Hypermedia and electronic publishing as development rather than revolution

It's clear that Holtorf and I had different goals in mind right from the start and I would like to explore briefly some of these differences. I will take issue with some assertions contained in Holtorf's presentation. I am not an expert of hypermedia theory, and in fact most of my knowledge of this field comes from Holtorf's article and the many useful links he provides. I do, however, know about the history of computer science and, as a practising scientist, I have ideas about the nature and shape of scientific publication.

First I wish to point out that I am in full agreement with Holtorf's comments about the importance of hypermedia and electronic publishing in making knowledge and especially data more widely and easily available. Sharing of observations and experimental results on a very large scale can only improve our ability to conduct scientific research. It is clear that tools such as the World Wide Web can make an enormous contribution in that direction (see also Gaffney and Exon, 1999).

There are other aspects of Holtorf's presentation of the potentials of hypermedia which I find more problematic. He states:

"In contrast to conventional texts (and perhaps especially conventional Ph.D. theses), there is no linear sequence in which a hypermedia document's pages are meant to be read and understood. A hypermedia document minimises the traditional status differentiation between the often sequential elements of a book or article, for equal status as independent pages is accorded to all elements (table of contents, preface, ordered chapters, digressions, conclusions, notes, bibliography, appendices, indices, etc.). Each reading experience is different. Hypermedia documents encourage readers openly to be active, to make decisions and to give a text meaning based on individual reading experiences rather than on something inherent in the text".

I have two distinct reactions to the above passage. On the one hand, I find no clear contrast between conventional texts and hypermedia documents as they are depicted in that passage. On the other, I do not see how scientific reporting can be fully dissociated from a certain underlying linearity of presentation. Let me expand in turn on each of these reactions.

The manner in which a text is written, especially perhaps in academia, has very little to do with the way in which it is read. Many of my colleagues share my habit of reading the reference section of a paper first, and then back-tracking through the various bits and pieces of text which prompt some of the more immediately interesting references. Conclusions are also an early hit in many people's reading strategy. I really see no fundamental difference between the reading of a hypertext and the reading of a "conventional" text. Clearly, the computer has come to allow some facility in setting up and following paths of links which normally required trips down the hall to a reading room, or down the street to a library. However, much of hypertext still feels like a tool for coping with the very significant physical limitations of the computer screen as a display.

Fully searchable text held on electronic media represents an evolution of the paper library, just as the 'Title Index' catalogue is an advance over an unsorted room full of documents. It makes research that much faster and more powerful. Hypertext is a good tool for the exploitation of this expanded search capability, which is now reaching global proportions. This is the real potential of hypermedia and its host technology, electronic data storage. But these are clearly evolutions of existing storage, search, and retrieval technology rather than revolutions.

A conventional text, despite the fact that it is rarely read sequentially, does hold sequential information. It is written in a linear way and the original line is always available to those who need to follow it. If the purpose of a document is to present the evaluation of a set of hypotheses (as was the case with my dissertation), this line must be available to the reader. Assumptions must be known before methods can be justified, and methods must be explained before results can meaningfully be discussed. The need for an experiment to be replicable, in form if not always in results, imposes a linear treatment of communication. The fact that hypermedia allows a-sequential communication does not mean that researchers should use the latter! Quite the contrary. I see it as a hazard created by the integration of a new tool. It is a hazard which must be carefully monitored, just as one must exercise greater caution with a chain-saw than with a simple knife. The new tool creates new potentials and also new pitfalls. The reading of experimental reports and lines of logical reasoning can profitably be performed in a non-linear way. Non-linear writing, however, is hardly compatible with reasoning, demonstration, and experimentation.

Finally, I am worried about the emphasis Holtorf places on short, simple chunks of reasoning and knowledge. Pages should not, it seems, explore the limits of the reader's attention span and ability to reason. This, I believe, is a requirement which is incompatible with the spirit of scientific enterprise. While arguments and ideas should be simple and elegant, grasping them is often challenging and requires much discussion and exemplification.


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Last updated: Thurs May 13 1999