Thursday, February 12, 2015

Breaking up is hard to do

sas-ipad by zandwacht, on Flickr
Creative Commons Creative Commons Attribution-Noncommercial 2.0 Generic License  by zandwacht

Tradition is a powerful factor in slowing the uptake of new methods and tools in education. It's hard to say goodbye to old trusted friends and even if new solutions are clearly more effective we simply have invested too much time and effort in the old ones to let go without a struggle. This is especially true with services like e-mail which is so ingrained into almost all workplaces as the default method of communication that we keep on using and abusing it even when more effective and communicative solutions appear. The benefits of new solutions are often only evident when the old one has been fully replaced and running two rival solutions in parallel is simply ineffective. But making the clean break with tradition is traumatic.

The same is true with another old friend (or enemy for some) the pdf file. Pdf is the format of choice in most scientific publications and remains firmly entrenched despite its age (been around for 24 years!) and limitations. Once an article is in pdf format it is trapped in a format that cannot be changed and which denies peers the opportunity to comment and review. In addition pdf is a proprietary format that requires users to download a reader and this can be a barrier to many. Ijad Madisch makes a plea for change in a Guardian article, Researchers: it's time to ditch the PDF.

The PDF is the digital equivalent to the desk drawer – a place where scientific results are hard to find and easily forgotten. And yet the PDF is still the default way for scholarly publishers to disseminate research on the web.

There are many much more attractive and flexible reading formats available that could allow readers the opportunity to engage with the author but once again I think tradition is the main factor for the pdf's longevity.

The solution is to embed research results into their natural – their social – context. Publications are only small snippets of a researcher’s knowledge. To get the full story you need to connect with the researcher. This way, authors get feedback on their work and readers an idea of its impact.

Proprietary formats like pdf have become so accepted that more open alternatives struggle to gain acceptance despite clear advantages (above all not requiring users to download extra software). We continue to use pdf, Word, PowerPoint, e-mail simply because we always have. I don't think there are necessarily any ulterior motives here except the power of tradition and the fact that breaking up is so hard to do.

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