CyberTech Rambler

September 5, 2006

Documents in Academia

Filed under: Uncategorized — ctrambler @ 6:37 pm

Over at Libervis, there is a great article on file format in Academia, UK academic space to be exact. Although I personally do not have the privilege of putting my name of research proposals etc, I see those papers flying across different desks around me and can understand the article.

The problem here is, presentation do counts, especially when you are applying for funding. One have to follow what the bank manager, I’m sorry, funding body, wants. After you get the nod, there are another tons of documents to migrate the money into the University fund management system. Yearly progress report has to be submitted, and finally when publishing, you need to look at the documents very carefully.

Current document standard and to a certain extents, up and coming document format (ODF and OpenXML) are just not suitable. First, they can be altered. Sending something in doc/docx/odt implies you trust that nobody is going to add an bad remark in your document and send it as yours. Sometimes you have people sending your documents as forms to fill. Courtesy means one have to keep the form “more-or-less” in the same shape, i.e., do not let fields overflow onto the next page. Only one words to describe these type of forms : NUTS. Moreover, at the final stage of preparation, presentation becomes important and there is no way to ensure consistent presentation with these documents: people are simply going to fiddle with the margins to sneak the extra text in.

Increasingly, things are do over-the-web using websites. If you think it makes things easier, no. My University invests billions in financial system and grant management system. However, they are simply shifting the work from Admin office to the researchers. Idiosynchracy are never in short supply. You are not able to change the Principle Investigator name once you submitted it even if you own the piece of information. They do drop-down list, but they are list of 100+ items. It takes another webpage to explain the different between lunch at conference, tea at conference etc etc etc. The best part is, you then have to print it coz you have to sign it!

Thus, you can see why I am keen in seeing documents not just as a human-readable one, but a machine readable one as well. With forms, I want to be able to edit it without worrying about how it is presented. If I want large font, the machine should accommodate me. The machine should also be able to pick it apart, assist me in getting the information correct, then digest it and or prepare it for another machine to process. I want a common XML schema, one that allows me to upload grant document into the grant management system and the system will populate the form for me. It saves time, money and effort.

Now, from a programmers viewpoint it means access to tools to digest these documents. I do not want to rewrite all the bits to digest the document, I need third party tools to do it. Thus, the batterground for my utopia is the availablility of third party tools. Who provides the better tools will usually wins the race, no matter whether it is proprietary tool or open source tool.

Please, please please can we go back to the good old days where typewriters reign. Those were the time when people are not over-obsessive with presentation and concentrate on getting the information across.  you want good balance in paper publication


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