Why do we have to get our books out earlier, quicker, sooner, faster; never better, more thoroughly edited, proofread, indexed, and more carefully manufactured?

Molly Flatt at The Bookseller considers this question.

I can remember a time when printers (more the workers perhaps than the nonetheless acquiescent management) used to like to delay jobs in order to ensure that there’d be work on hand for next week/month/year. The norm back in the sixties was that you’d send a manuscript by mail to the typesetter asking for a cast off and estimate. After two or three weeks you’d pick up the phone and ask after your estimate. The invariable response was “It’s in my in-box. I’ll be getting to it in the next couple of days”. You knew this meant that in a week or two your estimate should arrive.

The same work-spacing rule applied to the typesetting, printing and binding of the book. When I started out it was regarded as a rarity to get a book into the warehouse in less than a year from receipt (from the editorial department) of the manuscript, and while we disdained to make such calculations, I’d imagine that our average was more like 18 months. I’ve no idea where we stand now but I certainly lived through the breaking of the 12-month and 9-month barriers. If you think it’s better that the compositor send you queries about the accuracy of the mathematics or the Greek he’s setting, rather than just to bang it out and hope that someone notices the mistakes, then you are voting for slower rather than faster production.

No sooner had I drafted this than here comes a post by Rick Anderson at The Scholarly Kitchen asking whether journals oughtn’t to start aiming at publication schedules that are slower thus more accurate. But don’t journals exist at least partly as an alternative to the slower, more “authoritative” publication of research in book form? I can’t see that speed to publication in journals can be anything other than a benefit. The more the better, and while accuracy is obviously an essential good, I suspect that the sorts of inaccuracies a publisher can prevent (mainly spelling and semantics rather than substance) can be sacrificed without great loss in the interest of speed.

I’m not sure I see how the experience of newspapers and magazines has any great relevance in the discussion of academic journals. Columbia Journalism Review is quoted by Mr Anderson as saying “In our conversations with research editors at more than a dozen award-winning national and regional magazines, we found this same pattern: Print gets the full-on fact-checking; online content gets at most a spot-check.” But this really has marginal relevance to academic book and journal publishing. Academic and journal publishers do not do fact checking. In so far as anything like fact checking is carried out, it is done by academic referees who vouch for the general accuracy of the paper they are looking at. They cannot guarantee the accuracy of detailed results of experiments: to do so would require them redoing the research, and this is just not how the system of research works. Results are published; an academic referee or two has vouched for the reliability of the researchers and their general approach; the results are tested by other researchers repeating the experiments; any variations in results form the basis for yet another journal paper; and thus the procedure starts all over again until eventually, maybe, we reach the “truth”. Writing for a magazine or a newspaper is nothing like this. Your readers are not going to stop and test your claims nor are most of them qualified to do so anyway. Thus because you are addressing a less knowledgable audience you have to be more careful that what you assert is in fact accurate because you are dealing with an audience which doesn’t share the assumption that journal readers have that this article is to be seen as a step in a process of eliminating error and reaching consensus on what reality looks like. Counter-intuitively perhaps the less “educated” your audience the greater the requirement to be absolutely accurate.

So while it may be perfectly good for newspapers and journals to take more time over their work, and probably, I think, would also be desirable for book publishers, I do think journals should remain focussed on speed to publication. On-line pre-prints help, but the sooner research results are published the sooner they can be tested.