We are developing the social individualist meta-context for the future. From the very serious to the extremely frivolous... lets see what is on the mind of the Samizdata people.

Samizdata, derived from Samizdat /n. - a system of clandestine publication of banned literature in the USSR [Russ.,= self-publishing house]

Samizdata quote of the day

There is an important law of which government bureaucracies would take cognisance if good government were their aim: that once a method of measurement is used to set a target, it becomes so corrupted that what it measures bears no relation to what it is supposed to measure.

[…]

A further force for corruption is the accelerating overproduction of people with higher degrees compared with the number of opportunities there are to employ them in their field. This increases yet further the pressure to publish, the majority of what is published consequently being of doubtful quality.

Theodore Dalrymple

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13 comments to Samizdata quote of the day

  • I used to work as a copy editor for a large scientific publisher. But they seem to have worked out that what they were actually selling in their journals was the opportunity to be cited in other papers, and secondarily to cite other papers, and that in general, the quality of the prose had no effect on either; and so they eliminated all their in-house copy editors, and outsourced most of their copy editing to overseas firms. The prose might be clumsy, or unclear, or even difficult to understand, but making it better was an unnecessary expense in terms of their corporate objectives. So now I freelance, largely working on journals that still have style guides and the like.

    Admittedly, the quality of the prose isn’t the most important thing about a scientific paper. But it’s not a good sign when no one goes through line by line to make sure the sentences are understandable. And the relentless focus on helping scientists get cited and advance their careers is much the kind of thing Dalrymple is talking about.

  • Julie near Chicago

    William! “Style guides”? You mean like Turabian??? (I.e., The Chicago Manual of Style.)

    Shocking! Why would anybody hold people to publishing competent, comprehensible English ?? !!!

    .

    Silly me, I referred once to “Standard English,” meaning grammatical English, with words properly spelled and so on, which was the meaning of the term back when Stegosauras roamed the planet. And right on up into the ’70s or ’80s. Chee, took a few rotten tomatoes for that one, as commenters informed me that “Standard English” has no such requirement.

    Who knew? Back when I learned the rules, “Standard English” meant English spoken and written up to a standard. So, heck, I Looked It Up.

    I’m sad to report that the reference I saw (I forget whether it was the Great Foot or what) informs us that “Standard English” now means “English as commonly spoken [or written],” a distinctly different creature.

    Times have sure changed.

    .

    Of course, Helen Hayes her own self bemoaned the lousy state of editorship back in the ’50s, give or take a decade.

    . . .

    If you are interested, Education Week has an interesting article by Prof. J. Martin Rochester, prof. of Political Science at the U. of Missouri in St. Louis, from 1996:

    http://www.edweek.org/ew/articles/1996/05/15/34roch.h15.html

  • William H. Stoddard, September 22, 2017 at 1:49 pm, you might be amused by the following from Thomas Sowell:

    To me, the fact that I have never killed an editor is proof that the death penalty deters. However, since nowadays we are all supposed to confess to shameful episodes in our past, I must admit that I was once an editor. Only once. And I didn’t inhale.

    It was the most painful kind of editing—editing academic writers. Too many academics write as if plain English is beneath their dignity and some seem to regard logic as an unconstitutional infringement of their freedom of speech. Others love to document the obvious and arbitrarily assume what is crucial. A typical work of this genre might read something like this:

    “As surely as the world is round (Columbus, 1492), and as surely as what goes up must come down (Newton, 1687), when Ronald Reagan was elected President (Cronkite, 1980) and then re-elected (Rather, 1984), it signaled a change in the political climate (Brinkley, 1980–88). Since then, we have seen exploitation (Marx, 1867) and sexism (Steinem, 1981) on the rise.”

    But no attempt to parody academic writing can match an actual sample from a scholarly journal:

    If you want the actual sample, Sowell’s article is here. (Trigger warning: his comments about copy editors lack that inclusive and non-judgemental quality so prized in modern thought. 🙂 )

    BTW, I have been told that for much of my life the price of a mars bar tracked inflation very well. The moment I was told this, it occurred to me that, had the government begun pricing all entitlements in mars bars, it would have abruptly ceased to do so.

