The Rebus Approach

Having explored multiple external perspectives in the scholarly reading ecosystem, we turn now to sharing ours as well. We believe, based on our experience, values and the issues raised by our interviewees, that open, web-based technical solutions are essential for addressing the needs of scholarly deep readers. It is our view that only in an open technical ecosystem can deliver on the promise of digital reading technology, an ecosystem built for interoperability of reading platforms with external tools, a reading system that can be built upon and innovated upon. Reading is the starting point of scholarly activity, but it is only the starting point, and tools need to be developed to support all the other things scholars wish to do: from reading and annotating, through the management of collections, notes and reading contexts, to their reuse and recrafting into whole new bodies of work.

To date, the commercial platforms supporting digital reading are not answering this need. We believe there is space for a new, open model of digital scholarly reading, that is expressly built to encourage, rather than discourage, interoperability.

Open, Open, Open

The history of human knowledge is written in, on, and with open, available, and accessible technologies: language, writing, paper, pens, typewriters, printing presses. No proprietary or closed technology has survived the tests of time to preserve and propagate the continuous progress of scholarly investigation. In the digital world, the movements of Open Web, Open Content Licenses, and Open Source Software tools continue with this imperative today.

The advent of digital information technologies has made possible entirely unprecedented deep engagement and manipulation of information and knowledge; and yet so far, for much of scholarly content, we have locked it up in closed technologies and business models.

The future of scholarly work, and the human progress that depends on it, lies in Open.

Open Content

For scholarly endeavors to thrive and continue their contributions to human progress, source materials must be available not just for looking at and reading, but manipulating, extracting, annotating, quoting, copying, reworking, recontextualizing, and pushing further forward. This means doing away with DRM and enabling direct access, manipulation, and reuse of content. At its most radical, this imperative suggests Open Licences. But, we needn’t be so radical to hugely improve the scholarly reading ecosystem. Simply letting scholars who have legitimate access to digital content (through library or private purchase) use and manipulate that content as they wish to support their scholarship is radical enough.

Open Standards / Open Web Platform

Unfettered innovation in new ways of interacting with scholarly materials depends on interoperable, open standards-based approaches. The Web, whose very fabric and existence depends on such, is the natural model and platform.

Publishers must be involved in defining the Web Publication standard now developing in the W3C’s Digital Publishing Working Group. (We have been involved in preliminary discussions with the group since mid-2017. See Appendix iv for more details of this process). Libraries should seek out and support web-based systems which incorporate such things as collection and book APIs and portability.

New interactions and models can best emerge when we agree on interoperable standards and protocols, which allow new innovations to build on existing technologies.

Open Source Software

Along the same path, the software that supports the systems and services used in scholarly publishing need to be open to use, modification, repair, and innovation by anyone. Ideally, they should not be controlled nor limited by any one entity, so as to allow their development without the pressure of (only) commercial imperatives.

Values, Not Only Business Models

Finally, all of the above are driven by economic factors: the flow of value through society. If the motivations are solely financial, then much non-accountable value is lost. Human and social values should be given at least equal weight, if not primacy. when considering the systems and technologies we have underpinning scholarly inquiry. The library is the perfect example of this model; technologies that support the work of libraries should share their values.

In our context, that means valuing readers, their research, and their teaching as more than just activities from which we can profit, instead recognizing and supporting the value that they contribute back to society. Mission-driven businesses and organizations should continue to be given a chance to emerge, through funding—be it venture or grant based—and support.

We at the Rebus Foundation believe in and pursue open standards in web publishing, open source software and collaboratively-sourced open content, and we are grateful for the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation’s planning grant allowing us to undertake this initial research project. Gathering such insight into the situation and needs of the scholarly publishing ecosystem is invaluable for our mission: to build open web-based tools for scholarly publishing and reading.


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