Science should look better on screens than on paper.
(a work in progress!)
Formal scientific communication has barely evolved since the 19th century. It should be better and more pleasant to read a scientific article on a computer screen than in print, but journals’ “electronic” articles are generally atrocious. PDF versions are usually in tiny fonts in multiple columns — because they’re meant to be inked onto little rectangular pieces of paper!
Good design isn’t the only thing but it matters more than you might think. Computer screens are infinitely tall and come with no trees to save, so high quality web design looks very different than a typical printed page — like this. Online scientific articles are harder to typeset than some things because they contain math, but they’re not that hard. It’s just that the journals don’t really care.
LaTeX is the lingua franca of scholarly communication for physical scientists. It’s old and it’s weird, but it’s also the only way that professional scientists know how to typeset equations that look good, and there’s an important cultural heritage of nearly a million articles written in LaTeX on arxiv.org. LaTeX can produce beautiful printed documents and contains more than enough information to create a beautiful electronic articles too. We don’t need a new way to write articles.
But we do need a new way to process them. Latex2HTML looks like garbage. You really need to muck with the TeX engine itself. (Because, like the PDF format, it too can’t get over its fascination with cramming things onto pages.)
(Well, that’s the dream. It’s not done yet!)
Here you can compare three renditions of the same article: the PDF and HTML versions provided by the journal, and the version produced by processing the corresponding files on Arxiv with Webtex:
I’m told that the demo fails on Safari, sorry :-( JS hackers with Macs, inquire within!
(Here I’ve pre-compiled the LaTeX source into an intermediate format that can be rendered quickly, since the processing is still very slow. But it’s possible to point your browser at a Zip file of LaTeX sources and get identical results.)
The sky’s the limit. On my mind:
I haven’t yet polished things so that you can just build your own distribution and try compiling your own favorite document. That’s coming soon, but in the meantime the source code is on GitHub and it’s ready for action. Go ahead and file issues.