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Scholarly publishers snub Microsoft

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Microsoft’s latest Word release has caused chaos in scholarly publishing circles. Submit a paper to, say, the journal Nature in Word 2007 and you will face the following warning:

‘We currently cannot accept files saved in Microsoft Office 2007 formats. Equations and special characters (for example, Greek letters) cannot be edited and are incompatible with Nature's own editing and typesetting programs.’

And it’s not just Nature. Try Science, The Lancet and pretty much any ‘mathematics-intensive’ journal in the world and you will hit the same problem. Why? It would appear Microsoft forgot the publishing community when developing Office 2007.

Over the past decade, Microsoft Word has provided a stable environment for software developers to produce myriad sophisticated applications, automating publishers’ work flow processes from article submission to publication.

However, earlier this year the software giant launched the latest version of Office, with Word 2007 and its new XML-based file format, DOCX. Unfortunately online publishing systems cannot accept these files.

As software developer Bruce Rosebaum of Inera, a US producer of Microsoft Word-based software for publishers, puts it: ‘Publishers need to make changes in their systems to accept the new files and these aren’t trivial.’

According to Rosebaum, publishers will now have to update entire ‘ecologies’ of systems before they can accept DOCX files. ‘This requires work with third parties, testing, training, and finally deployment. All of this takes time,’ he says.

To make matters worse only weeks ago Rosebaum spoke to four key providers of such systems; none support DOCX and couldn’t say when they would. ‘I can’t speak for all of them but know a couple are looking at later this year,’ he adds.

And the pain doesn’t stop here. According to Howard Ratner, chief technology officer of Nature: ‘Microsoft has also changed the Math format of Word. Now this is the big deal.’

Historically Microsoft licensed a tool or equation editor called ‘MathType’ from software suppliers, Design Science. This allowed authors to create mathematical notation in Word.

‘All of us publishers went ahead and built tools around this, but guess what? For Word 2007, Microsoft chose to build their own equation editor,’ says Ratner.

And perhaps predictably, this is not compatible with publishers’ editorial systems. When processed for publication, any equations in an article are converted to unreadable graphics.

‘If Microsoft were to make some changes so the equations could be backwards compatible to the old equation editor format we opened in 2003, that would facilitate a more gradual transition with Office 2007,’ explains Rosebaum.

But realistically, Microsoft is not going to alter Word 2007 for scholarly publishers. As Rosebaum says: ‘Scientific publishing is a tiny slice of the pie for Microsoft.’

Ratner agrees. ‘We’re not going to change Word,’ he laughs. ‘Microsoft has no commitment on changing their code or anything like that.’

But change is afoot. Following lobbying from Ratner and publishing colleagues, Microsoft is poised to build an ‘area’ on its website where publishers and vendors can access much needed technical details on Word 2007.

‘Microsoft admits they haven’t documented particular features as well as they should for the programmers and publishers,’ he says. ‘But building the area is a huge step in the right direction, we will now have information that we just couldn’t get elsewhere.’

Also as Rosebaum points out, Word 2007 does actually contain the legacy equation editor. Indeed while Science will not accept DOCX files, its website instructs Word 2007 users on how to access the legacy equation editor.

And pleasingly, Design Science, has just released its latest equation editor, MathType6, which is fully compatible with Word 2007, Office 2007, XP and 2000. ‘There are workarounds and people aren’t dead in the water,’ says Rosebaum.

So while Microsoft may have overlooked the scientific publishing community when developing Office 2007, amends are being made. According to Ratner, these twinned with industry software developments, should see Nature endorsing Word 2007 in 2008.

‘The potential for the DOCX format is huge; it will allow us to do new and creative things in the future,’ surmises Ratner. ‘But this is only if your infrastructure can handle it, and that will take time.’