Authoring online with Lens Writer

Following an experiment writing in Lens Writer, we explore why it's worth experimenting with online writing tools and what we hope to get out of it.
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Lens Writer is an online editor designed specifically to help with writing scientific manuscripts.

In this blogpost, Ian Mulvany, eLife Head of Technology, explores why it's worth experimenting with online writing tools at all, and what we hope to get out of an experiment like this. You can read more about the features of Lens Writer here, and you can try out Lens Writer here.

Most of the submissions eLife receives are created in Microsoft Word (96%), with the remainder in LaTex. Regardless of the current popularity of those tools, we see opportunities in developing web based alternatives. I think that there are two strong reasons to look at an initiative like Lens Writer. The first is to do with the past, and the second is to do with the future. Let's look at the past first, and the future second.

First to the past, it's important to understand what happens with your manuscript when you submit it to a journal. The files get sent to a publisher, who has these files converted (through a partially manual process) into a structured format, usually XML. (A dirty secret of many LaTeX processing workflows is that the publisher will convert the LaTeX file into a word file before converting it on to an XML file.) Often at some point in this process a PDF is generated and sent to the author to check on how the conversion is going.

Historically, authors would have written their corrections directly on the print out of that PDF file, and post those back to the publisher (some publishers still use this workflow today). Now the author will mark up the PDF and send back a digital copy. Those corrections still have to be manually incorporated into the XML document.

Finally, the structured file is ready to publish, the final PDF is generated, and an online version of the article is also created. This back and forth, and manual processing, all take a lot of time.

One way to improve this process is to start transitioning the correction phase to the web, and have authors insert their corrections, and answer any queries that arise in the conversion process, directly into the document. However, to achieve that, first we need to provide a great online editing experience for scientific manuscripts.

Up until now the tools available for editing complex text in browsers have been only mediocre. Many of the tools currently available depend on an HTML5 property called Content Editable but its implementation has been problematic (read a recent Medium post describing why using content editable is a terrible idea).

The developers at Substance have been working on solutions to this problem for a few years and they have now applied some of this thinking to Lens Writer. At eLife we see the potential tools like this have to improve the publication process. We are already integrating eLife Lens into our production workflow and it will soon be the interface that authors see when receiving feedback during that workflow.

So much for the past. What of the future? It might be fanciful to think of a time when Word gets knocked off its plinth as the main authoring tool for researchers, but increasingly the web, and web technologies, are becoming central to every aspect of the scientific communication process. At the same time as this has been happening web browsers have become more powerful, and the same technology that drives web browsers is increasingly being used to create desktop-class applications.

The implication of this for the future of authoring tools is that we are likely to see an increased number of domain specific writing tools being created over the next couple years. These will be tools that work seamlessly online and offline, in the browser and on the desktop. I like to think of these as domain specific editors, and there have already been a number of very interesting examples created in the past few years. They range from desktop applications to those that are web only. My two favourite examples of desktop class applications are Atom - a coding editor created by the team at github - and Manuscripts.app an editor designed specifically for scholarly writing. Web based authoring tools for researchers that have impressed include Overleaf, fidus writer and authorea.

Clearly this is a time ripe for experimentation and there remain good opportunities for improving the scholarly communication process. eLife hopes to help by creating, and increasing awareness of good, open tools that can be used to make those improvements. We have been delighted to help the developers at Substance in the creation of the Lens suite of tools and we encourage you to try out the most recent addition Lens Writer. Please give us feedback on the github repository for that project.