Writing and editing for the Web becomes a piece of cake with the "Virtual Magazine Publisher"

Heidelberg 21 September 1999The last presentation at MedNet'99 came from VMWC co-ordinator Drs. Ad Emmen with the detailed description of the "Virtual Magazine Publisher" (VMP) software system. The VMP tool addresses the needs of authors and editors publishing on the Web, and is very suitable for the managing of magazines, newsletters, journals, member profile pages and project description pages. Currently, the software is already applied to run the Virtual Medical Worlds Community on the Internet. The system can be used for almost any kind of publication and accessed from anywhere in the world. Its revolutionary aspect is that the content is separated from the lay-out and that its structure is captured in an SGML definition. A new design will use XML to implement the article structure.


The Virtual Medical Worlds Community constitutes a platform for people, institutions and companies with the aim to create a dynamic synergy between users operating in the telemedicine sector and technology suppliers to advance the European industry in both areas. The VMWC working group stimulates the exchange of information and expertise to generate awareness in the medical sector via the organisation of workshops, technical meetings, participation in major telemedical events, and the establishment of a virtual community environment on the Web for active brainstorming and discussion among the members. The creation of an Internet based community requires a supporting software and hardware infrastructure that enables community members and community organisers to easily enter and update information, apart from the other aspects like discussion organisation and virtual meeting places.

To respond to these needs, the VMP software system was designed, allowing to easily author and edit for various news magazines and related information sources, from anywhere in the world, making it comfortable to manage and edit contributions and to publish the finished material in a variety of media. The current version of the "Virtual Magazine Publisher" has been developed after studying the content structure of a wide variety of magazines and newsletters. VMP is applied to several information sections of the VMW Community, including the VMW Magazine, the calendar section and member profile pages. Within VMP the article content is separated from the lay-out. The specific article lay-out and contents pages are created by means of templates. The editors and authors access the system through modules that apply menus and forms in order to guide the user by writing the article content according to the publication requirements.

The system is Internet-based, allowing for distributed authoring and editing, making it suitable for international co-operation. The SGML or Standardised Generalized Markup Language based approach separating content from lay-out, is useful in that it allows to easily create different issue versions for, for instance, e-mail and Web. Two different types of elements have been defined:

  • The ones that describe the general content structure: several lead parts, main text part and reference section
  • The ones that describe the meta-information, referred to as title, subtitle, author, editors, issues, attached multi-media files
The article Document Type Description (DTD) that describes all the elements and associated attributes is at the core of the VMP system. The author and editorial modules assume that written articles adhere to the DTD and base their actions on this assumption.

To the software system, the articles are "article objects" to which object-oriented programming techniques can be applied. The issues can be constructed automatically from the information contained in each article. If an article belongs to a section in a specific issue the software system collects all the information needed to display it according to a pre-defined template. Graphic files or multimedia files belonging to an article, can be assigned by an "attach" element. This allows the publishing software to help the author in specifying all the material which belongs to an article and to present the editor with an overview of everything that belongs to an article or an issue.

The current system is implemented using an article description based on an extension of HTML, i.e. in most part of the article elements, HTML mark-up is recognized. Reason is that a number of HTML tools, such as editors and browsers can be used. The system is written mainly in PERL, Javascript, and a Java application. The fast take-up of XML allows to revert this situation. A new design will utilize XML to implement the article structure with possibly a few reminiscences left of HTML in the lower levels. Since the current system is based on SGML, a translation is relatively easy. However, there are several parts in which XML is more restrictive than SGML. Although XML itself is a standard, related standards are still under development. Especially the XSL stylesheet formatting and the XSL stylesheet transformation standards are needed.

First experiments with applying the draft standards show that they will be a powerful tool, allowing to replace the transformation part currently present in the system with a more flexible standard-based alternative. The prototype system also allows to create simple PDF or Print Definition Format and RTF or Rich Text Format files automatically. Much work has to be done here, but it offers the perspective of automatic creation of paper versions and word-processing readable versions with standard XSL based tools which will add additional functionality and contribute to the usefulness of the information sources in the Virtual Medical Worlds Community. You can check out the details and find publishing examples at the Virtual Magazine Publisher home page.

Ad Emmen

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