Is the quality of humanities book production falling ?

[I review a lot of books, and have noticed a falling-off in the quality of the published text in the kind of humanities books I review. In this post I ask: is this a general trend, or have I been unlucky ? If it is a trend, what are the causes?]

Part of the debate about Open Access centres on the value that traditional academic publishers contribute to the process, for which they should rightly be rewarded. The argument has played out something like this. By and large, scholars produce academic writing without significant financial reward; they edit journals, similarly without payment, as well as performing peer review. This much we know, and hasn’t changed all that much.

Ah yes (is the response): but the publisher’s unique input is in the stages after this – in transforming an accepted manuscript into a pristine typeset version of record, and in the marketing and distribution of that article to the readers who want to read it. This is the value added to the process.

I don’t need to elaborate here on the impact of online delivery and Open Access on the last of these. The tools that social media provide to journal editors and authors to market their own work have levelled that part of the field greatly as well. No; here I’m interested in the value that publishers add to the process in copy-editing, and then in the production and correction of typeset proofs, and then versions of record.

I do a good deal of book reviewing. I like it; it forces me to read the book properly. But in the last few months and years, I have needed to draw attention to several books in which the standard of production has dropped to an alarmingly low level.

Most academics could write better, and if someone were to argue that the standard of written English in academic work has been dropping, I wouldn’t argue with them. And so, there is probably more that authors and their peer reviewers could do to present better copy. Errors of fact must remain an academic responsibility. However, I am simply seeing far too many more basic errors making it into print.

Which errors ? Some are tpyos or erors of speling; others are in spacing and formatting, such as missing italicisation, or   extra or missingwhitespace. I’ve also seen phantom footnote markers that lead nowhere (1); other pages show signs of an amendment half-made, leaving some of the debris behind, resulting in nonsense debris behind.

I won’t name names of publishers here, although readers would be able to find plenty of evidence elsewhere in this blog. I would simply like to start a debate on two issues.

Firstly: is my experience matched by that of anyone else ? It may not be, and I should be delighted to be told that all is well, and that I have simply been unlucky.

If my experience is matched by that of others, why might this be ? There are several possibilities:

(i) are the manuscripts that authors submit getting messier, leading to a greater number of errors slipping through the net (a simple matter of probability) ?
(ii) are some copy editors being less careful ? During copy-editing I recently made some major changes to a paragraph of mine, tracking changes in Word. I can be pretty sure that the editor did nothing more than simply accept all my changes with a single click, since the errors in the proofs were the kind that you miss when you track changes in this way, in the mass of red. Had they been accepted one by one, they could not have got through.
(iii) are copy editors doing less work (a slightly different point) ? That is, is the apparent crisis in the business model for monographs and edited volumes in the humanities such that publishers simply can’t afford to do as much work as they might and still turn a profit ?
(iv) Or, finally, is it that time-poor academics are failing to check proofs properly ?

I have no answers to this; but I’m sure we need to be asking the question.

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