The Ultimate Panning of Flash

To nobody’s great shock, Adobe recently announced the end of the Flash plug-in for web browsers in 2020. Given the number of iDevices that don’t support Flash and the growth of tools that keep Flash from running, the writing has been on the walls for some time.

Now supposedly this does not mean the end of ActionScript and .swf files and such not, but it feels like there is an issue that is being overlooked.  Interactive pdfs would seem to be potential victims of the death of Flash as, at present, you have to use .swf materials within pdfs (that is, there is no way to include HTML5 in a pdf) and there are indications that the display of these within Acrobat and its kin might require the Flash plugin to be present. Is the .swf format and capabilities likely to be maintained if Adobe’s Flash-creation tool Animate CC is more widely used to generate HTML5?

Why bring this up?  Because right now an interactive pdf is the most efficient means of sharing dynamic content in a scientific paper.  First, most journal articles use pdf format as the primary format.  Second, a single pdf file can contain everything in an article, allowing easy offline use, while downloading an html bundle is sometimes nearly impossible.

It is likely in the coming years that the commercial outfits that run the platforms that host academic publications will seek to maximize web traffic and minimize the ability to download articles for offline use. Why? First, it prevents the sharing of copyrighted material, meaning that the platform owner has more control over distribution.  Even with open access articles, the platform owner can gain browsing history information and conceivably monetize it. They also get higher access numbers, which can be used to argue for higher payments from scientific publishers. Providing a compact pdf is counterproductive from their perspective.  Even now, you find that many of the hosting sites will first steer you to online, “interactive” pdfs; the static downloadable pdf option requires more of a search.  As some of these platforms incorporate interactivity in their online version, it works to their benefit to see interactivity stunted or obliterated for static pdf users. Don’t expect these venues to encourage the continued development of .swf files and their use within pdf files.

This is not what is best for the scientific community. With the death of paper journals, we have lost a lot. Libraries no longer have back issue collections: if they turn off their subscription, they don’t just lose new content going forward as in the past.  They lose the entire collections that they had bought access to. In geological journals, the possibility of a folded insert was present, allowing for large format, detailed information such as geologic maps and seismic reflection profiles.  These border on useless in current static electronic formats. Paper journals work fine offline in the field; online ones, not so much. And electronic displays are still not so wonderful in sunlight as paper ones.

To claw back utility means demanding things of the electronic publishing environment that make it more useful in other regards.  Things like 3-D figures that the user can manipulate. Interactive figures that collapse dozens of figures or allow for changing axes or subsets of data, or even simpler layered figures where layers can be turned on or off to highlight different aspects of data being presented. Useful map tools. To have a single file that can be downloaded and shared for classroom or offline use.

There is profound irony in losing capability when moving from paper to electronic publication, yet this is our fate if we do not demand more. Although the community has not embraced interactivity to this point, interest has slowly grown. The demise of Flash might also carry away our ability to grasp compact, portable interactivity.

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