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.

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Businessmen

Businessmen (Photo credit: Voxphoto)

Does corporate jargon get on your nerves?  You’re not alone.  Even the folks of Forbes hate it, too.  They held an online contest to determine one very special thing: the most meaningless and irritating business–speak term in the world.  Here’s the result, presented as a March Madness–style bracket.  Though I decry the exclusion of synergize from the competition—I would argue it’s the classic example of this irritating problem—I can’t help agree with the final results.  Spoiler alert: neither “bleeding edge” nor “giving 110%” win.  Also, I feel I should warn you—follow the link, and you might end up wishing that businessmen were as nonverbal in real life as the business card–sniffing stuffed shirts in this classic Kids in the Hall Sketch.

What do you think, audience?  Is corporate jargon really as obfuscating as Forbes argues?  Or is this simply an example of yet another subculture’s language system being unfairly ghettoized?

Two Stuffed Shirts Walk into a Bar: Strunk and White Want to Tell You What to Do (and Why to Ignore Them)

Cover of "The Elements of Style, Fourth E...

Cover of The Elements of Style, Fourth Edition

One of the funniest things about William Strunk, Jr., and E. B. White’s The Elements of Style is its occasional outmoded crotchetiness.  The book’s remarkable longevity—Strunk wrote the first version in the nineteen-teens, with revisions by White resulting in new editions in the fifties and seventies—means that in some ways it’s something of a time capsule.  I can’t complain about maxims like “do not break sentences in two” (rule of usage 6) and “omit needless words” (rule of usage 17), which I fervently hope will remain timeless.  But White’s 1979 “refurbishment” of the “Misused Words and Expressions” section contains some objections that contemporary readers might be bewildered by.

Facility. Why must jails, hospitals, and schools suddenly become ‘facilities’?” (p. 46, 4th ed.)

-ize.  Do not coin verbs by adding this tempting suffix.  Many good and useful verbs do end in -ize. . . . But there is a growing list of abominations: containerize, prioritize, finalize, to name three. . . . Why say ‘utilize’ when there is the simple, unpretentious word use?” (p. 50)

Noun used as verb.  Many nouns have lately been pressed into service as verbs.  Not all are bad, but all are suspect.”  White’s examples include gift, host, chair, and debut. (p. 54)

Offputting.  Ongoing.  Newfound adjectives, to be avoided because they are inexact and clumsy. . . . Select instead a word whose meaning is clear.” (p. 54)

Call me postmodern, but it’s hard for me to imagine a world in which facility is an annoyance and prioritize is an “abomination.”  The word ongoing strikes me as pretty innocuous.  And frankly, before I read this, I didn’t even know that the verb “to host” hadn’t existed just as long as the noun “host” had.

The Elements of Style‘s apparent stuffiness underscores the limitations of the prescriptivist philosophy.  Prescriptivism is an approach to language that focuses on set systems and ideals of correct language.  Descriptivism, on the other hand, focuses on actual usage in the real world.  As prescriptivists, Strunk and White’s inflexibility dooms them to irrelevance as the language evolves.

Personally, I fall somewhere in between the two extremes.  One of English’s most delightful aspects is its adaptability—giving rise its gorgeous creativity, its intricate and irrational ramification, its trenchant wit.  Why would we let frowns and primness and rules stand in the way of all that?  On the other hand, descriptivists’ critiques of prescriptivists often boil down to “What snobs!  Everyone should stop panicking and just do what they want!”  This anarchist’s approach to language loses sight of the fact that sometimes grammar rules, along with modern conveniences like stop signs and  “Ten Items or Fewer” check-outs, clarify while they bind.*

So if you’re a writer or an editor, join me in raising a glass to Strunk and White’s grouchy-old-man approach to English—while at the same time ignoring their more offputting rules.

*Also, admittedly, if everyone stopped believing in “proper” grammar I’d be out of a job.