My Brilliance: Now in Multiple Forums!

Here’s a reblogging of a post I recently wrote for the museum Historic Deerfield, where I was lucky enough to have a fellowship in 2004.  In the essay I reflect on history, maturation, and the ways in which the past makes itself known in the present.

. . . But don’t worry.  Despite that build-up, it’s not totally boring!


Shale Gas and Lexicography: NSFW?

A recent piece on NPR’s Morning Edition contained a startling assertion: that the proper shortened name for the method of natural gas extraction known as hydraulic fracturing is “frac’ing.” Contractions, of course, have a long and distinguished history in English writing, but they don’t typically come in the middle of gerunds. The maker of this assertion is Larry Fulmer, an employee of the energy industry, who feels that the more commonly used “fracking” was dreamed up by opponents of the process. “Fracking” bears an unflattering resemblance to “fucking,” you see, and that pun is played out in any number of ways at environmental demonstrations across the country.*

Some bewildered lexicographers from Merriam-Webster make a cameo—the fact that they added the k-spelling to the dictionary this month apparently having provided the inspiration for the piece—but they ultimately provide a possible peaceable solution as well. While “fracking” is the current dictionary spelling, they will “have their eye on” any variations in the future.

*The story doesn’t note that, before fracking was a well-known issue, “frak” (and variations) was used as a stand-in for “fuck” on the popular science fiction show “Battlestar Galactica.”

The Perils and Profits of Open Access

If you’re within smelling distance of someone who’s involved in academic publishing, you’ve probably caught a whiff of the alarm that open-access publishing is causing.  The movement in favor of open access is founded on the ideal of the free flow of information (particularly information resulting from federally funded research).  Much of the debate has focused on publishing in STEM fields (science, technology, engineering, and mathematics), which has been dominated by large, for-profit publishers charging steep fees.  Nonprofit publishers are caught in the middle: the open-access model has left many scratching their heads over how to monetize their products, especially since journal subscriptions are often a press’s most lucrative and reliable asset, sometimes funding the riskier world of book publishing.

The issue is big, however, and getting bigger, and even nonprofit publishing organizations are in the process of coming to grips with it.  In the March 2014 issue of its newsletter Footnotes, the American Sociological Association announced that it would launch its first open-access journal in the summer of 2014.  Like the ASA’s more established journals, including the disciplinary giant American Sociological Review, the yet-unnamed journal will be published by SAGE.  The article cites the many advantages of this new enterprise: the journal will publish research in “any area of sociology. . . . It will allow authors to receive a publishing decision quickly, have article lengths unconstrained by printed page limits, as well as have accepted articles published online immediately after editorial review and acceptance.  Authors will retain their copyright.”

These are all worthy goals, of course.  But the complications of this model of publishing become clear as the article rolls on.  Authors will asked to revise and resubmit only rarely, meaning that the refinement of the peer-review process may be endangered.  The manuscripts will be subjected to “only light editing,” creating a potentially low standard for good copy.  And most worrisome, the articles will have a $400 publication fee—and that’s just for ASA members. Nonmembers will be charged even more.  We are assured that this is “well below the current open access standard in today’s scholarly publishing marketplace.”  For context, the American Sociological Review charges all authors, members or no, a $25 submission fee.  That certainly answers the question of how to monetize open access; however, the ASA also promises that “anyone who has been accepted and requests a waiver will be granted one,” suggesting some ambivalence about the charge.  (No author, “ASA to Launch Open Access Scholarly Journal,” ASA Footnotes 42 [March 2014], 11.)

That’s how one reputable organization is approaching the changes in the industry.  But the speed and ease of open-access publishing, along with these substantial publication fees, has opened up fertile ground for flimflammers in the “publish or perish” world of academia.  My friend Colin Reynolds, a graduate student at Emory University, recently presented a paper at the American Society of Church History/Ecclesiastical History Society’s joint spring meeting.  The paper was listed on the conference website, and Colin soon received what he found to be an “enticing” e-mail.  “This is [journal name and ISSN redacted], an international, professional and peer reviewed journal published across the United States by [redacted] Publishing Company.”  The message went on to solicit all of Colin’s “original and unpublished papers.”  According to Colin, “This seemed a little too good to be true, especially since nobody besides my panel chair had read the conference paper.”

He dug into things a bit and discovered an online community of people who were also suspicious of the company.  “The biggest offense alleged here,” Colin comments, “is that [redacted] charges $50 per page to publish articles. . . . [the publisher] seems to be a wise entrepreneurial company that is taking advantage of the fact that young researchers don’t expect to get paid for writing and might be willing to pay large sums of money to (hopefully) start their careers.”

“Wise” and “entrepreneurial” are generous adjectives to use for this and other, similar companies that are little more than criminal enterprises.  Jeffrey Beall, a librarian at University of Colorado Denver, has a blog devoted to identifying what he has termed “open-access predatory publishers.”  He reports a surprising range of  misbehaviors, ranging from simple “poor quality” to faking impact factors to the spreading of misinformation.  Perhaps most colorful of all is the “hijacking” of genuine journals’ sites in an effort to steal their submission or publication fees.  But Beall’s most sustained effort is a list of publishers to avoid, literally titled “Beall’s List.”  While he does seem to be on something of a one-man crusade, he’s upright enough to publish the criteria he uses to deem these publishers “predatory” and to institute an appeals process.

