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Archive for the ‘writing’ Category

There’s a great discussion going on over at the Empirical Legal Studies blog, where legal scholars are thinking about the merits, problems and functions of law reviews. This forum was prompted by research by Jason Nance and Dylan Steinberg, “The Law Review Article Selection Process: Results from a National Study.” Many of the points apply equally well to scholarshp in Canada.

My thoughts parallel those of Benjamin Barton, who had this to say (in post #5, with emphasis added) on the incongruity of faculty complaints about student editors:

First, there are so many student-edited law reviews that it is not an exaggeration to say that virtually anything a law professor writes that is in English and makes some vague sense can and will be published. This is an enormous comparative advantage for a law faculty member over other disciplines, since a law professor can remain “productive” regardless of whether their work is relevant or even particularly good.

Second, having students edit most of the work means that law professors do not have to. Being a reviewer for a peer-edited journal (let alone being an editor) takes a great deal of time, and is in many ways a relatively thankless pain. The fact that student editors do the bulk of this work is a major benefit for law faculties.

Peer review in the law is an embarrassment to the discipline, and authors are coddled by overworked student editors who are intimidated by faculty. It needs to be fixed, and a look to how things are done in the humanities and social sciences would be a start – just make sure to take the open access path, so everyone can see the results of reform…

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The hero trap

Jane Espenson, a screenwriter with a blog, reveals to The New Republic the secret to selling sci-fi.

Her hypothesis is that if you want to sell fantastical fiction like Harry Potter to a mass audience, the best story has nothing to do with the elements of fantasy. It’s all about a Chosen One who has a special place in a strange new world.

The Chosen One paradigm is the most positive, most comforting, most affirming metaphorical version of change, of growing up, that I can imagine.

Which sort of explains why so many incarnations of the Chosen One theme usually involve young adults growing up and taking their place in the world. And why most heroes are born to the job.

It’s doubtless why I am, as an adult craving nuance, finding such stories shallow. This is never more the case than when a writer creates a protagonist destined to be a hero in a universe where a good vs. evil dichotomy is written into the universe.

Head over and give it a read, but take note: there’s a difference between selling a science fiction story to a TV executive who hopes it entertains a general audience, and telling a good story. For the latter, try Iain M. Banks.

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How to copy me

Over the past couple of weeks, a few accidental trackback alerts have revealed a blogger has been copying content from Thought Capital – and quite a few other blogs – without attribution.

Tut tut.

As noted by the Creative Commons license on the sidebar:

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This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-Noncommercial-No Derivative Works 3.0 License.

So, you are welcome to republish Thought Capital content as long as you don’t:

  1. claim it as your own by failing to name the original author;
  2. use it commercially; or
  3. alter it.

A link back to the original post would be polite, too…

I’m reluctant to give the plagiarist traffic or ‘link-cred’, but if you wish you can find the faux blog My 1983 at booknn.cn. (That link will take you to the results of a Whois search.)

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And they use pretty words to do it.

Take this, for example:

The whole point of the “soundbite used to be to mine one nugget of gold from a longer point, to boil it down to its essence. But we’ve boiled over as a culture, and there’s nothing left in the pot. We’re not just going for the choicest cut anymore. We’ve devolved to a media culture where that nugget is zapped and worked over and processed to the point of irrelevance. There is nothing behind the nugget anymore.

That’s Denis McGrath, mixing metaphors about the lost art of conversation, and getting there by way of an obituary. Brilliant.

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Today at ScienceBlogs there are a few posts of interest to science writers:

The Daily Transcript’s post, History and analysis of scientific publishing, comments on a interesting book with an overly long title, In Oldenburg’s Long Shadow: Librarians, Research Scientists, Publishers, and the Control of Scientific Publishing.

Recent posts to Adventures in Ethics and Science discuss science writing.

That first post refers to an old paper with an inflammatory title:

  • P. B. Medawar, Is the scientific paper fraudulent? Yes; it misrepresents scientific thought, Saturday Review, 1 August 1964, pp. 42-43.

The analysis of Medawar’s paper involves some fun philosophy of science – mostly Hemple and Popper on induction and inductivism. Medawar makes a great deal of the way scientific papers represent orthodox norms about scientific thinking, but I doubt researchers think scientific papers are supposed to convey norms of scientific deliberation. Still, I can’t help but think that papers representing scientific thinking would be a lot more fun to read, if only because they would break away from the structure involving:

  1. Introduction
  2. Background
  3. Methods
  4. Results
  5. Discussion

My suspicion is that scientists use this as a crutch, like high school (and university) students who cling to the dreaded 5 paragraph essay because it gives direction without requiring too much thought.

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With the arrival of open access, publishers are understandably worried they might be cut out of the process. To demonstrate their contribution, they’ve compared papers before and after copy-editing.

Given that Robert Campbell is President and Publisher of Blackwell, and Edward Wates is Blackwell’s UK Journal Production Director, it should be no surprise the study give a rosy picture of the contributions by their own publishing company.

