Scholarly HTML

Markedly Smart

What is Scholarly HTML?

  1. Robin Berjon a
  2. Sebastien Ballesteros a


Scholarly HTML is a domain-specific data format built entirely on open standards that enables the interoperable exchange of scholarly articles in a manner that is compatible with off-the-shelf browsers. This document describes how Scholarly HTML works and how it is encoded as a document. It is, itself, written in Scholarly HTML.


Scholarly articles are still primarily encoded as unstructured graphics formats in which most of the information initially created by research, or even just in the text, is lost. This was an acceptable, if deplorable, condition when viable alternatives did not seem possible, but document technology has today reached a level of maturity and universality that makes this situation no longer tenable. Information cannot be disseminated if it is destroyed before even having left its creator’s laptop.

According to the New York Times, adding structured information to their recipes (instead of exposing simply as plain text) improved their discoverability to the point of producing an immediate rise of 52 percent in traffic (NYT, 2014). At this point in time, cupcake recipes are reaping greater benefits from modern data format practices than the whole scientific endeavour.

This is not solely a loss for the high principles of knowledge sharing in science, it also has very immediate pragmatic consequences. Any tool, any service that tries to integrate with scholarly publishing has to spend the brunt of its complexity (or budget) extracting data the author would have willingly shared out of antiquated formats. This places stringent limits on the improvement of the scholarly toolbox, on the discoverability of scientific knowledge, and particularly on processes of meta-analysis.

To address these issues, we have followed an approach rooted in established best practices for the reuse of open, standard formats. The «HTML Vernacular» body of practice provides guidelines for the creation of domain-specific data formats that make use of HTML’s inherent extensibility (Science.AI, 2015b). Using the vernacular foundation overlaid with «» metadata we have produced a format for the interchange of scholarly articles built on open standards, ready for all to use.

Our high-level goals were:

  • Uncompromisingly enabling structured metadata, accessibility, and internationalisation.
  • Pragmatically working in Web browsers, even if it occasionally incurs some markup overhead.
  • Powerfully customisable for inclusion in arbitrary Web sites, while remaining easy to process and interoperable.
  • Entirely built on top of open, royalty-free standards.
  • Long-term viability as a data format.

Additionally, in view of the specific problem we addressed, in the creation of this vernacular we have favoured the reliability of interchange over ease of authoring; but have nevertheless attempted to cater to the latter as much as possible. A decent boilerplate template file can certainly make authoring relatively simple, but not as radically simple as it can be. For such use cases, Scholarly HTML provides a great output target and overview of the data model required to support scholarly publishing at the document level.

An example of an authoring format that was designed to target Scholarly HTML as an output is the DOCX Standard Scientific Style which enables authors who are comfortable with Microsoft Word to author documents that have a direct upgrade path to semantic, standard content.

Where semantic modelling is concerned, our approach is to stick as much as possible to Beyond the obvious advantages there are in reusing a vocabulary that is supported by all the major search engines and is actively being developed towards enabling a shared understanding of many useful concepts, it also provides a protection against «ontological drift» whereby a new vocabulary is defined by a small group with insufficient input from a broader community of practice. A language that solely a single participant understands is of limited value.

In a small, circumscribed number of cases we have had to depart from, using the (prefixed with sa:) vocabulary instead (Science.AI, 2015a). Our goal is to work with in order to extend their vocabulary, and we will align our usage with the outcome of these discussions.


A Scholarly HTML document is a valid HTML document that follows some additional rules to specialised its meaning and make it predictable to processors wishing to produce or consume scholarly articles. These rules are outlined in the following sections.

Please note that in its current state this specification is often informal in the manner in which it describes its constraints. This is to facilitate review by people unfamiliar with formal specification writing. As the format solidifies, it will be made more formal progressively (but attempt to remain readable).

File & Supporting Structure

The document must be encoded in UTF-8, and transmitted with a media type of text/html. It must feature a DOCTYPE as its preamble.

The html root element must feature a valid lang attribute.

The head element of the document must contain a <meta charset="utf-8"> element (preferable as its first child), a <meta name="viewport" content="width=device-width"> element (and no other viewport meta), and a title element. All the other content of the head is ignored.

The body element must have a prefix attribute, which must declare the following mapping:

Prefix URL
The list of mappings that must be declared by the body element.

Having to declare prefixes is undoubtably an annoyance and it does hurt the human authorability of the format (since hand-creating a document essentially requires a boilerplate prefix declaration). This trade-off is made for several reasons. The most important motivation is that having predictable prefixes means that the content can be styled with CSS using reliable attribute selectors on the semantic information that describes the document’s structure. The alternative would be to use URLs everywhere, such that instead of sa:Abstract we would have; but in practice that approach is more painful since the content then becomes bloated with URLs that are longer than is comfortable.

