Comments on Canada’s science and technology trajectory

I just sent this note in response to Industry Canada’s consultation paper, Seizing Canada’s Moment, and I encourage anyone who has an opinion about Canada’s science and technology strategy to write in as well. You can send your feedback to [email protected] by February 7, 2014.

I’m not naive enough to believe that anyone at Industry Canada will actually read my note, nor do I think it’ll actually make any kind of a difference, but I thought I should at least make some effort to engage. I didn’t want to pass up an explicitly offered opportunity to speak up.

I tend to shy away from posting anything overtly political on my professional blog, but I’ve made this one exception. Thanks to Cheryl Stephens for drawing my attention to the original consultation paper.

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To the Honourable James Moore, Stephen Harper, and Industry Canada:

I’m writing in response to Seizing Canada’s Moment: Moving Forward in Science, Technology and Innovation, the consultation paper in which you solicited “the views of stakeholders from all sectors of the ST&I [science, technology & innovation] system—including universities, colleges and polytechnics, the business community, and Canadians—to help identify solutions that reflect the realities of today’s ever-changing global innovation landscape.” As one of those stakeholders, both as a science communicator and as an engaged citizen, I’d like to offer a few of my thoughts about the Government of Canada’s ST&I strategy. My opinions here are informed by my handful of years in physics research as well as my career of over a dozen years as a writer and editor:

  • In 2002 I founded a national journal for undergraduate physics students to introduce them to the process of peer review and scholarly publication; the Canadian Undergraduate Physics Journal published until 2010.
  • I have, since 2004, edited more than 175 academic journal articles, dissertations, book chapters, and books in physics, earth sciences, chemistry, and engineering, among other science, technology, engineering, and mathematics (STEM) disciplines.
  • I have also edited popular science books and am co-author of an upcoming book about personalized medicine for a general audience.

I’m neither the scientist making the groundbreaking discoveries nor the entrepreneur applying research results to create a new product or process, but I’d like to believe that those of us in communications have a critical role to play in the exchange of information and knowledge. We are, as Peter Levesque of the Institute for Knowledge Mobilization has said, the grout that joins the tiles.

Your consultation paper includes several questions for discussion:

Business innovation

  • Building on the advice provided by the Expert Panel on Federal Support for Research and Development, what more can be done to improve business investment in R&D and innovation?
  • What actions could be taken, by the government or others, to enhance the mobilization of knowledge and technology from government laboratories and universities, colleges and polytechnics to the private sector?

Mobilization of knowledge and technology depends, fundamentally, on a free and open exchange of information.

Although I applaud the country’s researchers for helping Canada become “the only G7 country to increase its number of scientific papers about the world average in recent years,” these papers do precious little good if other researchers and people in business can’t

  • find them,
  • read them, and
  • understand them.

Research can’t be done in a (figurative) vacuum; new discoveries are fuelled by previous knowledge, and both researchers and innovators in business need full, unimpeded access to this body of knowledge to drive scientific progress. What Canada needs is the following:

