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June 28, 2017

Annotations are about to transform publishing

Shows hands typing at a white computer with notebook, phone, and sticky notes around.A technology I’ve been following for a couple of years has recently made it to the mainstream: annotations. I know that sounds pretty geeky, but stay with me. Annotations are going to be transformative for publishing.

I presented a session on this at the recent Society for Scholarly Publishing annual meeting, with Dan Whaley from Hypothes.is giving an excellent overview of the status of open annotations. (Karen Estlund from Penn State also presented—on the IIIF, the International Image Interoperability Framework—which will be the subject of a subsequent blog.)


Annotations are going to be transformative for publishing. They’ll soon become something we take for granted, and we’ll wonder how we ever lived without them.


Although initially implemented mostly in scholarly contexts, annotations are by no means limited to scholarly publishing. They’re going to be important to all sectors. I think they’ll soon become something we take for granted, and we’ll wonder how we ever lived without them.

Annotations are now an open standard

The watershed event was the publication, this February, of the formal specifications of Web Annotations by the W3C. This provides a standard, interoperable way for annotations to be stored on an annotation server, exchanged between systems, and best of all, associated dynamically with text, images, videos, and other media.

What this means is that you can make an annotation, for example, on an HTML document you’re viewing in a browser, and when you open up that same document as a PDF, your annotation appears there too—in exactly the same spot.

It’s like magic.

And it actually works. Hypothes.is, a non-profit that has been leading the charge on this for years, provides open source software that does this right now. Soon you’ll be able to annotate EPUBs, images, and videos that way too.

And don’t forget: the annotations don’t live in the documents; they’re maintained separately. That’s where much of the power of this technology comes from.

Right now, very little of the web enables “in-context conversation,” to quote Dan Whaley (to whom I owe much of what I’m saying in this blog post). Fewer than 10% of web pages feature comment sections. And those comment sections are by no means optimal. They result in long threads of comments that can meander all over the place, typically accumulating chronologically. And they’re only in that one location, usually done in a proprietary way.

Annotations are useful for way more things than you’d think

Open annotations are a whole different story. Here are some of the ways they can be used:

  • You can make private notes on things—and keep them private.
  • You can share comments about documents with others, either publicly or with a specified group of people, like a book group, for example.
  • A publisher can maintain curated conversations about its publications.
  • A high school or college class can maintain a discussion group.
  • Scientists can have an ongoing discussion about a journal paper.
  • A scholar publishing a book or paper can continue to update and augment it.
  • Experts can comment on publications, for example calling attention to fake news.
  • Entities that have universal identifiers (e.g., organizations have ISNIs, scholars have ORCIDs, research resources have RRIDs) can be automatically annotated.
  • Footnotes and bibliographies can be augmented with more information about the cited sources.

Here’s an out-of-the-box example:

I’ve recommended to one of my consulting clients, who creates thousands of assets like quiz questions and images and videos that get reused in many publications and platforms, that they use this annotation technology to capture information about those assets and maintain it independently in an annotation server, so that the information is associated with a given asset in all the places it’s stored and used.

It’s a new frontier, but it’s not the Wild West

I know: for some of those use cases, you’re thinking “not so fast.” Not just “is this really real?” but “is this really such a good thing?”

For example, the expert making comments on fake news: can’t any crackpot do that too? Yep; the Web is open, and it will stay open. But a key to open annotations is that the party making the annotation is open too. You can choose whose annotations you see, and whose you don’t.


Annotations don’t live in the documents; they’re maintained separately. That’s where much of the power of this technology comes from.


Publishers tend to worry about enabling just anybody to comment on their publications. My answer to that is to point out that those folks are already doing that on Twitter and Facebook and who knows where else. At least with annotations, the publisher has a degree of control.

Annotations can be managed in “layers.” A given publication might have a layer of annotations maintained by the publisher, and available to everybody who has the right to access that publication. (This isn’t only for Open Access content!) Then it might also have a layer maintained by a professor who is using that publication in a class. And it might have a layer that a given student has created as she’s working on a term paper using that publication. Each of those parties controls their respective layers, and makes them as public or as restricted as they choose.

Coming soon to a publication near you

Is this really real? You bet it is. Hypothes.is currently maintains 1.5 million annotations from over 100,000 users. (Only 24% of those are public, and 50% take place in groups.) They expect that to triple in the next 12 months. And they’re not the only ones doing this. In fact, a year or so ago they launched the Annotating All Knowledge project that currently includes over 70 leading academic publishers, platforms, and libraries. This is big.

One final anecdote I can’t resist sharing. My friend Heather Staines now happens to work for Hypothes.is. She was presenting at the AAUP annual meeting recently, and she described how she’s personally using annotations. She went from annotating resources she needed for a presentation to annotating so much stuff she was reading that she joked that she was going to launch a twelve-step program to help people deal with annotation addiction.

Watch out. This could happen to you!

Learn more:

  • You can see Dan Whaley’s presentation (and see how much I’ve cribbed from it) by clicking here.
  • Find more on the Annotating All Knowledge Project here.
  • Contact us to learn more.

About Bill Kasdorf

Bill Kasdorf, kasdorf.bill@gmail.com, is Principal of Kasdorf & Associates, LLC, a publishing consultancy focusing on accessibility, XML/HTML/EPUB modeling, information infrastructure, and workflow. Bill is active in the W3C Publishing Business Group, Publishing Working Group, and EPUB 3 Community Group; chairs the Content Structure Committee of the Book Industry Study Group and is co-editor of the BISG Guide to Accessible Publishing; and is Past President of the Society for Scholarly Publishing (SSP). He is a recipient of SSP’s Distinguished Service Award, the IDEAlliance/DEER Luminaire Award, and the Book Industry Study Group’s Industry Champion Award. Bill has written and spoken widely for organizations such as SSP, IPDF, BISG, DBW, IPTC, O’Reilly TOC, NISO, AAP, AAUP, ALPSP, and STM. General Editor of The Columbia Guide to Digital Publishing and Guest Editor of the January 2018 issue of the Learned Publishing journal devoted to accessibility, he is the author of the chapter on EPUB metadata and packaging for O’Reilly’s EPUB 3 Best Practices and the chapter on EPUB in the book The Critical Component: Standards in Information Distribution, published by the ALA in collaboration with NISO. He serves on the editorial boards of Learned Publishing and the Journal of Electronic Publishing. In his consulting practice, Bill has served clients globally, including large international publishers such as Pearson, Cengage, Wolters Kluwer, Kaplan, and Sage; scholarly presses and societies such as Harvard, MIT, Toronto, Taylor & Francis, Cambridge, and IEEE; aggregators such as VitalSource; and global publishing and library organizations such as the World Bank, the British Library, the Asian Development Bank, OCLC, and the European Union.

Questions?