The RDFa content of the article must systematically make use of these prefixes when the values match their URLs as prefixes. Authors may declare other prefix-URL mappings in the prefix attribute of the body element (or prefix attributes elsewhere), including other prefixes mapping to the same URLs if needed, but inside of the article’s content these prefixes must be used for these URLs.

Article Structure

The article content is everything that is contained inside the first article element in document order that has a typeof="schema:ScholarlyArticle". Everything part of the body outside of that subtree is ignored. This enables publishers to surround the article content with any amount of supporting markup, for instance for headers, footers, or navigation, as well as to wrap the article inside arbitrary markup that may be needed for stylistic reasons.

The article element should have a resource attribute, usually with a value of #. The reason for that is to grant it a URL that can be targeted by other properties. The resource attribute can take any value, but it must then be matched by the about attributes of the properties targeting it. If resource is omitted, the only way in which those properties can target it is by knowing the URL from which the document was retrieved.

The first element child of the article element must be an h1 heading that serves as the primary title for the document. It may itself contain markup. The white-space-normalised text value of the h1 must appear as a substring of the white-space-normalised text value of the title element. This ensures semantic alignment between the two, while enabling publishers to add their name to the title so as to identify themselves there alongside the content.

Any children of article that are not section elements are ignored.

The first section child element of the article must be the Authors and Affiliations section. It has no typeof and its specific rules are outlined in its own chapter below.

The section elements can be nested arbitrarily deep. Each section element must have as its first element child an hX heading element the numeric part of which must be the number of section ancestor elements that heading elements has up to the article element, plus one. If the numeric part is greater than 6, then h6 must be used but an aria-level attribute must be added that reflects the accurate depth. (The aria-level attribute can be used at lower depths but is not required there.)

Each section element may contain an arbitrary number of hunk elements, followed by an arbitrary number of section elements being subsections. Note that hunk elements must imperatively appear before the subsections.

Sections are expected to be typed using the typeof attribute. The following typeof values are currently understood:

  • sa:Funding (which has its specific structure)
  • sa:Abstract
  • sa:MaterialsAndMethods
  • sa:Results
  • sa:Conclusion
  • sa:Acknowledgements
  • sa:ReferenceList

Hopefully these types are largely self-documenting, they are described further in the Scholarly Article ontology (Science.AI, 2015a).

The section typed sa:ReferenceList has special processing rules described in the References section.

Hunk Elements

Hunk elements are the meaningful blocks from which sections are built. They contain text and inline elements. There are several types of hunk elements.

The most common hunk element is p, which is used to capture paragraphs. It requires no special processing.

The aside hunk element is used to capture text boxes. If it contains an hX heading element, that element must be its first element child and its numeric part must reflect its depth, making use of aria-level according to the same rules as apply for section. The other children of aside must all be hunk elements.

The figure element is a general container for content units that are embedded inside the main body of the text. It can come in several flavours that are dictated by its typeof attribute.

If figure has typeof="sa:Image" then it is an image container. It must contain an img child element and should contain a figcaption labelling that image. An example of an image figure would be:

Reconstruction of Sthenurus stirlingi, by Brian Regal; in «Locomotion in Extinct Giant Kangaroos: Were Sthenurines Hop-Less Monsters?», by Christine M. Janis, Karalyn Buttrill, Borja Figueirido.

If figure has typeof="sa:Table" then it is a table container. It must contain nothing other than a table element. If a caption is available, it should be included using the caption child element of the table, and not the figcaption child of the figure.

If figure has typeof="sa:Formula" then it is a formula container. It must contain a math element and optionally a figcaption describing the formula. The math element must be valid MathML 3. Additionally, given the dismal state of support for MathML in Web browser the math element must contain an annotation descendant with the TeX equivalent of the formula.

If figure has typeof="schema:SoftwareSourceCode" then it is a code container. It must contain a pre element and optionally a figcaption. The pre element must contain as its only child a code element.