  • A robust network of libraries that serves as a comprehensive archive of scientific information, as well as a metadata-rich cataloguing system that allows Canadians to search the entire network’s content in a centralized location. This kind of network would allow everyone in the ST&I sector to easily find publications on the latest research, as well as encourage interdisciplinary cross-fertilization. Some of the most innovative ideas can arise when mathematicians talk to musicians, or when architects talk to psychologists. Further, a centralized catalogue would let Canadians find not only all papers published in open access journals (see next item) but also those published under a “green open access” models, where the paper appears in a pay-to-access journal but is self-archived by the researcher for free access in an institutional repository.
  • Open access to all Canadian-made research. The Natural Sciences and Engineering Research Council (NSERC) and the Canadian Institutes  of Health Research (CIHR) recognize that if they have funded research, we Canadian taxpayers have paid for it, and we deserve to be able to see the results of that research—i.e., the publications—without having to pay for them again in subscription or access fees. Privatizing the National Research Council Press (today Canadian Science Publishing) such that it has to put its papers behind a paywall is a step in exactly the wrong direction. Paywalls stifle innovation because many of those businesses that could be applying the research have neither the access to an academic library’s subscriptions nor the budget to pay $30 to read each paper, without knowing whether it will ultimately be useful. Mandating open access, however, although a good first step, isn’t enough: to offset the loss of revenue from the reader, open access publishers often have to charge the researcher or the researcher’s institution for the privilege to publish. A system of Government of Canada subsidies to cover part or all of those publishing costs would allow scientists to focus their budgets on research rather than on publication.
  • Plain language knowledge translation and mobilization. High-level research can involve specialized language which, coupled with academia’s deeply ingrained habit of producing dense writing, can hinder understanding of new discoveries. In the long term, the ST&I sector would benefit from a plain language overhaul of all of its communications. For now, communication professionals skilled at distilling research knowledge into usable information for other researchers, industry, policy makers, and ordinary citizens will have a critical role to play in bridging the gap between scientific discovery and innovation.

Developing Innovative and Entrepreneurial People

  • How can Canada continue to develop, attract and retain the world’s top research talent at our businesses, research institutions, colleges and polytechnics, and universities?

“Canada has rising numbers of graduates with doctoral degrees in science and engineering,” according to your consultation paper. “This valuable resource of highly qualified and skilled individuals needs to be better leveraged.” As you acknowledge, these researchers are trained, world-class experts. Wouldn’t it behoove us to listen to what they have to say?

To attract and retain skilled researchers, we have to foster an environment in which they feel fulfilled and secure in their work. In other words, we need a government commitment to evidence-based policy making and a system that allows researchers room to explore. If the government wants industry to work with our scientists, it should be prepared to serve as a role model and do the same. Science is about discovering the laws of nature—these are laws none of us can defy. Only by learning more about them, rather than denying them, will we be able to harness them to our advantage.

Further, for our scientists to succeed, we have to give them room to fail, without the fear that they’ll lose their jobs or grants. Researchers who “push the frontiers of knowledge” are bound to run into a few dead ends. When we learn about scientific progress, we get a sanitized version of history, where discoveries are made regularly, linearly. What non-scientists don’t see are the frustrations, the setbacks, and the outright failures that come with every step forward. These difficulties are part of science, but in the rush to commercialize research, the value they add to the sum of human knowledge is likely to be overlooked.

Excellence in Public and Post-Secondary Research and Development

  • How might Canada build upon its success as a world leader in discovery-driven research?
  • Is the Government of Canada’s suite of programs appropriately designed to best support research excellence? 

Although I understand that this government’s focus is on developing commercial applications of science, the fact is that you can’t apply what you don’t have. Investment in pure science is just as important as developing new technologies; what discoveries will turn out to have useful applications in the future are almost impossible to predict with certainty. Who could have imagined that Max Planck’s musings about quantum theory in the early 1900s would pave the way for the now-ubiquitous laser? And if Galileo hadn’t turned his telescope to the sky—out of curiosity rather than for commerce—and discovered that moons orbit other planets, we might still be terrified of eclipses and bewildered by the tides. (Incidentally, how many years do you figure the whole of civilization was set back by the Church’s persecution of Galileo and its denial of his theories?)

Support for pure science is also what will bring us the next generation of inquisitive, creative, scientific minds. James Day, a UBC superconductivity and physics education researcher, once said to me, “Kids who become interested in science usually get into it in one of two ways: through dinosaurs or through stars.” Neither paleontology nor astronomy are probable sources for the kinds of commercialization this government seems to be after—but to neglect these and other pure sciences in favour of those you somehow deem more likely to yield new products or processes is to deprive future generations of Canadians the opportunity of carrying on our scientific researchers’ impressive legacy.

Sources

Gulrez Shah Azhar. “Access to information is crucial for science.” The Lancet, Vol. 377, April 23, 2011, p. 1404.