It may also be no surprise that overwhelming number of errors involve citations – a category of error which might be caused in part by publishers’ insistence upon in-house style guides. (Even so, when that many people with advanced degrees can’t figure out how to format a footnote, citation formats need rethinking.)

The Wates and Campbell paper follows other data-laden but interest-driven attacks that amount to, “Open access: it’s not as good as you think”. See, for example, reports by the Publishing Research Consortium (Do Open Access Articles Have Greater Citation Impact?) and the Association of Learned and Professional Society Publishers (The Facts About Open Access).

These should be taken with a grain of salt – if publishers didn’t think open access posed a big threat, they wouldn’t be hiring PR strategists. A more balanced study can be found over at the open access Digital Library of Information Science and Technology (DLIST):

It observes:

…there was no question that the work of the copy-editors improved the readability of most papers…

It’s remarkable that studies have been conducted on this topic. The value of copy-editing should be obvious. However, I am reminded of a Supreme Court of Canada copyright decision that bugged me because of the way the court characterized copy editing. Their reasoning was that fixes to spelling and grammar didn’t warrant copyright protection because this editing was a “mere mechanical exercise” undertaken “without any skill or judgement”.

This seems off the mark. If good writing didn’t take skill and judgement, we wouldn’t have copy-editors, would we? It would have been better for the court to say some types of skill and judgement attract copyright protection, whereas others do not.

Here’s the court’s final draft, absent my ‘mechanical exercise’:

Even though copy-editing is incidental to authorship, at least inasmuch as copyright is concerned, publishers who say that authors’ manuscripts are made better by editing are right. Author’s drafts are filled with errors and confusions in numbers enough to make a careful reader weep.

They are wrong though, that a world without publishers’ editors necessarily diminishes the quality of scholarly literature, and mistakenly assume open access must take place without copy-editing.

Also, it would be wrong to say that in-house copy-editors are saving scholarship from bad writing. A quick survey of the existing literature in any discipline will turn up a lot of excruciating prose. You can’t blame copy-editors for this – they aren’t supposed to make stylistic changes or re-write swaths of text to make them comprehensible. It is authors’ own fault when their papers are unreadable.

So, here’s a twist: Perhaps readers should be aware of the frailties of an author’s writing. If authors didn’t have publishers’ editing as a safety net, public ridicule in a free market of words might inspire them to learn how to use commas and format footnotes for themselves.

A more realistic suggestion is that authors pick up the tab for fixing their bad writing. There’s no reason for publishers to shift the cost of editing to readers and libraries.

Either way, open access gives authors incentives to be better writers.

How’s that for framing the debate?

(Hat-tip to OptimalScholarship via Peter Suber, for mention of the OA copy editing studies)

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Here’s her worry:

I have concerns about the notion that blogging will soon become the choice method of academic communication, or, worse yet, the notion that blogging ought to replace traditional forms of academic publishing.

No one is suggesting blogs will or should replace traditional academic discourse. Journals are still alive and well – which is one reason the open access movement is gaining steam, even in legal scholarship.

If anything, blogs bolster the abilities of scholars to do good work in traditional forums – journals, conferences and classrooms – because blogs are conversations with peers, students and (scariest of all) the general public.

This exposure isn’t trivial. If readers like what you say on a blog, they are more likely to read your longer pieces – articles that might otherwise remain obscure and unread even by specialists in the discipline.

It’s also false that blog writing is inherently inferior to journal articles:

If blogging replaces more traditional forms of academic discourse, we lose the ‘sober second thought’ and in depth analysis that comes with researching and writing a peer reviewed paper.

Blogging can’t have in-depth analysis? Not so. That’s up the the author.

It is true that most blogs – even those by academics – are not composed of 50 page treatises where a few original ideas are buried by dozens of footnotes. That’s just as well. Shorter commentaries and serialized essays have value. They can improve writing skills, muse aloud, gather feedback from other scholars, and create communities of academics. As an example, see Brian Leiter’s new legal philosophy blog.

Even better, blog posts can seed larger projects. They offer a form of peer review – something many critics, disillusioned authors and judges say is lacking in legal scholarship, despite the best efforts of 2L student editors who valiantly fix professors’ footnotes.

All this, and on a more timely basis than offered by traditional journals’ publication schedules.

Which leads me to my next point: We need more Michael Geists.

Blogging allows experts to give sage commentary on the news of the day in something more than a sound-bite on the evening news. In blogs, law professors have the opportunity to educate the public about the law, especially in areas of controversy (as with the Supreme Court of Canada’s decision in the Leo Teskey case). Insofar as blogs have political clout and the attention of media outlets, they also give law professors the opportunity to raise alarms, create awareness about developing legal issues, and spur legal reform.

Try doing all that in a law review article.

For further reading about the pros and cons of academic blogging, here’s a quick round-up:

Those who disagree with Prof. Billingsley can take a look at one of my first posts to Thought Capital: How to Write an Academic Blog. Law professors, your audience awaits…

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