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Hypothes.is – the launch of October 2014


November 10, 2014

UPDATE November 12: This article was annotated by the Hypothes.is user “dwhly”, who seems to be connected to the developers of the service. In response to this annotation I made some minor editions of the text (marked with red). To read annotations and to join the discussion you have to turn on Hypothes.is in your browser, as the bookmarklet or the add on. By the way, I realized that it would be nice to have a Worpdress plugin which allows to embed annotations to the web page.

October 2014 was the month of open access, and not only because of the huge number of discussions, conferences and meetings connected to Open Access Week. It was also the month for the launch of several projects aiming to foster open access and open science. Among them I would like to highlight the start of Paperity, the multidisciplinary aggregator of open access papers, Open Access Button 2.0 and Hypothes.is, which is going to be the main subject of this entry. Hypothes.is is an annotator, the tool designed to advance commenting and discussions on every piece of content on the Internet (scientific or non-scientific). From the point of view of academia, it might be seen as another tool to make science more open and to make scientific communication faster.

By the way, I would like to point out that it would be lovely to write a post on Open Access Button 2.0, but I am still facing technical issues when trying to log in and download it.


Thus, I will focus instead on Hypothes.is, which is also one of the most awaited launches of October. Kamil Mizera wrote an enthusiastic post here on Open Science dot com, more than 2 years ago, when the only source of information about Hypothes.is was the suggestive promotional video featuring the founder of the project. Now, the first ‘release-to-web’ version of Hypothes.is is ready and anyone can check it out.

Before I start to discuss the features of the software, I would like to stress one very important fact. Hypothes.is is a fully open source, community-based project that is under strong leadership – a factor which seems to bode well for its future success (looking at the case of Linux, for instance). It also means that you can observe and join the work on GitHub and Hubord. If you would like to know when and how a new feature will be introduced, there is nothing easier than to just check it out, or even help to accelerate the project with your own contribution. You are also welcome to discuss possible improvements on the project forum. Although a lot of the functionalities described two years ago in the promotional video are still missing, we can easily see in GitHub that the work is currently in progress.


Now to the point – what we can do with Hypothes.is? Firstly you can use it within your web browser as an add-on (for Chrome) or bookmarklet (for Firefox, Opera, Safari and IE). In case of Firefox, the add-on should be also avaliable in the next week or two. When you launch hypothes.is it displays a simple and minimal user interface, which is visible on every web-page you are browsing. This interface allows you to add comments to every web content, even in places which do not normally allow comments (like pdf documents, or pages where comments are disabled, moderated or not available at all). Of course for academics the most vital is the possibility of commenting on on-line pdf documents, since this format is still a dominant standard in scientific communication. Hence, Hypothes.is overcomes the most severe limitation of the pdf format. Moreover, it might be useful for social activists and dissidents, who want to discuss recent social or political issues freely on non-academic content. Multiple usage possibilities may be another key to the future success of the project.


Comments can be visible to the comment author only, which gives you the possibility of using Hypothes.is as a personal notebook, or to all people who use Hypothes.is. You have the option of adding general comments, or to refer to an exact place in the content. In this second case, the position of your comment will also be clearly marked for others. In both cases every user of Hypothes.is can answer directly to your comment, which opens a broad field of possible discussions. The author’s profile name is always visible for public comments. You can browse through the stream of all comments from a particular author or you can watch a live stream of comments from all Hypothes.is users, browsing by tags to see what is trendy. All these features are quite promising, although at this time I can also see a few disadvantages of the tool.

What might be better? A subjective review

First of all, I do not believe that reading a pdf in a web browser is standard. Usually a user downloads a pdf to the hard drive of his or her personal computer, mobile phone or tablet, and reads it using a pdf viewer, which has its own annotation system. Thus, in my opinion, the possibility of exporting comments from an on-line Hypothes.is application to a desktop application (which could be an extension of the pdf viewer) and back, might be a crucial point for the further development of hypothes.is.

Secondly, at this moment user profiles are very poorly solved. Using a specific user name to login, instead of email address, is less convenient and forces users to remember yet another, normally useless, bit of information. Today, the user profile does not offer anything interesting. It does not contain biographical information, avatar, contact, or anything else. This is a huge disadvantage for academics, as hypothes.is offers no quick way of determining the competence of the person they are talking to. (Community of Hypothes.is is working on this problem, you can observe the progress here).Allowing users to submit more information about themselves will make communication easier.

There is also no easy way of informing an author that someone has commented on his or her work, especially if he or she is not a Hypothes.is user. This problem might be difficult to solve, although it is worth remembering that in classic blog systems, authors or blog administrators get email notifications of every comment. In the case of Hypothes.is the author’s voice might be missing in the discussion, as he or she may be unaware of the ongoing conversation. This problem might be solved thanks to the fact that every comment on Hypothes.is has its own url, which can be shared on social media or via e-mail, so an author can be informed this way (even if it is not the most user-friendly solution).

Last but not least, the interface currently works quite slowly, much slower than regular web content. This is probably because of the capacity of servers that host the project. More donations are necessary to speed it up a little bit.

For authors interested in opening their academic work to boundless discussion, I would recommend posting it on Authorea. Although if you would like to discuss publicly an article which is available on-line in a pdf format, probably Hypothes.is is the best tool. In any case, it is worth observing both of these projects. I believe that Hypothes.is has a bright future ahead.

This entry was posted on November 10, 2014 by Witold Kieńć and tagged , , , .

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