Openness and metadata make things work better

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Open standards and better metadata are paving the way for more robust publishing systems, writes Siân Harris

‘It’s an exciting time to be doing what we do,’ enthused Bill Kasdorf, vice president of Apex Content Solutions, Apex CoVantage. He was talking about how e-publishing has evolved and how the tools to enable this have developed.

There have been changes over the years in the way that content is delivered digitally. As Hervé Essa, VP international sales and business development of editorial and publishing services of Jouve Group, noted: ‘Many e-publishing solutions already exist and have been implemented for novels and linear content for which the digital version is similar to the print version. E-publishing tools for linear content are becoming so common that self-publishing platforms are readily available and can be accessed by most anyone.’

However, many information products are much more than simple text-based replicas of print books. ‘As digital use evolves, reading is no longer done linearly; rather, users are navigating and interacting with content and exploring related content in parallel. New e-publishing tools and technology will need to adapt in order to create new features available through digital products,’ he continued.

In particular, digital content today can include interactive learning objects, rich media and assessment modules. This requires e-publishing tools to shift from a simple content rendering tool to one capable of doing digital content creation. Tools need to enable users to create mashedup content as well as contribute new content from mashups. Essa also predicts that e-publishing tools will be linked to content repository and metadata management tools.

In addition, ‘content will not be passive any more and provide static information to the reader, but will evolve to a more dynamic approach. For instance, a student who will perform an online assessment will be provided with a lesson on topics he failed, and lessons will be provided through serious gaming.’

These trends have an impact on how content is created, and on the e-publishing tools involved. Essa identified some key requirements that e-publishing tools and technologies must fulfil. Content, he said, must be structured in a way it can be easily reused in various form factors. The approach must also allow content to adapt to all devices and readers based on standard industry formats such as EPUB3 and HTML5. Interactivity and multimedia components need to be brought together with text and there is a need for proper ‘digital pathways’ and non-linear content navigation features. In addition, he continued, e-publishing tools will need to ease the production process to bring value to editorial workflows and enable publishers and content providers to create new digital content and user experiences at lower prices with faster turnaround times.

‘As end users expect diverse and enriched content, publishers and content providers must align product offerings and adapt production tools, technology and process to become agile in meeting these market demands,’ he explained.

‘All scholarly publishers will need to provide a flexible and user-centric assembly of elements in order to create the final products and deliver to the end user. The difference will come into the distribution and diffusion of the content. Either it will be through standard distribution channels using standards formats or through a proper learning platform that will become a full education platform where learning, teaching and assessing will loop until performance is achieved,’ he continued.

There are additional challenges that come with some areas of scholarly publishing, according to Kaveh Bazargan, director of River Valley Technologies. One of these is mathematical formulae: ‘At River Valley, we try to handle the most complex content, including the most complex mathematics. We feel that if we can handle these, then we can handle any kind of content. Our current problem is to display mathematics with the best fidelity on different devices,’ he said, although he added that the combination of HTML5 and MathML is assisting in this area.

Open standards

Such activities help illustrate the difference that standards can make to progress in publishing. ‘We feel that open standards are key to progress in this area. Amazon will have to embrace EPUB at some time for their e-book content. We feel that proprietary standards will get in the way of the availability of content on different platforms,’ he added.

Kasdorf, of Apex CoVantage, agreed on the benefits of open standards, noting the progress made with things like HTML5, CSS3 and EPUB3. ‘We’re entering a period of unprecedented interoperability,’ he said. ‘Best of all, the W3C has recently launched a new initiative, the Digital Publishing Interest Group, devoted to making web standards more broadly applicable and useful to publishing of all sorts in all modes – online, apps, EPUB, and even print.’

He reflected on how things have moved towards more standards-based digital publishing, noting that ‘even in the 2000s, the proliferation of standards and their various implementations were still barriers except in certain communities of interest like scholarly publishing (which focused on NLM XML) and technical books and documentation (which tended to be DocBook-based). At the same time, much print publishing was done with desktop tools like InDesign, and e-publishing meant PDFs and then multiple incompatible e-book formats.’

In contrast, he said: ‘Today, there is a significant convergence on open web standards, which enables a wide variety of tools and systems to interoperate much more easily, and for many of the same tools to be used across many different sides of publishing.’

Kaveh Bazargan 

He sees the next step as making it easier for publishers to take advantage of the open web ecosystem. He said that Apex has developed a new technology called Podium 2 that enables non-technical users, like designers or project editors, to create or adapt CSS style sheets for EPUBs that incorporate responsive design. These helps adapt content to formats optimised for a smartphone, a tablet held in portrait or landscape mode, or a laptop – all from a single EPUB 3 file.

‘This finally realises the promise of what the industry has been working toward for so long: a single file e-book delivery that adapts not just to various operating systems but to the size of the user’s screen and the device’s capabilities (no need to "dumb down" to the lowest common denominator),’ he said.

Long-term issues

Such efforts are also important because publishers and publishing services companies need to think not just about now but also about the future. As Kaveh Bazargan explained, ‘In the old days we had print. The definitive version of a publication was that, and there was no argument. So even centuries after a publication, as long as the manuscript has not been damaged, there is no doubt as to the content, or indeed the format. Now we have e-publishing. The problem here is that formats come and go, as do devices,’ he said.

‘If we are serious about publications we have to ensure that centuries from now there will be no doubt as to what the author intended. This problem has not hit us yet, but it will, and it will be serious for those who have not done their job right. In my opinion the foremost requirement of any tool is that there is one absolutely authoritative archive, from which any format for any device can be created. Any manual intervention at any stage is dangerous,’ he continued.

He believes that the answer lies with XML. ‘True automated XML first has always been my mission and there is no substitute for it,’ he said.

As content changes this has implications on all aspects of publishing tools. One area that Copyright Clearance Center (CCC) is particularly concerned about it licensing. ‘With so much of publishing now conducted online and in virtual space, it’s increasingly important to identify materials clearly and how they may be reused. With open access, this frequently means detailing a specific Creative Commons licence. Where this is not applicable, rights licensing data enables content monetisation and clears a path to lawful reuse,’ said Christopher Kenneally, director of business development at CCC.

He predicts that automated licensing will be a trend in the future, and pointed to the example of the new UK Copyright Hub, which is ‘its first phase of an ambitious effort to leverage technology to make copyright work.’


When it comes to what trends to expect next, there was plenty of agreement too. As Kenneally summed up: ‘What once was reserved for library card catalogues is now ubiquitous. I’m talking about metadata, of course, which in 2013 has become more complex, intricate, and detailed, and must now meet global standards.’

Essa, of Jouve, agreed: ‘Metadata management must to be closely linked to content creation. It becomes crucial to be able to manage the digital rights on the content to guarantee that content creators are paid from their contribution as well as providing a mechanism for users to identify relevant content. In the future the content will become contextually adaptive to the learning environment; metadata creation will become key in the editorial and production process.’

Kasdorf, of Apex CoVantage, added: ‘What publishers are realising is that good metadata is what makes it all work.’ He said that this means semantic metadata to help people find and use their content, metadata to manage rights issues and technical metadata to drive the platforms and devices. There is another trend that he identified too: ‘A second term that I’d put close behind is "granularity": managing content at a more granular level (chapters, sections, images, components, etc.) to extract more and more value from a publisher’s content and make it more accessible and useful to their customers.’

All this – and more – will no doubt be discussed in Frankfurt and elsewhere over the coming months.