Sunday, January 22, 2006

The Value of Style

One of the components, and hence one of the cost elements, of the scholarly communications process is style. There are elements that make up style. Today, I would like to talk about two of these elements, quality of writing and journal style, and inquire whether these elements could benefit from some fresh thinking in today's environment. Are they truly desirable, necessary, and worth every penny? If so, is the current approach optimal, or could there be new ways that might make more sense? Or, are there times when the expenditure is not only unnecessary, but undesirable and counterproductive?

Quality of Writing
At surface, it may appear obvious that quality of writing is extremely important, and a very valuable service provided by publishers. I have no doubt that this is generally correct. The work of even the best authors can be improved with high-quality editing.

Here is a thought, however, from personal experience: my own work has benefited quite a bit from the assistance of editors. However, with rare exceptions, these people have not been my publishers, but rather people like my professors, colleagues I consulted with before sending in work for publication, supervisors, co-workers and listserv moderators. Some of these people may have commented on other writing - listserv pieces, business writing, etc., moreso than works for formal publication - but nevertheless, their explanations of what I needed to do to make my written ideas more understandable for people helped me to write works for publication, too.

One way of looking at this, is that my work is peer-reviewed before it is even submitted for publication. I am not the only person who does this; as a peer-reviewer, I have seen one person whose pre-submission consultation was even broader than mine. The only comment I had on the writing on this piece was: wow! It was great!

As we transition to a production-based economic model for scholarly communication, perhaps this is a good time to rethink this element. Some things to think about:

If funding agencies, libraries or universities are paying for publication on a per-article processing fee charge - does it make sense that the work of the author submitted in a near-perfect form should incur the same fees as that of an author that might need a good deal more work?

For the authors whose work does indeed need this kind of help: does it make more sense for the university to pay a publisher for this kind of assistance, or are there advantages to providing one's faculty with this kind of help at the university itself? For example, if a university has a communications department that helps with wording of grant applications and public relations, would it make more sense to add a bit of staff here to have some help with wording and formatting for formal publication, too? There could be opportunities for synergies and cost efficiencies here - for example, if one person were assigned to help with the grant application, help with the writing for formal publication, then they would have in-depth knowledge to bring to public relations promotion of the completed research. This might be a good position for a graduate of the university - somone with writing and disciplinary experience, who already knows the faculty and the university.

Another approach, which might be particularly suitable for today's large, interdisciplinary, collaborative research project - why not have a communications specialist as part of the team?

Yet another approach - if a university is working on providing writing support for students (to help them learn to be good writers) - why not provide the same support to faculty, too?

Journal Style
Academic journals edit not only for quality of writing, but for consistency of style.
I have mixed feelings about consistency of style - perhaps because I am both a writer and an editor. As a writer, I care a very great deal about style - MY style, that is, not any journal's!

When people look at collections of my work, such as Poetic Economics, Heather's E-LIS, or Heather's SFU D-Space - I would indeed like them to see consistency of style. If my works are edited to be consistent with the styles of a variety of journals - this creates inconsistency in the collection that is more important to me.

Another way to look at this: time spent tweaking my work to make it consistent with the style of a particular journal is is not only a waste of time, it is counterproductive to a goal that I consider important. If the funding for this portion of the work were coming from a budget I had some say in, and the work was optional, I would choose not to have it done. Even if the service was complimentary, that would still be my choice.

Universities, departments, disciplines, and funding agencies, once they begin to look at their own collections in institutional and subject repositories, may have their own thoughts on consistency, too. Their views on the subject could be quite different from both the traditional journal's, and the author's view. This could make for some interesting discussions a few years hence.

This post reflects my personal opinion only and does not represent the opinions or policy of the BC Electronic Library Network or the Simon Fraser University Library.

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