Mssgng w/ Jrnls Ed

Joel Puchalla is the journals project supervisor for the University of Nebraska Press. Terence Smyre is the digital projects editor for Manifold Scholar at the University of Minnesota Press, and formally journals project supervisor at UNP. They continue their quarterly discussions about publishing and other topics because separation of state hasn’t stopped anyone before.


JP: Let’s talk about word processors.

TS: Simple, concise, totally unstilted—I like it. Yes, let’s do talk about word processors. And let’s also take the most obvious approach and turn it on its head. Instead of complaining or praising it, let’s forget it: How do you imagine our work lives would be altered if Word didn’t exist, if instead we relied on programs less bloated?

I’ve been hearing a lot of chatter recently about new programs—, Authorea, Overleaf—that are aiming to invade the ecosystem. And while I know you don’t share this opinion, I think it’s possible that in ten years we will have forsaken Word for simpler, more finely crafted text editors that are akin to what coders presently enjoy: Sublime Text, Atom, etc. I also expect that in ten years our positions will require substantive coding experience, but that’s another can of worms.

JP: It’s not that I can’t see us abandoning Word, just that I can’t see us abandoning Word for another program people would have to download and install on their devices (free or not). Fun fact: we’re writing this in a Google Doc. I could, right now, click FileDownload as and choose from the following formats: .docx, .odt, .rtf, .pdf, .txt, and .html (zipped). That’s pretty nice. It’s also very easy and at the fingertips of millions of gmail users. As interesting as some of text editors you mentioned are, I’ve yet to stumble upon one that my parents would want to use. I think that’s key. By nature, and especially with your new position at Minnesota, you are inclined toward these innovations—willing to try them out and play with what is possible. There is a good percentage of the population that isn’t like you at all. They’d rather use something easy and familiar. They want it to be proven; they want it to be capable of handling all their needs, no matter how small.

To answer your first question, though, I can’t imagine my work life without a ubiquitous word processor like Word. I mean, what would our workflows look like? Part of my struggle here is that I didn’t start working in publishing until well after computers became standard. I also can’t imagine our workflow without computers. So help me figure it out: what would work look like? How would we have moved from the 90s through now? What would people have done? Does this all culminate with the return of dot matrix printers? I hope so.

TS: I’m glad we’re having this chat; this is a fun topic to contemplate, especially because it’s challenging to envision and has some friction with our real-world experience.

That said, with respect to your parents (even though your mom likes to taunt me about my basketball prowess), I don’t think they’re the barometer we should be looking toward for technological engagement. Certainly there are large swaths of the scholarly community that are looking for the most easily adapted and accessible means of disseminating their materials. But that doesn’t always mean it’s the best way. I need not detail how many times you and I have had to put our heads together to try to work out what went wrong in a Word file. And! part of our jobs are to help accompany and guide authors in our collaborations with them—as a service to them and their work. Even if such advances aren’t always first welcomed with open arms. Further, there are a growing number of scholars in the humanities with crazy tech skills. Authors who write in Markdown and convert between file types using Pandoc. Authors who maintain robust GitHub repositories. Authors who know seventeenth-century poetry as well as they know Jekyll and Ruby and Javascript. So I suppose my point here is twofold: I don’t think we should focus our gaze behind us, and I don’t think we should underestimate the community’s engagement and proficiency with new means of expression.

As for what it might look like, I think it starts by adopting open-source text editors—take your pick which ones—as our primary means of composing scholarship. From that would flow basic (not BASIC) formatting suggestions with authors supplying simple UTF-8 encoded text files. Files that can be later easily encoded into XML. This will remove all the unnecessary formatting and compatibility questions from the equation. And how nice would it be to not have to worry about underlying formatting imparted by Word. To be able to use whatever text editor suits you. To be able to perform robust GREP searches that allow you to better manage and massage the text. Certainly there would need to be adjustments in how we approached tracking and reviewing changes. But there are ways, some even elegant, that allow for such. That’s not to say I think this will go off without a hitch. But I also think it’s a worthy endeavor. This is a conversation we want to help shape as we look ahead. Else we may be in an unenviable position of trying to find ways where we will be of value as production people in an ever-increasing digital world.

JP: And then I have authors who can’t electronically sign a consent-to-publish form. I still feel like the digital humanities scholars with whom you are now interacting are in the minority. Injection of young scholars could go a long way to changing that, sure. Here’s a question, though, will the open-source platforms you desire gain traction in a world shaped by corporate relations? Meaning, how much of us using Word has been about Word’s capabilities and how much of it has to do with Microsoft’s prevalence and power?

TS: For the moment, authors with these skill sets may be in the minority, but ten years from now? I would expect not. Actually I wonder if we won’t be passed by to a degree by then. Indeed that process may have already started. But I’m wandering.

As to your question about open-source options gaining traction, yes. I think, like OA, they are philosophically attractive. They are the farm-fresh, pesticide-free, open-range, organic option against the Monsanto MS Word. I expect Word will remain the major player. But in scholarly publishing—both in the humanities and especially in STEM—I think there is a growing desire by authors and publishers for something that better addresses their needs. And with open-source, those projects and platforms can live on and evolve so long as the will to employ them persists.

So, to put the ball back in your court, a hypothetical: would you want to still be using Word for these sorts of tasks in ten years? (Also, we’ve done a horrible job of not talking about “it.”)

JP: Would I want to? Not necessarily. Would I want to not be using Word? Also not necessarily. It’s already a vessel for text as far as I’m concerned. Taking the formatting options away from authors and editors would go a long way toward breaking the erroneous association that what you see on the Word page is what you’ll see in the finished publication. That’s a hard association to break for some. In that sense, bring on the simple text editors.

The elephant in the room here is that [you left us in October]. What that means is I’m mostly just trying to fight off drowning in a pool of journals right now. It’s hard to think about completely reworking our workflow when you’re just fighting to stay on top of the current one. As you know, I’m not opposed to change, and I welcome it when it makes things easier for me.

TS: Assuming you haven’t been eaten by a bear (or yeti) and we’re both still in the game—the Show?—in ten years, we’ll have wracked up some decent seniority and perspective. Maybe even be a bit of tempered wisdom. And thus we are as like to be in positions that will negotiate these kinds of questions. And I think that informs my approach to your question. The more we try, discard, and discover now the better off we’ll be able to advise then.

This seems a good place as any to stop. And since this post will no doubt stand the test of time, I’ll stake out my spot officially: in ten years the brave souls in editorial and production will employ means other than MS Word to conduct their workflows—open-source means.

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