Emily Chung. “No more free access to Canadian science journals,” CBC News. March 8, 2011. http://www.cbc.ca/news/technology/no-more-free-access-to-canadian-science-journals-1.1044255.

Industry Canada. Seizing Canada’s Moment: Moving Forward in Science, Technology and Innovation. Ottawa: Industry Canada, 2014.

Carl Lagoze and Herbert Van de Sompel. “The open archives initiative: building a low-barrier interoperability framework.” Proceedings of the ACM/IEEE Joint Conference on Digital Libraries, Roanoke VA, June 24–28, 2001, pp. 54-62.

Peter Levesque. “Knowledge mobilization as readiness for care.” Institute for Knowledge Mobilization. November 24, 2010. http://www.knowledgemobilization.net/archives/261

Richard Van Noorden. “Open access: The true cost of science publishing” Nature, Vol. 495, March 27, 2013, pp. 426–429. http://www.nature.com/news/open-access-the-true-cost-of-science-publishing-1.12676

Why open access proponents should care about plain language

Virtually all academic research in Canada receives support from one of three federal funding agencies—the Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council (SSHRC), Natural Sciences and Engineering Research Council (NSERC), or Canadian Institutes of Health Research (CIHR)—and researchers in other countries similarly depend to some extent on federal funding, whether from the National Institutes of Health in the U.S. or Research Councils UK. Advocates of open access (OA) have long argued that all of us contribute to this research as taxpayers and so should have access to its results—namely, the scholarly books and journals that report on the research—without having to pay for them. In fact, in 2007 CIHR became the first North American public research funder to mandate that all publications stemming from research it has funded must be published in an OA journal (known as “gold open access”) or archived for free use in an institutional repository (“green open access”). In fall 2013, Canada’s other two funding agencies followed suit.

There’s no question that the idea of OA is democratic and altruistic. (Whether OA can flourish given its financial constraints is another discussion.) Making peer-reviewed scholarly work available for free helps researchers broaden their reach and makes it easier for them to collaborate and build on the work of others. For the general public, free access to the latest research means that

  • people with health conditions can read up on the newest treatments
  • professionals who have left academia but still work in a related field can keep up to date
  • citizen scientists—such as hobbyist astronomers, bird watchers, mycologists, and the like—can learn from and contribute to our collective body of knowledge.

Making publications free, however, doesn’t go far enough. The way I see it, there are four levels of access, and if researchers fail to meet any one of them, they haven’t really met the overarching goal of OA, and we taxpayers are still getting shortchanged.

First level: Can readers find the work?

Discoverability, in this case, is an information science problem and falls mainly under the purview of librarians (major OA supporters), who have to make sure that their library’s catalogue links to all available OA journals and that they make their users aware of free, author-archived versions of papers published in traditional for-profit journals. However, plain language and clear communication have a role to play even at this level: authors are responsible for the title, abstract, and keywords of their articles. Journal publishers are usually reluctant to make substantive changes to the title and keywords in particular and rely on the authors to supply appropriate ones. All authors could benefit from plain language training that helps them craft succinct, unambiguous, and descriptive titles and distill their research into a handful of clear key terms that readers will likely search for.

Second level: Can readers get to the work?

Open access proponents focus mainly on this level, arguing that eliminating the price barrier would allow everyone to read and benefit from scholarly publications.

Third Level: Can Readers Read the work?

Beyond promoting standard concerns about design for readability—appropriate fonts, effective use of white space, and so on—this level should accommodate alternative formats that promote universal accessibility, including access for people with print disabilities, a demographic that will grow as the academic community continues to become more inclusive.

Fourth level: Can readers understand the work?

For the most part, language and comprehension don’t concern the OA movement, but I think they are key: who cares if your paper is available for free if it’s impenetrable? Specialized disciplines will use their own specialized language, to be sure, but scholarly writing could undoubtedly do with fewer nominalizations and less convoluted language. Researchers who publish for OA also have to understand that their audience isn’t the same as it was twenty years ago. Academics today are overloaded with information and simply don’t have the time to decipher dense writing. What’s more, OA has opened up the readership to people outside of their field and to ordinary (taxpaying) citizens who want to become more informed.

