CETIS publications, now on WordPress

We have recently changed how we present our publications to the world. Where once we put a file on the web somewhere, anywhere, and entered the details into a home-spun publication database, now we use WordPress. We’re quite pleased with how that has worked out, so we’re sharing the information that might help others use WordPress as a means of presenting publications to the world (a repository, if you like).

Why WordPress?
First, what were we trying to achieve? The overall aims were to make sure that our publications had good exposure online, to have a more coherent approach to managing them (for example to collect all the files into one place in case we ever need to migrate them), and to move away from the bespoke system we were using to a system that someone else maintains. There were a few other requirements, we wanted something that was easy for us to adapt to fit the look and feel of the rest of our website, that was easy to maintain (familiarity is an important factor in how easy something is–it’s easy to use something if you know how to use it), and we wanted something that would present our publications in HTML and RSS sliced and diced by topic, author, and publication type: a URL for each publication and for each type of publication and feeds for everything. We’re not talking about a huge number of publications, maybe 100 or so, so we didn’t want a huge amount of up-front effort.

We thought about Open Journal Systems, but there seemed to be a whole load of workflow stuff that was relevant to Journals but not our publications. Likewise we thought about ePrints and Dspace, but they didn’t quite look like we wanted, and we are far more familiar with WordPress. As a wildly successful open source project, WordPress also fits the requirement of being maintained by other people, not just the core programme, but all those lovely plugins and themes. So the basic plan was to represent each publication in a WordPress post and to use a suitable theme and plugins to present them as we wanted.

The choice of theme
Having settled on WordPress the first decision was which theme to use. In order to get the look and feel to be similar to the rest of the CETIS website (and, to be honest, to make sure our publications pages didn’t look like a blog) we needed a very flexible theme. The most flexible theme I know of is Atahualpa, with over 200 options, including custom CSS snippets, parameters and HTML snippets it’s close to being a template for producing you own custom themes. So, for example, the theme options I have set include a byline of By %meta('By')%. %date('F Y')% which automatically inserts the additional metadata field ‘By’ and the date in the format of my choice, all of which can be styled any way I want. I’ll come back to the “byline” metadata later.

One observation here: there is clearly a trade-off between this level of customisation and ease of maintenance. On the one hand these are options set within the Atahualpa theme that can be saved between theme upgrades, which is better than would have been the case had we decided to fork the theme or add a few lines of custom code to the theme’s PHP files. On the other hand, it is not always immediately obvious which setting in the several pages of Atahualpa theme options has been used to change some aspect of the site’s appearance.

A post for each publication
As I mentioned above we can represent each publication by creating a WordPress post, but what information do we want to provide about each publication and how does it fit into a WordPress post? Starting with the simple stuff:

  • Title of the publication -> title of WordPress post.
  • Abstract / summary -> body of post.
  • Publication file -> uploaded as attached media.
  • Type of publication -> category.
  • Topic of publication -> tag.

Slightly less simple:

  • The date of the publication is represented as the date of the post. This is possible because WordPress lets you choose when to publish post. The default is for posts to be published immediately when you press the Publish button, however you can edit this to have them published in the past :)
    WordPress publication date option

    WordPress publication date option

  • The author of the publication becomes the author of the post, but there are some complications. It’s simple enough when the publication has a single author who works for CETIS, I just added everyone as an “author” user of WordPress and a WordPress admin user can attribute any given post to the author of the publication it represents. Where there are two or more authors a nifty little plugin called Co-Authors Plus allows them all to be assigned to the post. But we have some publications that we have commissioned from external authors, so I created an user called “Other” for these “external to CETIS” authors. This saves having a great long list of authors to maintain and present, but creates a problem of how to attribute these external authors, a problem that was solved using WordPress’s “additional metadata” feature to enter a “by-line” for all posts. This also provides a nicely formatted by-line for multi-author papers with out worrying about how to add PHP to put in commas and “and”s.
  • The only other additional metadata added was an identifier for each publication, e.g. the latest QTI briefing paper is No. 2011:B02.

Presenting it all
As well as customisation for the look and feel, the Atahualpa theme allows for menus and widgets to added to the user interface. Atahualpa has an option to insert a menu into the page header which we used for the links to the other parts of the CETIS website. On the left hand side bar we’ve used the custom menu widget to list the tags and categories to provide access to the publications divided by topic and publication type as HTML and as a feed (just add /feed to the end of the URL). Also on the left, the List Authors plugin gives us links to publications by author.

In order to provide a preview of the publication in the post I used the TGN embed everything plugin. The only problem is that the “preview” is too good: it’s readable but not the highest quality, so it might lead some people to think that we’re disseminating low quality versions of the papers, whereas we do include links to high quality downloadable files.

The built-in WordPress search is rubbish. For example, it doesn’t include the author field in the search (not that the first thing we tested was vanity searching), and the results returned are sorted by date not relevance. Happily the relevanssi plugin provides all the search we need.

Finally a few tweaks. We chose URL patterns that avoid unnecessary cruft, and closed comments to avoid spam. We installed the Google analytics plugin, so we know what you’re doing on our site, and the login lock plugin for a bit of security. The only customisation that we want that couldn’t be done with a theme option or plugin was providing some context to the multi-post pages. These are pages like the list of all the publications, or all the briefing papers, and we wanted a heading and some text to explain what that particular cut of our collection was. Some themes do this by default, based on information entered about the tag/catergory/author on which the cut is made, but not Atahualpa. I put a few lines of PHP into the theme’s index.php template to deal with publication types, but we’ve yet to do it properly for all possible multipost pages.

And in the end…
As I said at the top, we’re happy with this approach; if you have any comment on it, do please leave them below.

One last thing. Using a popular platform like WordPress means that there is a lot of support, and I don’t just mean a well supported code base and directory of plugins and themes. One of the most useful sources of support has been the WordPress community, especially the local group of WPUK, at whose meet-ups I get burritos and advice on themes, plugins, security and all things wordpressy.

A reflection for open education week

It’s open education week, lots of interesting events are happening and lots of reflections being made on what open education means. One set of reflections that caught my eye was a trio of posts from Jisc programme managers David, Amber and Lawrie: three personal attempts to draw a picture of the open education space to answer the question “what is open education and how does it fit in with everything else?”. These sprung from an attempt “to describe the way JISC-funded work is contributing to developing this space”. They are great. But I think they miss one thing: the time dimension. By a stroke of good luck, Lou Macgill has recently produced an OER Timeline which I think represents this very nicely. (Yes, I know that there is much more to education than resources, and much more open education than OER, but it’s resource management and dissemination that I mostly work on.)

Maybe it’s a sign of age, but the changes in approaches to supporting the sharing of content is something that has been interesting me more and more of late. Nearly two years ago Lorna, John and I produced a paper for the ADL Repositories and Registries Summit called Then and Now which highlighted changes in technical approaches to JISC programmes that CETIS had helped support between 2002 and 2010. The desire to share resources had always been there, the change was from a focus on tight technical specifications to one which put openness at the centre. This wasn’t done for any ideological reason, but because we had an aim, “share stuff”, and the open approach seemed the one that presents fewest obstacles. I tried to describe the advantages of the open approach in An open and closed case for educational resources.

The timeline helps me understand why we are doing OER rather than some other means of solving the problem of how to share content, but that is just one aspect. What I really like about the open approach is that it creates new possibilities as well as solving old problems. So as well as a timeline of solutions what we should have is a timeline that shows what we are trying to do, one which shows the changing aims as well as the changing solutions, and that I think would show a trend to Open Education.