If you wish to specify the type of the language used in the code, the figure needs to have a schema:programmingLanguage property containing a type schema:Language, itself with a schema:name containing the the lowercase name of one of the languages from the list of programming languages. Canonically, this would look like the following source:

<figure typeof="schema:SoftwareSourceCode">
  <pre property="schema:programmingLanguage" typeof="schema:Language">
    <meta property="schema:name" content="python">
    <code>import foo</code>
    How to import foo.
An example of HTML capturing some complex Python code

Inline Elements

Inline elements essentially decorate, describe, and enrich text. Inside of hunk elements, of heading elements, and of captioning elements (caption and figcaption) the following inline elements can be used (and where applicable they can nest within one another):

  • a
  • abbr
  • bdi
  • bdo
  • cite
  • code
  • data
  • del
  • dfn
  • em
  • img (for small, contextual images that should not be figures)
  • ins
  • kbd
  • mark
  • math (for inline equations that should not be figures; they must also contain a TeX annotation)
  • meter
  • q
  • ruby (with embedded rb, rt, rtc, and rp)
  • samp
  • span
  • strong
  • sub
  • sup
  • svg (for small, contextual images that should not be figures)
  • time
  • var
  • wbr

If an a element is linking to a citation, then it must have property="schema:citation"; if it is linking to a figure or another creative work, it must have property="schema:hasPart" or property="schema:isBasedOnUrl". These are known as flavoured links, they can be used to enhance the user experience by treating their behaviour differently from regular links.

The References Section

The references section is a special type of section element with typeof="sa:ReferenceList".

Apart from its heading element, it must contain nothing other than an ol or a dl element.

If using a dl element, its content must be exclusively a strictly alternating sequence of dt then dd elements, with the latter being the citation-bearing element. The dt is used as a label in some citation formats.

If using an ol, then its content is only li elements that are the citation-bearing elements.

The citation-bearing element will have an id and be typeof="schema:ScholarlyArticle" (or its subclass schema:MedicalScholarlyArticle, with probably more to come). Its content follows the «flexcite» format (being defined as part of this document, see #4). The references section of this document is an example.

<li id="ref-something" typeof="schema:ScholarlyArticle"
  <span property="schema:author" typeof="schema:Person">
    <span property="schema:familyName">Jones</span>
    <span property="schema:givenName">K</span><span
  <span property="schema:author" typeof="schema:Person">
    <span property="schema:familyName">Patel</span>
    <span property="schema:givenName">N</span>
  <cite property="schema:name">Global trends in emerging infectious diseases.</cite>
  <span property="schema:isPartOf" typeof="schema:PublicationVolume">
    <span property="schema:isPartOf" typeof="schema:Periodical">
      <span property="schema:name">Nature.</span>
    <time about="" property="schema:datePublished"
             datetime="2008-01" datatype="xsd:gYearMonth">2008 Jan</time>;
    <span property="schema:volumeNumber">451</span>
  </span>:<span property="schema:pageStart">990</span>-<span
A citation (not yet in Flexcite format).

At the semantics level, a citation is a schema:ScholarlyArticle (or subtype) with an id to reference it internally in the document and a resource that is a URL identifying it (its DOI for instance, preferable in HTTP-retrievable form).

That schema:ScholarlyArticle has any number of schema:author which are schema:Person (with the usual schema:givenName, schema:familyName, etc.). A child cite element, with property="schema:name" (and optionally a link child) provides the title of the article.

The publisher is described using a nested schema:isPartOf structure of schema:PublicationIssue, schema:PublicationVolume, and schema:Periodical (with only those that are known being used). Both schema:volumeNumber and schema:issueNumber may be used on the volume and issue.

A time element with property="schema:datePublished" provides the publication date, which is expressed in text in human-readable form and in the datetime attribute in standard form. A datatype attribute matching the date format must be provided.

Both schema:pageStart and schema:pageEnd may be provided.

Beyond the semantics, a more specific serialisation known a «Flexcite» is in the works and will be added here soon. Its properties are simple: when unstyled it reads linearly in a human-friendly manner (so as to be accessible), and it can be styled with CSS to be turned into arbitrary citation style preferences.

The Authors & Affiliations Section

Capturing authors, the affiliations and their relationship to the article is the most intricate part of Scholarly HTML. Care was taken to avoid repetition and to keep the markup density as reasonable as possible, but the data to content ratio remains relatively high.

It is probably best to start from an example and then to explain it:

<!-- The author and contributor list -->
<ol resource="#">
  <!-- The first author, Robin Berjon -->
  <li property="schema:author" typeof="sa:ContributorRole">
    <a property="schema:author" href="" typeof="schema:Person">
      <span property="schema:givenName">Robin</span>
      <span property="schema:familyName">Berjon</span>
    <a href="#scienceai" property="sa:roleAffiliation" resource="">a</a>
    <sup property="sa:roleContactPoint" typeof="schema:ContactPoint">
      <a property="schema:email" href="" title="corresponding author">✉</a>
  <!-- A contributor, Sebastien Ballesteros -->
  <li property="schema:contributor" typeof="sa:ContributorRole">
    <a property="schema:contributor" href="" typeof="schema:Person">
      <span property="schema:givenName">Sebastien</span>
      <span property="schema:familyName">Ballesteros</span>
    <a href="#scienceai" property="sa:roleAffiliation" resource="">a</a>
<!-- The affiliation list -->
  <li id="scienceai">
    <a href="" typeof="schema:Corporation">
      <span property="schema:name"></span>
The authors and affiliations section for this document.

