EPUB as Publication Format in Open Access Journals

After a couple of years working with Open Access publishing it has become apparent that many online journals are still based on a print-centric publication model. It is easy to establish an e-journal using a traditional print workflow in an academic environment, because most researchers use a word processor as their major work tool. Many know a bit about copy-editing from their contact with scholarly journals, and current word processors can save documents as PDF files. That is why PDF is the standard format used in the Open Access journals appearing outside the professional publishing industry.

We decided to establish a project with the goal of creating a new workflow for the journals using EPUB as the main publication format. The project succeeded, and our aim is to share experiences and guide others planning to do the same.

Why not PDF?

There are two important reasons why we wanted to replace PDF as our primary e-journal format.

Device independency

We started considering alternatives to PDF after trying to read some of the journal articles on e-book readers (a Sony Reader Touch PRS-650 and a PaperCaster Boox). PDF files do not work well on these E Ink devices. There are font problems and it is hard to scale the text size. There are solutions to some of these problems, but PDF is a print format. It will never be the best choice for reading on tablets (e.g. iPad) or smartphones, and it is challenging to read PDF files on e-book readers with E Ink displays (like most Amazon Kindle models and the Sony Reader). We wanted to replace or supplement the PDF format with EPUB to better support digital reading. This means that we needed to change the entire workflow in the journal in order to take full advantage of the opportunities provided by digital publishing.

Universal design and accessibility

Our second reason for replacing PDF with EPUB was to alleviate accessibility challenges. PDF is a format that can cause many barriers, especially for users of screen readers (synthetic speech or Braille). For example, Excel tables are converted into images, which make it impossible for screen readers to access the table content. PDF documents might also lack search and navigation support, due to either security restrictions, a lack of coded structure in text formats, or the use of PDF image formats. This can make it difficult for any reader to use the document effectively and impossible for screen reader users. On the other hand, correct use of XHTML markup and CSS style sheets in an EPUB file will result in search and navigation functionalities, support for text-to-speech/Braille and speech recognition technologies. In the last decade, accessibility and universal design have become a legal issue, both nationally and internationally. Access to web content is required through article 9 in the UN convention on the rights of persons with disabilities (CRPD) and some national anti-discrimination legislation and procurement regulations. The Norwegian Discrimination and Accessibility Act (DAA) authorize universal design of ICT in articles 13 and 14, and associated regulations for ICT will come into force July 1, 2014. DAA defines universal design as “can be used by as many people as possible”. Accessibility is therefore an essential aspect of publishing e-journals: we must consider diverse user perspectives and make universal design a part of the publishing process.

As early as in 1996, the World Wide Web Consortium (W3C) established the Web Accessibility Initiative (WAI). WAI has made technical guidelines for accessibility for all, e.g. to web content Why EPUB?

EPUB solves both of the problems mentioned above. EPUB is a reflow-able format. This means that the text will always fit the screen without the need for horizontal scrolling. The user can increase and decrease the font size without any changes in page width. This accessibility quality has always been a design goal of the W3C web standards. EPUB is based on web standards and inherits these qualities.

Additionally, EPUB is an open standard maintained by the International Digital Publishing Forum (IDPF). On the other hand, Amazon’s file format AZW/MOBI is a proprietary format. Amazon Kindle devices cannot read EPUB files directly, but free tools like Calibre can easily convert an EPUB file to the native Amazon Kindle format.

EPUB has other advantages as well. The current version, EPUB 3 from October 2011, is based on a subset of HTML5 and CSS3, making it more suitable for multimedia content than earlier versions. At present, few reading devices and applications support EPUB 3.

EPUB 2 from 2007 is still the most widely used and supported version of the format and works well for most academic journals. That is why we will concentrate on EPUB 2 in this article.

The Norwegian standardization organization (Standards Norway) released a standard for electronic documents in 2013.  These guidelines and standards are useful tools when establishing a new publication workflow and format for e-journals.

It is difficult to apply the WAI guidelines and make the e-journals fully accessible within the current workflow of e-journal publishing at HiOA. Some of the main requirements for universally designed e-journals that can be satisfied by the EPUB format are: