September 15, 2010, [MD]
I have been thinking a lot about what would be the ideal file format for for example dissertations. The dissertations category is a nice example, because the institutions have basically complete control - they can ask you to do whatever they want, to graduate, and you will do it. For example, my institutions require that on the first page of each chapter, the page number should be at the bottom, centered. At each subsequent page, it should be at the top, to the right. Not sure what user testing and reading research went into determining that this is the optimal placement of the page number, but if I want to graduate, I have to do it.
Similarly I have to upload a copy of my thesis to the institutional repository, if I want to graduate. This is a good thing. However, the required file format is PDF. The double spaced PDF is a singularly poor format. First, you can't resize the text. What if you want to read it on your cellphone? What if you want to print it, without wasting hundreds of pages? (I hate reading double spaced text, when it's not for grading). What's the alternative though? The one reason I prefer PDFs over Word DOCs on my system, is that I rarely have Word running, and starting it is so slow, whereas reading a hundred page PDF in Preview is a snap.
I think the ideal format would probably be some kind of a semantically marked up text, which could then generate a bunch of different outputs. However, I've never really taken to any of the different systems I've seen, when it comes to ease of editing, or even of creating output. In the end, I did all the writing in Scrivener, and tweaked the formatting in MS Word, until it was sufficient. I then generated PDF, DOC and RTF files (and opened it in OpenOffice to generate an ODT file) of both the canonical version, and a much compressed two-column edition that takes less then half the pages, great for printing.
I also wanted to create an ePub version for ebook readers. Since I got my iPod Touch, I've been reading hundreds of books on it, through Stanza, the Kindle app, etc. Somehow the small screen works great, when I can quickly tap to page turn (with no delay). And I would love to see people reading my thesis on their cell phones, on their iPhones, on Kindle, on the Kobo, or anywhere else.
It isn't hard to generate an ePub, but it's almost impossible to generate a perfect one. There's a bunch of different programs, and websites, but almost all work by conversion. You upload (or open) a file that is formatted according to certain standards, and the program/website tries to convert this into an ePub using some fuzzy logic. Often it works fairly well (sometimes it fails spectacularly), but there are always little warts that can be very difficult to fix. The ePub format itself is simply a ZIP file with a bunch of HTML files, and some metadata. However, because of the way the file is structured, I find it very cumbersome to manually edit files. Then there's the aspect that different readers can display texts quite differently.
Either way, I have an ePub file that I am fairly happy with. I created it by creating a very paired down minimalistic HTML version of my thesis (with Word, and a lot of regexps to clean out the cruft), and then ran this through Calibre. I've tested it on Stanza, and iBooks (just drag the file and drop it over iTunes), and it works great. There are two small issues - the first page is blank for some reason, and whenever I use two levels of headings just below each other, for example
Chapter 5 will be followed by a blank page, until you come to Introduction. If somebody would like to help me fix this, I'd welcome it, but all in all, I think it reads quite well. Although I find iBooks a bit too gaudy with it's faux bookshelf, I must admit it's a bit fun to see my thesis there, with my minimalistic cover - and the contents actually look nicer than in Stanza (I just wish I could turn off, or dramatically speed up, the page turning animation, the Stanza one is perfection).
This blog post is about the MA Thesis "The Chinese National Top Level Courses Project: Using Open Educational Resources to Promote Quality in Undergraduate Teaching" by Stian Håklev, University of Toronto 2010.