The markup is relatively convoluted, but the data model is rich:

The data model that matches the code

This section has no typeof and no heading element. It contains a first ol which lists authors, and optionally a second ol to list affiliations.

Each li in the authors ol has property="schema:author" or property="schema:contributor" and a typeof="sa:ContributorRole".

A sa:ContributorRole type (following the semantic of Role) is used so that affiliations or contact informations (email address, etc.) relevant to this specific scholarly article (and this specific scholarly article only) can be specified. This is important as authors may have different affiliations and contact points at the time they are publishing a scholarly article but may want to specify only a subset of those. Readers not familiar with the semantic of Role can consult the introductory blog post.

Inside of that li, arbitrary properties of schema:Person, filling the schema:author property of the sa:ContributorRole can be specified, but providing at least schema:givenName and schema:familyName. It is recommended that these properties are wrapped into an hyperlink identifying the person with a URL to their home page, their ORCID, or an email address.

If there is an affiliations ol and a given author is affiliated, there must be an a element with its href pointing to that affiliation, a resource matching the URL identifying the affiliation, and property="schema:roleAffiliation". The content of that a element must be a string that matches the one that will be generated by CSS to label the affiliation; Latin lowercase being recommended. (This is a hack, but we can only do so much within the limits of CSS — better counter would be needed.)

If an author (or contributor) is a corresponding author, a last sup element needs to be added to its li with property="sa:roleContactPoint", typeof="schema:ContactPoint" (or subclass). Inside the sup element, there must be at least a link to the contributor email address (mailto:). More contact information such a as properties of schema:PostalAddress may be added using meta tags.

If there is an affiliations ol, each li in it must have an id which the authors link to. In turn it contains an a element linking to the affiliation with typeof set to either schema:Organization or one of its subtypes. Inside the a needs to sit a span (or any acceptable element, really) with property="schema:name", containing the name.

The Funding Section

The funding information attached to an article involves a list of sponsors each of which offers a list of grants. Again, an example probably makes the idea clearer:

<section typeof="sa:Funding">
  <p rel="schema:sponsor">
    This work was sponsored by the
    <a href="" typeof="schema:Organization">
      <span property="schema:name">Child Detection Agency</span>
      (<span property="schema:alternateName">CDA</span>)
    </a> under the grant
    <span about="" property="schema:makesOffer"
             resource="" typeof="schema:Offer">
      <a href="">
        <span property="schema:serialNumber">grantId</span>
The markup for a complete funding section.

The section has typeof="sa:Funding" and an arbitrary heading title, like other sections.

It contains a series of hunks that are rel="schema:sponsor" (there can also be other content, it is ignored for our purposes). The example above uses a p and a narrative style for its content, but you have freedom to use other encodings.

The funder will be typeof="schema:Organization" (or a subtype thereof), will be identified through its URL (as in the a above), and will typically have schema:name and often schema:alternateName.

The specific grant is of type schema:Offer, as the object of a schema:makesOffer property on the schema:Organization. It should have a URL identifying it and a schema:serialNumber that is its labeled identity.

Data rich scholarly articles

Scholarly Articles are often part of a larger network of creative works containing dataset, code, additional figures, tables or media (audio, video). Even within a scholarly article, some creative works can be encoded in different ways (for instance, figures typically comes in different resolutions). Scholarly HTML aims to formally describe (and help archive) this larger context.

Further data about a scholarly graph can be exposed within the article in RDFa or as JSON-LD islands. When JSON-LD is used, it is recommended not to duplicate the data already serialized in RDFa. JSON-LD should be reserved to expose data not directly present in the HTML markup.

  "@context": "",
  "@id": "",
  "@graph": [
      "@id": "",
      "@type": "ScholarlyArticle",
      "isPartOf": "",
      "isBasedOnUrl": [""],
      "hasPart": {
        "@id": "",
        "@type": "Image",
        "encoding": [
            "@id": "",
            "@type": "ImageObject",
            "contentUrl": ""
            "height": "400px",
            "width": "400px",
            "isBasedOnUrl": [""]
            "@id": "",
            "@type": "ImageObject",
            "contentUrl": "",
            "height": "1200px",
            "width": "1200px"
      "@id": "",
      "@type": "SoftwareSourceCode",
      "codeRepository": "",
      "isPartOf": ""

A scholarly graph, detailing the context of a scholarly article in JSON-LD. Here, the scholarly article contains a figure available in 2 sizes and is based on software source code available in a code repository. The schemaIsBasedOnUrl property also indicates that the small image was derived from the large one.