OA has an important presence in developing nations, too, where researchers often don’t have the means to pay for journal subscriptions, and clear communication is doubly important in this case. Although OA journals can be based anywhere, they’re largely published in English, and many authors in developing nations are writing in English as a foreign language. If they all model their writing on stilted, confounding academese, the problem of impenetrable scholarly language becomes self-perpetuating.

Sadly, clarity in language can be among the lowest priorities for OA publishers. As many people in scholarly publishing have pointed out, including Laraine Coates of UBC Press, free for readers doesn’t mean free to produce. Publications—particularly book-length monographs—still cost (quite a bit of) money to make, and that money has to come from somewhere. Unfortunately, without being able to collect subscription fees from libraries and individual users, OA journals and publishers face more limited budgets, and many of them choose to forgo copy editing, leaving their articles riddled with stylistic and grammatical infelicities that can make a publication effectively unreadable. Peer review alone isn’t enough to ensure clarity and resolve ambiguities.

Ultimately, both open access and plain language movements have the same aim—to democratize information—and each would benefit from forging a stronger alliance with the other. I’m inspired by the story of Jack Andraka, who, at age fifteen and using resources he found online through Wikipedia, YouTube, and Google—including OA journal articles—developed a low-cost, accurate, paper-based test for a marker for pancreatic cancer. Not to take away from Andraka’s insight and resourcefulness, but I can’t help wondering how much more we could collectively accomplish if we all had access—on all levels—to the latest scholarly literature.

Writing in plain language—an Information Mapping webinar

David Singer of Information Mapping hosted a free webinar about writing in plain language. Much of the second half of the session was devoted to the Information Mapping method, covered in the Introduction to Information Mapping webinar that I wrote about earlier, but the first half focused on plain language itself.

Plain language defined

What is plain language? The Center for Plain Language in Washington, DC, uses the following definition:

A communication is in plain language if the people who are the audience for that communication can quickly and easily

  • find what they need
  • understand what they find, and
  • act appropriately on that understanding.

Singer likes this definition, noting that there’s no mention of “dumbing down” the information, which is not what plain language is about.

Plain Writing Act

On October 13, 2010, President Obama signed the Plain Writing Act into law: “The purpose of this Act is to improve the effectiveness and accountability of Federal agencies to the public by promoting clear Government communication that the public can understand and use.” Interestingly, regulations were exempt from this requirement, although there’s since been a push to have regulations given in plain language as well.

Have the agencies made progress? Although some agencies have made an effort to implement plain language principles, the new law hasn’t made that much progress since it came into effect in 2011. The Center for Plain Language issued a report card in 2012 and found that out of the twelve agencies they looked at, only four scored a B or higher in complying with the basic requirements of the act. The Department of Homeland Security scored a D, and the Veterans Affairs Department scored an F.

Why were they having so much trouble?

  • The agencies were dealing with an unfunded mandate. Although the Plain Writing Act was signed into law, the agencies had no budget allowances to implement the training and changes to government documentation.
  • There was no specific yardstick to measure success. How do you define “clearer” or “easier to understand”?
  • There were no consequences for non-compliance.
  • There were no clear plans for implementation.

The effort to implement plain language faces a lot of barriers, including the fact that initial enthusiasm about the idea can fade and there is a lot of resistance to change. Technical folks may not believe that their communications can be made simpler or clearer, and attorneys and security people may not want their language to be easy to understand.

Telling people to use personal pronouns, active voice, and shorter sentences isn’t enough, argues Singer. You need a systematic method based on sound principles and a clear plan for implementation to work.

The Information Mapping method

Most of the challenges, says Singer, don’t involve grammar. Plain language’s chief concerns are about making complex information clear and accessible; writing for different audiences (how do you create a single document that meets the needs of many groups of people?); organizing large amounts of information; working with a team of writers (managing different styles, etc.); keeping up with changes; and finding a way to reuse content. Singer suggested the Information Mapping method as a way to achieve these objectives.

