) resistance to digital music. Sure, our devices and software need improvement before digital textbooks with all their fancy graphics will be more convenient than quickly pulling a reference book off the shelf to flip through, but it'll happen. I'm already selling bunches of physical books before the prices collapse (and before I have to move again and box up hundreds of pounds of them...)

Anyway, academia (dominated as it is by grey-haired technologically-illiterate tenured boomers) is a little slower to catch on I think but it's absolutely miraculous how far it has come even since I was an undergraduate. I can quickly access 98% of the papers and book sections that I need online. On the rare occasion I have to actually walk to the library and make copies, I have to remind myself that people used to use card catalogs and long-hand note cards to do research (and no search bar! *gasp*) to keep from being outrageously irritated.

But there's a long way to go. And the next most important issue to address technologically (and culturally) is references. Why are papers not simply linked when they are referenced? It is so unnecessarily time-consuming to go through a paper and at each interesting reference, skip to the reference section, copy the title, search for it in google scholar, find a pdf of the most recent version, import it to Mendeley, go back to the original paper, and scroll back to where I was reading in the text.

Ideally, down the line, it would be nice if reference sections were omitted entirely, in lieu of embedded links, and if those links automatically directed to the most up-to-date version of the paper in addition to a list of former versions with the specific version referenced highlighted. (And simply have a "download all references" option). All that MLA guideline crap is defunct, not to mention the hundreds of various style guides for specific journals. What a sadistic headache! Let's please stick with the doi exclusively. (And think how much better library software would be if that were the standard... no more fighting with bibtex tags...)

This is entirely doable right-now, but the closest we get is the "pdf-plus" version that QJE uses that lets you click on a reference and it auto-scrolls you to the reference section to look up the title. And even that tiny, almost pathetically unambitious, attempt is enough to make me prefer reading QJE papers over any other journal. (Well, that and the fact that the pdf metadata is always accurate with QJE. JSTOR, please emulate!!)

First-world problem, I know. But really, this should have become the standard years and years ago.

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