Publishing and "the Machine": help or hindrance?

Let’s call it “the Machine”. From at least the 17th century onwards, copyright has flourished because technology has enabled works to be
produced in greater numbers and at a lower cost. Before “the Machine”, monks, rabbis and the occasional author struggled to pen their works, one hand-stroke after another. Even in so doing, there was no publishing business. Publishing became a business only with the development of “the Machine”. On the whole, “the Machine” has been a net positive in translating copyright protection into commercial opportunity. Philosophers, economists and even Hollywood (think of Charlie Chaplain and the movie— “Modern Times”) have ruminated on the dark side of “the Machine” but, from the macro-point of view, “the Machine” has been good for the publishing of contents. This Kat accepted this view—until now.

It began when this Kat was asked to write a modest piece for a non-IP, on-line journal. He dutifully penned the text and sent it off to the editors/publishers. Let’s already pause here. For some time, the very act of article submission is done solely on-line. No more the days when one sent the manuscript by post or fax. Now, an author must navigate a website with instructions how to log-in, fill-out various fields, and submit the text. Sometimes these instructions are intelligible, sometimes they read like they were drafted in Fortran. Of particular anxiety is the asterisk—failure to comply the instructions with a field indicated by an asterisk, and one is simply unable to complete the submission.

After a bit of struggle, this Kat managed to successfully upload his text. Sometime later, he received the reviewer’s comments: change a word here, add a word there, and consider including a new paragraph on a certain point. No problem—that is the time-honored task of a reviewer and an author’s work is the better for it. But the reviewer’s comments also advised this Kat that he had to completely re-format the piece to meet the journal’s house style-- footnotes, end notes, text notes, the text itself, all needed to be redone. Ouch. Not only this, because this Kat took more than the number of days fixed in the system to complete the changes, when he tried to upload the revised text, it was treated as a new submission, which meant that in principle he had to deal with all of the fields anew and go through the review process once again. Some back and forth later, the number of required fields were reduced and the review process was waived. This Kat dutifully reentered the information and the revised text was submitted.

Here is where “the Machine’ really took over. Proofs were sent to this Kat for final review, but the proofs were made on the original, rather than the revised text. That’s right-- the proofs had been based on the wrong version. Not only that, but the “Key Words” on the proofs had been generated using a text-reading algorithm, yielding wholly irrelevant terms, despite the fact that the Key Words had been submitted with the original text. Not only that, but the production editor advised that, upon reflection, there had been no reason to have requested the reformatting of the article from the outset! As such, I could complete my review of the proofs based on the text as initially submitted (meaning 10 man-hours had been wasted).

This Kat wants to make it clear: from his discussions, it seems that with a few stellar exceptions (some of whom this Kat has had the pleasure of working with), the broad strokes of his tale are not unique to the particular publisher involved. And yes, this Kat holds “the Machine” responsible in part. This Kat would like to think that he is not naïve. He knows that in today’s business climate, there is a strong push to replace labor with capital, even in the publishing world. Digital platforms are ultimately cheaper than additional employees. However, publishing still rests on the human element—author, editor, and publisher. Over reliance on a digital manuscript submission platform does harm to that interrelationship and the exercise of human judgment that has been a linchpin of publishing. Even if, for over 300 years, “the Machine” has been good to authors and publishers, it seems to this Kat the publication process is impaired when it develops an over reliance on digital platforms, at the expense of the human element and at the cost of rigidity and tunnel vision.
Publishing and "the Machine": help or hindrance? Publishing and "the Machine": help or hindrance? Reviewed by Neil Wilkof on Thursday, April 28, 2016 Rating: 5

1 comment:

  1. Hear! Try submitting to a peer-reviewed journal where you have to suggest five possible referees, providing contact info down to their mother's maiden names. For some publishers, you would actually block half a day in your agenda to plan a submission.


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