Getting started with Scalar, a semantic web publishing platform

Getting started with Scalar, a semantic web publishing platform

Scalar enables academics to publish their work as media-rich, long-form content.

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Budget cuts at universities and the increased cost of printing journals have created a crisis in academic publishing. These factors plus the desire for open access to academic publishing have accelerated interest in alternatives to traditional print publications, such as Scalar.

Scalar is open source publishing software that enables authors to create rich, long-form scholarly content. In other words, according to its website, it "gives authors tools to structure essay and book-length works in ways that take advantage of the unique capabilities of digital writing, including nested, recursive, and non-linear formats."

A semantic web platform

Unlike WordPress and other web content management systems, which are more suitable for blogging, Scalar is optimized for publishing longer, book-like, media-rich content on the web. The content is both linear—using paths like a traditional table of contents—and nonlinear—using tags for navigation. Because paths may contain other paths and tags may contain other tags, Scalar creates a "crisscrossing" effect within content, which contributes to a much richer experience than traditional print materials can.

Scalar is based on the Resource Description Framework (RDF), one of the key data formats of the semantic web. Users can easily annotate video, images, source code, and text using the tools built into the platform. Because its pages are HTML, users can embed nearly any type of media, such as KML, MPEG-3, OGG, WAV, FLV, M4V, JPEG, GIF, PNG, JavaScript, and more, into their content. In addition, its open API makes content portable so that users can create mashups, visualizations, and completely new interfaces.

According to Scalar's team, the platform is most often used by students to author "media-rich, multimodal essays, digital exhibits, and the like" rather than as a learning management system. Scalar projects, they say, are often connected to an "institution's digitized archival collections and are sometimes collaboratively written by an entire class/team or by individual students."

Some of these projects include USC Digital Voltaire, MIT Press' Civic Media Project, the University of Missouri's Artifacts of Immigration, and Lehigh University's Women of the Early Harlem Renaissance

Scalar's origins

Scalar was developed as a project for the Alliance of Networking and Visual Culture (ANVC) to bring a new paradigm to academic publishing. ANVC is supported by the Andrew Mellon Foundation, and Scalar has strategic partnerships with USC Shoah Foundation, Critical Commons, Hemispheric Institute Digital Video Library, the Internet Archive, as well as numerous libraries, humanities centers, and universities including the University of Michigan, MIT, the University of California, and Duke.

It was built by the team that ran the academic journal Vectors. In "Scaling Vectors: Thoughts on the Future of Scholarly Communication," Scalar co-founder Tara McPherson said, "I believe that electronic publishing should not merely aim to port the printed page directly to the web (even in searchable form), but should, rather, investigate new publication practices that take advantage of the capacities for rich multimedia and networked communication that the internet offers."

Three core developers are working on Scalar, and the project encourages other developers to get involved through its GitHub repository. Other contributors include the many, typically grant-funded teams customizing Scalar to meet their needs. For example, Dartmouth College recently received a National Endowment for the Humanities grant to build an online resource exploring early cinematic history.

You can keep up with Scalar on Twitter and its blog.

About the author

Don Watkins - Educator, education technology specialist,  entrepreneur, open source advocate. M.A. in Educational Psychology, MSED in Educational Leadership, Linux system administrator, CCNA, virtualization using Virtual Box. Follow me at @Don_Watkins .