  • Julie,

    I’ve heard of Turabian, but I’ve never actually had occasion to look at it. My professional bookshelf has the American Chemical Society style guide, the American Psychological Association publication manual, Associated Press, Chicago, Fowler’s, and the MLA, of which I use Chicago as much as all the rest together. And I’m probably going to pick up the Council of Biology Editors book soon, as I’ve just added a new client.

    But I’m not talking just about that. I’m thinking of the sort of journal or publisher that has five or ten or twenty pages of specifications for their particular version of Standard English. Normally they do specify a published manual, but then they go on to specify things suited to their discipline or their house or editor preferences.

    I’ve said, more than once, that I earn my living as a paid prescriptive linguist.

    Personally, I don’t care about rules for the sake of rules; that’s kind of a Kantian approach, and deontology makes me ill. But I care about rules for the sake of clear thinking and better understanding, not to mention the aesthetic pleasure of a well formed sentence. I must say, though, that when I trained other copy editors, the single hardest thing to teach them was that that rules of English always depend on the context where they are applied.

  • Julie near Chicago

    Well, William, first I have to correct an error. I said above that “Turabian” is The Chicago Manual of Style. I have believed this since I matriculated at Chicago in 1961. Alas, I have Looked It Up, and *gasp, horrors!* this belief is wrong. From the Great Foot’s article on the Chicago Manual:

    …. “Kate L. Turabian’s A Manual for Writers of Research Papers, Theses, and Dissertations also reflects Chicago style.”

    “Turabian” was published first in 1923.

    . . .

    I want to try to make it clear yet again that I don’t rag on and on about “proper English” or “correct English” as a matter of “following the rules” just because they are Rules. Over the last decade or more I’ve given several examples of cases where English seems to be written so as to maximize ambiguity and obfuscation. For instance, there’s the very, very common business of stringing together a series of nouns which ends with another noun, so that the reader has to stop and actually parse what is meant. It used to be that this was avoided by means of connecting words in the series with hyphens. In a discussion about this issue awhile back, bobby and I had some fun with a sentence like this: “The moving boxes distracted me.”

    I assume the ambiguity in that sentence is clear to everyone. (Are we speaking about boxes that were in motion, or about boxes being used for moving stuff from A to B?)

    .

    The ideal for which we should strive is to write both clearly and concisely. Years ago I read a remark by Dr. Sowell in which he said that in fact he much preferred writing books for the general public to writing material intended to be read by his professional colleagues, because of the lengths to which he had to go so as to write accurately, in such a way that it would be extremely difficult for his professional readers to find errors in his assertions as stated. In other words, it can be difficult to write in a way that is both accurate and concise. After all, clarity of writing means unambiguity, but it also means using sentences that are easy to understand. In other words, one needs to avoid a dense writing style, so that the material is reasonably easy to read.

    Unfortunately, I think that sometimes my own writing style has become overly dense. :>(

    .

    [Tangential rant: How irritating is it to see the signs in grocery stores that say “Can Fish,” “Can Vegetables,” so forth! And how illiterate are Amazon’s staff people, who write about “box sets,” which surely means “sets of boxes,” and “Your item has shipped!” They never heard of the difference between a transitive and an intransitive verb? — not that I care, if only they don’t make the error. Anyway, they are certainly tone-deaf to the English language. I want to say that after all, they might be poorly-taught non-native English-speakers, but that doesn’t follow–unfortunately.]

    .

    William, you say:

    “I care about rules for the sake of clear thinking and better understanding….”

    Precisely so! And when words are misused, or are put together poorly, they cause confusion and misunderstanding; particularly so when the misuse or poor syntax is also very common in both what one hears and what one reads.

    Not to quote me, but to quote me: Words are the symbols we use to shove concepts around.

    I also love the way you end that sentence:

    “I care about rules for the sake of clear thinking and better understanding, not to mention the aesthetic pleasure of a well formed sentence.”

    .

    By the way, have you seen Wolcott Gibbs’s piece entitled “Theory and Practice of Editing New Yorker Articles”? Mr. Gibbs produced this piece in 1937 when he was an editor at The New Yorker. I love it. It’s informative, witty, incisive. Not to be missed! Its final point:

    “Try to preserve the author’s style, if he is an author and has a style.”