Some of the principles behind Information Mapping—chunking, relevance, and labelling—were covered in the Introduction to Information Mapping webinar. The method also has three other principles—consistency, integrated graphics, and accessible detail—which the Information Mapping crew covers only in the training sessions and not in these free webinars.

Singer presented case studies to show the benefits of applying the Information Mapping to business communication. In general, Information Mapping has found that its method leads to a

  • 32% increase in retrieval accuracy
  • 38% increase in usage of the documentation
  • 83% increase in initial learning during training
  • 90% decrease in questions to the supervisor
  • 83 % decrease in the time for a first draft
  • 75% decrease in the time to review the documentation
  • 54% decrease in error rates
  • 50% decrease in reading time
  • 30% decrease in the word count

By implementing a concrete plain language plan, such as the Information Mapping method, you may see the following benefits:

  • revenue growth—by reducing the time it takes to create content and shortening the time for products and their documentation to make it to market
  • cost reduction—by capturing employee knowledge, increasing operational efficiency, reducing support calls, and decreasing translation costs (owing to lower word counts and clearer content)
  • risk mitigation—by increasing safety and compliance

Resources on plain language

For more information about plain language, visit:

(or come to PLAIN 2013!)

An archive of this webinar, as well as more information about the Information Mapping system and training, can be found on the Information Mapping website.

PubPro 2013 recap

Managing editors and publication production managers from across BC gathered at SFU Harbour Centre on Saturday for the first ever PubPro unconference. We had representatives from educational publishers, trade book publishers, self-publishers, magazine publishers, journal publishers, technical publishers, course developers, communications departments, and more.

The day kicked off with session pitches: participants interested in presenting had a minute to pitch their topics to the crowd. Then, based on audience interest, our volunteers assigned each talk to one of our rooms. Yvonne Van Ruskenveld (West Coast Editorial Associates), Rob Clements (Ingram Content Group), Anne Brennan (Allegro Communications and EAC’s Certification Steering Committee), John Maxwell (SFU), and Jennifer Lyons (Influence Publishing) offered to present, and I  pitched my talk about the editorial wiki I built as an in-house editor.

After the presentations were added to the schedule, we still had several slots to fill, so I proposed four discussion topics and asked members of the audience to volunteer to lead them. Eve Rickert stepped up to lead the discussion about managing a team of editors and working with freelancers; Jesse Marchand led a discussion about digital workflow; Brian Scrivener chaired the roundtable on project management and workflow; and Lara Smith took on the managing editors’ wish list for production management software.

We planted a volunteer in each of our rooms to help the presenters set up and to keep the day on track. To make sure we captured the day’s main takeaways, we also had a volunteer in each room taking notes. I spent my day in the main event room helping the presenters there, so I didn’t get a chance to partake in what I’ve heard were lively and engaging discussions.  I look forward to reading our volunteers’ notes and catching up on what I missed; they will be compiling a full recap of the day for West Coast Editor, EAC-BC’s online newsletter, and I’ll post an update when the article appears.

Here’s a summary of what I did see:

Yvonne Van Ruskenveld—Interactive Editing: Big Project, Big Team, Tight Deadlines

West Coast Editorial Associates’ Yvonne Van Ruskenveld shared with us some of her wisdom gained from her experiences working in educational publishing, which can be vastly more complex than trade publishing owing to the sheer number of people involved. A project manager has to oversee the work of several writers, editors, artists, designers, picture researchers, and layout technicians, and when one phase of a project slips, the problem can cascade and put the entire project in jeopardy. In the planning phase, Van Ruskenveld said, it’s important to map out the whole project and consider issues such as how non-editors might be used to support substantive or developmental editors. Team members should receive an outline of the editorial process, a schedule, and a style sheet, as well what Van Ruskenveld calls a “project profile”—an annotated sample of a unit or chapter showing exactly what elements it has to contain.