A scholarly graph provides a manifest for a scholarly article listing all the creative works, their encodings and the relationship between these objects (expressed with schema:hasPart and schema:isBasedOnUrl).

Subclass of schema:CreativeWork commonly associated with a Scholarly Article.
Creative Work Property Encoding
schema:ScholarlyArticle schema:encoding sa:DocumentObject
sa:Image schema:encoding schema:ImageObject
sa:Audio schema:encoding schema:AudioObject
sa:Video schema:encoding schema:VideoObject
schema:Dataset schema:distribution schema:DataDownload
schema:Table schema:encoding sa:TableObject
schema:SoftwareSourceCode schema:encoding schema:MediaObject

Semantic context of a scholarly article

Scholarly Articles (and their associated resources) are frequently tagged to improve their discoverability. For instance, the National Library of Medicine uses the Medical Subject Headings (MeSH) controlled vocabulary to index journal articles in the life sciences. Scholarly HTML leverages and the schema:about property to efficiently expose this information to search engines. When possible, MedicalEntity (and subclasses) should be used to describe biomedical concepts.

  "@context": "",
  "@id": "",
  "@type": "ScholarlyArticle",
  "about": {
    "@id": "",
    "@type": "InfectiousDisease",
    "name": "Influenza, Human",
    "description": "An acute viral infection in humans involving the respiratory tract. It is marked by inflammation of the NASAL MUCOSA; the PHARYNX; and conjunctiva, and by headache and severe, often generalized, myalgia.",
    "code": {
      "@type": "MedicalCode",
      "codeValue": "D007251",
      "codingSystem": "MeSH"
    "mainEntityOfPage": {
      "@id": "#Discussion",
Leveraging the schema:about property to expose concepts about a scholarly article. Note that the schema:mainEntityOfPage property is used to specify the part of the article where the concept is relevant.

Hypermedia controls

A Scholarly Article (or any resource part of a scholarly graph) can be made actionable with the addition of hypermedia controls provided through actions. Readers not familiar with Actions should refer to the actions overview document for a quick introduction.

  "@context": "",
  "@id": "",
  "@type": "ScholarlyArticle",
  "potentialAction": {
    "@type": "ReviewAction",
    "agent-input": {
      "@type": "PropertyValueSpecification",
      "valueRequired": true
    "resultReview-input": {
      "@type": "PropertyValueSpecification",
      "valueRequired": true
    "target": {
      "@type": "EntryPoint",
      "httpMethod": "PUT",
      "urlTemplate": ""
Hypermedia controls indicating how to submit a review about the scholarly article.


Scholarly HTML would like to thank Scholarly HTML (you read that right) for blazing the trail perhaps a few years too soon. Particularly, the following people were particularly kind and helpful: Peter Sefton, Richard Smith-Unna, and Peter Murray-Rust.

PLOS has a short history of Scholarly HTML that is worth reading (and would be worth updating).

Dan Brickley was kind enough to drop by the office to chat about our usage of even though he was tired and hungry. As always, examples involving fish tanks are the most helpful. Tzviya Siegman and Dave Cramer have shared ideas that we happily stole.

Patrick Johnston's input has been crucial, notably in modelling authoring. We can only hope that getting those details exactly right have not caused him to lose too much sleep.

We also received very useful feedback and pointers from: Kjetil Kjernsmo (DAHUT!), Silvio Peroni, Justin Johansson, Alf Eaton, Raniere Silvia, and Mike Smith.

If we somehow forgot you in this list and you are too gracious to complain, we love you all the same.


Scholarly HTML is currently a work in progress and is open to change. If you have feedback, simply open an issue on GitHub, or make a pull request.

We believe that this vernacular establishes that it is possible to capture scholarly information accurately, while retaining a clean HTML structure that does minimum violence to the language’s spirit.

The platform currently supports (most of) Scholarly HTML, but our goal is not to make this a proprietary standard — quite the opposite. We would like the scholarly publishing as much as possible to align with common practices so that we can all focus on problems more interesting than content conversion.


NYT, 2014
The Full New York Times Innovation Report, by New York Times ; .
Science.AI, 2015a
The Scholarly Article ontology, by Science.AI ; .
Science.AI, 2015b
Vernacular — HTML Made Special, by Science.AI ; .