When the Wild West of the internet meets the staid world of academia, flimflam ensues.  Beware, authors!  If you’re going with open access, know the dangers (from bad copyediting to stolen submission fees).  On the bumpy road to a restructured field of publishing, it looks like scholars are braving the crosswalk along with everybody else.




Quality Costs: Gibberish, STEM Journals, and the Bottom Line

A 2009 study conducted by the National Humanities Alliance examined the flagship journals of eight scholarly organizations to weigh the cost of publishing humanities and social science research against the costs of publishing science, technology, engineering, and medical (STEM) research.  Mary Waltham, the consultant who authored the study, found that humanities and social science journals average $526 per page, a figure that doubles STEM journals’ average of $266.

When this study debuted five years ago, the muttering among my colleagues in “expensive” fields was that it only went to show that we do a far better job than the hastily cobbled-together, cheap productions sometimes issued by STEM fields.  Since then, we’ve been awaiting proof of our bias, and last month, we may have found it.  The journal Nature reported that the STEM-heavy publishers Springer and Institute of Electrical and Electronic Engineers (IEEE) had recently been forced to remove 120 nonsense papers from published journals.  A French computer scientist named Cyril Labbé had developed a program for detecting papers generated by software called SCIgen, much to the frustration of academic tricksters everywhere.  He has so far informed IEEE of 100 fakes and Springer of sixteen.  A least one of the papers was “authored” by scholars who had no idea their names were being used in such a way.

There are many stages in which an elementary standard of quality control could have eliminated nonsense papers from the pool—upon initial receipt, when the editors could review and desk-reject; at the peer-review stage, when a colleague could question authenticity; at the editing stage, when the copy editor could discover the gibberish.  It would appear that, in a minimum of 120 instances, at least two STEM publishers squandered repeated opportunities to provide their readership with genuine, useful research.

Happy National Poetry Month! . . . An Apologia

That’s right—it’s once again time for the Academy of American Poetsannual celebration. And this year the Academy turns eighty, so special things are in the offing.  Stay tuned for more news of festivities, but in the meantime . . . read a poem! And before you do that . . . read this blog!

I had originally intended to use my post to argue that poetry is beneficial because learning about it improves children’s cognitive performance in school. But then, after some reflection, I abandoned the plan. Why? Because poetry doesn’t have to prove its worth with statistics. Metrics have taken over our thinking about schooling, and in doing so, have missed out on what’s really important about art.

So here’s why poetry—during National Poetry Month or otherwise—is so vital: it enriches our lives. While reading a poem, we witness the joy, sadness, and beauty of the poet’s life. We learn new things about language. We discover new insight into the ideas of people whose perspectives we could never have imagined. And we do so in concert with every other person who has ever read that poem, even if every other person has a completely different take on its meaning. In other words, we come to understand our place in the human family. All that, in just a few minute spots of ink or a few coded ones and zeros.

And that is what art is for!

Six Things Your Copy Editor Just Won’t Do (and a Few More They’d Love To)

copy cat

Copy cat. (Photo credit: Robert Couse-Baker)

I’ve noted some confusion among my clients and acquaintances about what, exactly, copy editors do.  Or rather, not confusion—full-on misconceptions.  I think the hang-up here is that the average joe, even the average highly educated joe, is not aware of the distinctions between types of editing.  People sometimes come to me because someone has suggested that their papers are problematic enough that they could use “a good editor,” but when I am serving as a copy editor, transformation (insofar as it is possible at all) is not a service I provide.  Big changes are the game of the developmental editor.  When I’m hired to copyedit, I just fix mistakes—pedestrian things like grammar and punctuation.

Here are two handy lists of thing your copy editor will and will not do, since the Internet appears to love everything in list form.*

Things Your Copy Editor Just Won’t Do

1. Rethink your argument.
2. Suddenly make your paper brilliant.
3. Edit anything other than final drafts.
4. Deal adequately with last-minute changes.
5. Make major decisions for you.
6. Make things “perfect.”

When I’m hired to copyedit, I try to emphasize a couple of things to my clients.  First, I should not receive anything other than your final draft.  The sequence of changes I make when I read for copy errors matters (e.g, the first time a person is mentioned, one should use their first and last names).  If you revise after I finalize, things get mixed up and it looks like I’ve done an idiot job.  This is embarrassing and also runs counter to the point of hiring a copy editor in the first place.  Second, no copy editor will ever make things “perfect.”  We are humans.  We make mistakes and omissions.  Any meddling with a manuscript inevitably introduces a few new errors.  Within publishing houses, copyedited manuscripts will often be sent to a second person for proofreading precisely because of this potential for human error.

Things Your Copy Editor Will Enthusiastically Do

1. Polish your language.
2. Edit for grammar, spelling, and clarity.
3. Take a relatively hands-off approach.
4. Format according to a specific style sheet.
5. Fix your citations.
6. Terminate minor but embarrassing mistakes with extreme prejudice.

So really what copy editors do is take your final draft, straighten it up, make it conform to a particular style, and move on.  We save you from all those embarrassing red squiggles that the teacher covered your term papers with in high school, but not the C+ at the top.  Folks who rewrite or even reimagine your output for you are different types of editors, whose roles we’ll take on in a future post.

*I sometimes worry that is completely eroding the globe’s ability to think nonlinear thoughts.