Here are my notes from FailFaireDC, held November 16, 2012, at the World Bank. I’ve been really busy lately, so I wasn’t able to prepare a snazzy-hip-funny presentation. I needed time to start distilling down the argument. I think of this as my first draft. Liam informs my that my presentation was the most technical. Ooooops.

Given that I am terrified of public speaking I think it went really well. And Wayan, as usual, was super supportive and summed up the issue really well. Thanks, Wayan!

If and when the snazzy version ever gets made it will include images of herding cats, screen shots of Word track-changes hell, and a clever infographic that shows just how much time and money we spend when we format content for print, instead of structuring content for all media.

The fail imagery would then be offset by some practical solutions, and some web-first publishing tools you can playing around with. Because I’m all about results, baby ;)

Hi. I’m Christine. This is a story about a meta-fail.

So I’ve produced about 70 reports — mostly research, and some project reports.

I’ve spent hundreds of thousands of dollars — likely close to a million.

I’ve dedicated countless hours to every detail of editing, design, and printing.

In the process I’ve harassed and intimidated my colleagues.

Then… I’ve thrown away piles of said reports, or watched them gather dust on a remote bookshelf.

I have no data about them. My only indicator of success: Getting hired to make more.

Alberto Pepe, a researcher at Harvard, sums up the fail like this: “We do 21st-century research, write it up using 20th century tools, and then package it into 17th century formats.” [NOTE: You need to watch that video. TWICE.]

The way we publish — the way we package and distribute content about our activities, our ideas, and learning — is broken.

We can do better. We can publish with web-first collaborative tools that create open, structured, responsive, and networked content. Content that anyone can access in any format — web, mobile, print, audio.

This is an aid effectiveness issue. Why?

Because it sucks up limited time, money, and resources:

  • Developing and enforcing processes — herding cats
  • Fighting with version control and track changes
  • Integrating comments from multiple collaborators — isolated from each other and often saying the same thing or totally disagreeing with each other (meaning that you have to be the one to go back and facilitate a discussion about content : more herding cats)
  • Formatting for out-dated, rigid media — instead of structuring for all media
  • Creating physical objects that have to be shipped or stored

It also hinders learning and innovation

We lose opportunities to engage, connect, and tap people who are interested in our work — which is necessary to advance decision-making and practice.

We lose opportunities to create content that is easy to anyone to find, use, and build on.

We lose opportunities to learn and adjust:

  • How do people find us?
  • Where are they?
  • Who’s talking about this topic? What are they saying?

So why do we do this? And what needs to change?

One hypothesis: Much of our work is invisible. And it’s both difficult and expensive to assess its impact. Publications become stand ins — because they are tangible deliverables.

Beautifully designed reports signal quality — of our work, of our outcomes. And with multi-year, million-dollar projects there can be increased pressure for “high-quality” deliverables.

This is just one paradigm that needs to shift — beautiful structure, standards, and accessibility should signal quality. I love love love great print design, but we need more than aesthetics.

Other stuff we need to do…

Move away from imposing formats that belong to the last century. (Journals, donors — this is for you!)

Demand that publications earn their right to live in the physical world.

  • Print and ship to people in places where electricity and connectivity is an issue
  • Allow those who want, and can pay for, a printed copy to order it — on demand

Publish web-first — Create open, structured, responsive, and networked content that works on any platform.

Invite readers jump into your content at any point, to comment, to search, to dynamically re-organize (let me see all of the figures, show me everything related to governance — a live index).

How will we do this?

One project I’m working with — the Global Impact Study of Public Access to ICTs — will use PressBooks to produce its final report.

PressBooks is web-based platform built on WordPress. It will automatically create the web version of the report. Then, with one click we’ll spit out an ebook and a PDF for print.

And we can export an XML file if we really need the Cadillac print layout.

We’ll invest in creating style sheets up front — but that’s a one-off task.

For upcoming projects I’m psyched to check out Authorea.

Alberto Pepe — the founder — argues that tools like Word and LaTeX are a major barrier to Open Science because they lock content, figures, data, tables into a PDF “coffin” — preventing reuse and sharing.

Authorea — which is still in beta — adopts the web as its canvas and creates living, modular, collaborative web documents, while providing writers with hardcore source- and version-control features.

These are just two tools that work with the new paradigm. It’s only the beginning.


PS. Thanks to Hugh McGuire for being awesome, helpful, and dedicated to fixing this massive fail.


  1. P U B L I S H I N G » Blog Archive » Want to make a difference?
    December 4, 2012

    […] more: […]

  2. Christine
    December 4, 2012

    Related: Please see Brian O’Leary’s post: A living representation: Inexorably moving toward a pre-book world. (For the record, I <3 James Bridle and John Maxwell.)