We have written before about testing out Manifold, the polished open source, long-form publishing platform. The software is impressive, supports multimedia, and continues to receive regular updates from Cast Iron Coding. We have also discussed our testing of Janeway, the open source journal-publishing platform from the good people at Birkbeck and the Open Library of Humanities.

We remain very interested in both softwares, but have—more recently—been playing around with PubPub, a flexible web-based package hosted by MIT’s Knowledge Futures Group. (The Knowledge Futures Group is a joint initiative of MIT Press and the MIT Media Lab, and funded—at least in part—by LinkedIn founder Reid Hoffman and a handful of foundations.) Like Manifold and Janeway, PubPub is open source, and under active development from an energetic team. The software is the brainchild of Travis Rich, who wrote his 2017 MIT dissertation on PubPub. The program he helped build is, in its way, a complete rethink of scholarly publishing—digital first, yes, but unconventional across the board. The design ingenuity is matched by a robust commitment to academy-led publishing ecosystem: “In our vision of the future,” reads the PubPub mission, “universities and researchers play a lead role in building and maintaining our knowledge systems, reclaiming territory that was ceded to propriety solutions.” We saw some of the team in action at the Library Publishing Forum in May, and came away impressed.

Still, why consider PubPub over the Manifold/Janeway pairing we already endorsed? We are, first, testing out PubPub—not switching over. But the platform is already charming us, and our early sense is that PubPub could be an especially good match for small, scholar-led operations like mediastudies.press. Some of its advantages are practical:

  1. PubPub is hosted software. That means that all the code, files, and permissions live on MIT’s servers. The benefit here is logistical: To run a PubPub instance, you don’t need to roll your own VPS (e.g., a Digital Ocean “droplet”). So you don’t have to build up as much technical know-how, nor slave away with ongoing maintenance. PubPub’s centralized, web-based approach has its flip-side drawback: As a press, you lose some autonomy, in principle and in practice. For some presses, this may be a deal-breaker, but for mediastudies.press the pragmatics of cordoning off the technical side is worth the sacrifice.
  2. A related advantage of PubPub is its all-in-one character. You don’t need a separate program for journals and monographs: PubPub can handle both. You could even use PubPub as your landing page, dispensing with WordPress altogether (depending on your plan—see below).

Those are, in a way, the least important reasons to consider PubPub. In truth, the platform’s philosophy and architecture should be the core consideration, and in this respect PubPub has an exhilarating if maverick offering. The service needs to be experienced to really understand, so we encourage you to create a free account and play around. Here’s the basic idea: PubPub is organized around three core concepts. There is, first, the “Community,” a top-level, user-created container: This might be a journal, for example, or a conference, or even a press. “Pubs,” the software’s name for individual publications, live inside a community. Pubs, finally, can be grouped together in “Collections,” which can function as journal issues (with the pubs as articles) or books (with the pubs as chapters).

Pubs are really meant to be read (and annotated) on the open web. A recent update brought the concept of branches to the service—clearly inspired by the Git-based version control system used for software. Right now, there are just two branches—#draft and #public—but in the future, admins will be free to create more (with the aim to facilitate peer review—see below). Each of the branches preserves a history of its changes, so that readers can, if they want, time-travel through previous #public-branch iterations. You might work on a pub on the #draft branch, and then “Merge” (again, the Github echo is intentional) that version into the #public branch—a new iteration, in effect, of the publication.

The PubPub team has explained the thinking behind the branching design:

Writing, publishing, and reviewing is complex. Most tools ignore this complexity, and simplify the model such that there is only ‘one’ document. Our experience working with scientists, authors, and publishers has shown us that what really happens is a cacophony of different documents, with names like ‘draft_v5_alexNotes.doc’. These documents get shared over email, Dropbox, or in some horrible cases, WhatsApp message attachments. Often times the management of these documents takes more time than the actual review and editing processes.

Speaking of reviewing: The team has posted about their plans for peer review. They start from the premise that many review management tools have grown to be “loathed” for their bloat and complexity. The PubPub approach, like the service overall, is more modular and flexible. The existing #draft branch can be used for reviews, via the annotation tool, for example. But the team is planning to enable specialized “Review Branches.” These branches would combine reviewer annotations with reviewer summaries and/or structured questions established by the editor. One exciting facet of the planned review process is that journals or editors will be able to fine-tune how open they want to set their reviews, all the way up to an option for public participation.

The styling and customization options are, for now, pretty limited—which cuts both ways. There’s a refreshing simplicity to the whole setup that’s a deliberate far cry from the fussy world of InDesign typesetting.

There’s impressive support for importing files, though there are minor formatting hiccups. HTML and Markdown work well; we haven’t tested the other options, but they’re plentiful: EPUB, xml, odt, TeX, and—crucially, alas—Word documents. Footnotes and tables are easy to format, as are links and other text-related HTML elements. Copy and paste, even from Markdown, works great too.

PubPub is a good multimedia citizen, and the files—image, audio, video—are displayed inline with the text. YouTube, Vimeo, and SoundCloud are easy to embed too. A major feature—a potential cost-saver, since it presumably means bypassing CrossRef membership—is one-button DOI minting, per pub and/or collection. A citation, with a copy button, is generated for each pub—though here it would be nice if publishers could customize the output somewhat, since needs vary.

Once a pub is “merged” to the #public branch—published, in effect—the article or chapter is shareable for online reading. Pubs can also be downloaded in a dazzling array of auto-generated formats: PDF, of course, but also Word, Markdown, EPUB, OpenDocument, plain text, LaTeX, and—helpful for Plan S complianceJATS XML. A nice touch is that authors or editors have the option to upload a formatted PDF that then becomes the featured download.

As for cost, the jury is still out. Manifold’s 8GB on Digital Ocean costs us about $50 a month, with Janeway’s smaller footprint clocking in at $20. PubPub’s basic tier is “free, forever.” The Premium and Organization plans, however, are not yet available—and so haven’t been priced. For some presses, the Premium plan will be the best option, since the service includes a custom domain name and the freedom to publish with any license (rather than just CC BY). But for most—mediastudies.press included—the Organization plan looks especially attractive. The domain name and license flexibility are included, of course, but the main draw is what’s slated to be an “Organization Dashboard” for “managing multiple Communities”—important if a press plans to have journals and monographs (which, in practice, require separate Communities). There’s also a planned “Organization Landing Page,” which, if it’s robust enough, could be a replacement for WordPress.

We have started to work on an “open access reader” in PubPub to put the software through the ringer. Many conventions of the scholarly publishing tradition are missing. This is a design choice and—so far at least—we’ve found its heresies to be liberating.