Designing the digital monograph

Scholarly database JSTOR considers how to redesign the scholarly monograph with the digital reader in mind.

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Scholarly books are increasingly being made available in a digital form, but all too often only in the form of browse-only PDF files. With this in mind JSTOR has undertaken an ideation and design process to explore new and different ways of showing scholarly books online.

A set of themes and principles for this ‘re-design’ was developed out of a workshop with scholars, librarians and publishers.

  • The importance of great writing is a given – no matter how innovative content design, the quality of writing really matters.
  • The ideal digital monograph should allow different readers to navigate it in different ways – allowing for four key types of reader-requirements: citation mining, extracting specific information from the book, immersive reading, and reusing or revisiting a text.
  • Readers should be given better tools to assess the content of online scholarly books quickly and efficiently - tools to help give readers better insights into the topics of a book (via text-mining and applying models to large chunks of machine-readable text for example) or allowing users to “vote on” or otherwise tag or assess a given book, or other means to enable readers to evaluate a book’s relevance quickly.
  • Readers should be able to navigate more quickly to the portion of a book they are interested in –finding new ways to help steer readers more quickly to the parts of the long-form argument that are relevant to their needs could be one important part of unlocking the value of these titles for new and broader audiences.
  • Users sometimes need to home in on extended passages on specific topics or to search for facts to support an argument - finding new ways to help steer readers more quickly to the parts of the long-form argument that are relevant to their needs could be one important part of unlocking the value of these titles.
  • Readers should be given better functionality for situating a book within the larger scholarly conversation - the ability to position a book—and its constituent parts or arguments—within the scholarly discussion of which it is a part would be quite valuable to researchers.
  • Readers should be able to interact with books in collaborative environments - shared annotations and other forms of digital “group reading” could help graduate students
  • Ideally, digital book collections and aggregations would offer the opportunity for serendipitous discovery - there are a number of highly creative and usable online tools that offer users a more visually engaging browsing experience for ebooks but few publishers or content platforms in the scholarly world have put similar thoughtfulness into their own browsing and navigation structures for ebooks.
  • Readers should be able to flip between sections of a digital monograph as easily as they can in a print book
  • In an ideal world, readers would be able to work simultaneously with both a print and digital edition
  • Digital books should be able to travel easily from device to device
  • Readers should be able to interact with and mark up digital books
  • Digital scholarly book files should be open and flexible

The prototype monograph viewer developed through this process—called “Topicgraph”—is freely available online at https://labs.jstor.org/topicgraph.

The Whitepaper can be downloaded here.