    It’s printed in James Thurber’s memoir The Years with Ross, the whole of which is also witty, informative, and definitely not to be missed. 🙂

  • Alisa

    Niall, you and Sowell owe me a new keyboard!

  • bobby b

    My favorite quote from Sowell’s article:

    “Cast in this role, style manuals have become anti-style manuals. Since style is a variation on a convention, rigid conformity is the antithesis of style.”

    Good link, Niall.

  • bobby b,

    Stylistic conformity is enforced to different degrees in different style manuals. Of all the ones I’ve worked with, the most rigidly conformist was the American Psychological Association manual. It was totally prescriptive about everything (and worse, in ways that sometimes were stupid, as when one edition insisted that the difference between men and women be called “gender” and that “sex” be used only to mean copulation—even though the adjacent discipline of biology talks about “sex chromosomes” rather than “gender chromosomes” and the adjacent discipline of linguistics uses “gender” for grammatical classes of nouns, such as the masculine/feminine/edible/neuter of some Australian languages). In contrast, the American Mathematical Society has a very short guide, with rules for using certain mathematical symbols in standard and consistent ways, but for the most part their stance is “do anything you like, as long as you do it consistently!” Which if you think about it is also characteristic of mathematics. . . .

    One of the great moments in my copy editing career was when I got a long paper for Information and Computation, and I realized as I worked on it that the author was doing all sort of things that weren’t quite standard academic English, and were sometimes a bit informal, but that made the paper fun to read—the one that’s always stayed with me was the proof of a theorem whose final step was preceded by “(Trumpets, please!)”. So I took this to my supervisor, and asked if we could just accept the author’s style, rather than forcing it into the straitjacket of house style. And happily she said yes. Since then I’ve felt that the right thing to do was to respect the author’s style as far as possible, as in the maxim that Julie quotes.

  • Thailover

    I used to work in a weather station in the Marshall Islands. When we weren’t involved in missile defense testing, we were engaged in routine weather station jazz and climate info gathering. The meteorologists were often not too removed from graduation and actively seeking papers to add their names to. It was common to see papers with 30 or more names attached at the header. It seems that the need to publish far outweighed the impact of the content of the paper. It was largely a matter of knowing the right people and networking. That this is supposed to actually mean something outside of business and politics is itself mind boggling to me.

  • Thailover

    “I want to try to make it clear yet again that I don’t rag on and on about “proper English” or “correct English” as a matter of “following the rules” just because they are Rules”

    That’s wise considering the history and evolution of the Angle-ish language.

  • Julie near Chicago

    Niall, many thanks for the link to Dr. Sowell’s paper. It is a delight to read. Downloaded! :mrgreen:

  • rxc

    This concept, about how the insinuation of metrics into fields where they are not very relevant, is indeed well known to government bureaucrats. I used to be one, and every decade or so, we would have a wave of business process engineering fads sweep thru, after the senior managers had been instructed by some fancy busniess school or consultant (ours was the consulting arm of Arthur Anderson). They were sure that we just needed to identify the key metric factors, and we could be more effective and efficient.

    They were always wrong, because the work that I (and most of my colleagues) did, did not involve rote tasks that could be incorporated into a procedure and followed to a logical conclusion by simple inspection. They frequently involved technical issues that no one had considered before, political issues that had multiple stakeholders with diametrically (in a large N-space) different interests, and legal concerns that were required to be satisfied, no matter what outcome was preferred.

    Some people worked on many small tasks that were relatively simple, doing maybe 10 projects over the year, while others would spend 2-3 years looking at one particular project before rendering a decision. Some projects had the potential to seriously affect the economics of other stakeholders, which could cause political blow-back at a mind-boggling level. And it all had to be done in a way that was seen as “fair and just”.

    I blame the people in academia and business who have never worked in government, but have these wonderful theoretical methods that are certain to save thr world, because the proponents learned how to get a spreadsheet to calculate some numbers. If they were really serious, they would have lots of studies that demonstrated, for a /fact/, that they were right, as long as you ignored all sorts of other inconvenient factors.

    I am not sure whether business learned this crap from academia, or vice-versa. It corrupts real science, turns non-policy-wonk types away from discourse about public policy, and wastes an enormous amount of resources.