Electronic Publishing: Look Before You Leap
Abstract: In the scramble to save money through using the internet and CDs, we should not lose focus on the Station's research users. When publishing through electronic media instead of print, we need to make it just as easy for users to access and absorb research information. Following are helpful hints.
People read text on a screen 20-40% slower than on paper (due to screen format, text characteristics, backgrounds, ambient light and glare, etc.).
Research has shown that people usually do not read documents word-for-word on the screen -- they scan and search for key information. On-screen reading is not linear. Tight writing becomes more important. (Tight writing is important for print, too: According to Forest Science, it returns 50% of authors' submissions with a requirement to edit the language.)
Users need to be targeted according to their content knowledge, reading skills, media used, and media skills.
To maintain readability of electronic documents, according to the latest research: use a 12-point sans serif typeface (Arial, Helvetica); use a single-column format; limit paragraphs to 5 lines; limit line length to 200-400 pixels; use black type on a white background; and avoid caps and italics.
Provide navigational aids: internal links, table of contents, and other "breadcrumbs." To speed downloading time, use 4 megs maximum per file (result: may have to break chapters and separate figures/tables from text).
Documents longer than about 30 pages: Readers won't automatically print them out due to the length. Journals can't publish longer documents, so hard-copy GTRs may still be the medium of choice. Another factor: Reproduction quality on personal printers is poor for photos, color, and some figures.
Adobe PDF is the industry standard.
Still in transition: many journals are not online yet (paper copy is still dominant); a simple hit count on a website is not an accurate indicator of how many people have actually read a document.
It's no less labor-intensive to publish online than to publish on paper. Cost shifts (such as less paper but more computer support) can be misinterpreted as cost savings.
Station policy and FSM 1630 applies to both print and electronic publications. Also see USDA Departmental Regulation: Web Site Development and Maintenance and Guidelines for Forest Service Electronic Information Providers.
Paperwork Elimination Act: Initial Forest Service efforts are on business processes, brochures, maps, forest plans. The Act also states that all publications available to the public must be available electronically. WO has asked us to make publications available electronically whenever possible, realizing that implementation will occur over the long term.
Americans With Disabilities Act: all new web content is required to be compliant.
Permanency and archiving of electronic documents and the holding of CDs in libraries are still issues. GPO calls the problem "pervasive" and has convened a Permanent Public Access working group to develop "best practices" for digital archiving.
Publishing Services staff and FSWeb page
Institute for Federal Printing and Electronic Publishing
GPO Electronic Publishing Support Section
Research-Based Web Design and Usability Guide
"The World Wide Web for Scientists & Engineers" by Brian J. Thomas (SPIE Press, 1998)