A theme that ran throughout Van Ruskenveld’s talk was the importance of considering the social aspect of your team: a team functions more smoothly if members are encouraged to interact with one another and communicate freely. The project manager should set the tone for the group dynamics by being open, acknowledging receipt of messages, and responding promptly to team members. Most importantly, the project manager should be able to troubleshoot quickly and without pointing fingers. Once the project has wrapped up, the project manager should be sure to congratulate the team members and celebrate their contributions.

That said, Van Ruskenveld—and a few audience members—did acknowledge that some editors are just not suited to this kind of a project. Again, because educational publishing is so demanding, editors who can’t deliver on deadline should probably not be assigned to such a project, nor should editors who can’t work without a lot of guidance.

Rob Clements—Print on Demand for Editors

Rob Clements, now a sales manager at Ingram Content Group, began his publishing career at Regent College Publishing, where he eventually became the managing editor. There he helped revive out-of-print titles of Christian academic literature that had a small but enthusiastic readership by acquiring the rights to those books and printing small quantities. After hearing about Ingram’s Lightning Source print-on-demand service, he quickly became a big fan of the platform but expressed to Ingram his frustrations relating to the importation process of the print-on-demand copies. Ingram responded by offering him a job: Clements would be responsible for resolving some of the problems specific to Canadians who wanted to use Ingram’s services.

Lightning Source was founded in 1997 as a division of Ingram Content Group, and it provides digital and offset print services that help publishers sidestep the traditional supply chain, which is full of risk—risk that stock won’t arrive to a retailer in time to meet demand, risk that sell-in will be poor and that copies will sit in a warehouse, risk that sell-through will be poor and returns will have to be remaindered or pulped. Print-on-demand offers just-in-time delivery that not only eliminates this risk but also allows publishers to print in any market. Print-on-demand technology is well suited to Canadian publishing, which by definition is small-market publishing.

For editors, Clements said, opportunities lie in publishers’ and self-published authors’ desires to make reprint changes to their books. Since tweaks and adjustments are now so easy to implement—you need only wait until the next copy to be printed to see your changes made—editors will be called upon to manage and execute this process.

Anne Brennan—EAC Certification

Certification Steering Committee co-chair Anne Brennan spoke to the group about EAC’s certification program. The program was developed over the last two decades, Brennan explained, and is based on EAC’s Professional Editorial Standards. Candidates can write exams to become certified in proofreading, copy editing, stylistic editing, or structural editing—and if they pass all four, they earn the title of Certified Professional Editor. Brennan was quick to point out that not passing the certification tests doesn’t mean that you’re not a good editor, but becoming certified means that you’ve achieved the gold standard in editing.

The program’s advantages for freelancers are often touted: certification demonstrates an editor’s excellence to existing and potential clients, thus allowing that editor to gain confidence, bypass some requirements for certain contracts (e.g., some provincial government contracts allow certified editors to bid without submitting a portfolio), and maybe even raise his or her rates. But why should organizations and in-house editors care about certification? In-house editors who achieve certification are in a better position to ask for a raise or a promotion, Brennan noted, and if you’re looking for an editor, hiring someone who’s certified basically eliminates the need to test them. Opting for someone in the roster of certified editors means you’re hiring a professional who has proven that he or she can deliver excellent work. Organizations that encourage their employees to pursue certification are essentially publicly declaring their commitment to high editorial standards and clear, effective communication.

I added that I pursued certification while I was in house because I was responsible for giving editorial feedback to freelance and junior editors. Being certified gave me the confidence to go into those conversations confident and informed.

John Maxwell—Beyond Microsoft Word

Are we forever trapped in the clutches of Microsoft Word? John Maxwell explored some alternatives to the program in his talk, in which he argued that Word was really made for another time and isn’t well suited to the interactive editor–author relationship we can accommodate and have come to expect today. What are some of the other options out there?

Maxwell said right off the bat that he wouldn’t be talking about OpenOffice, which basically replicates the functionality of Microsoft Office and so isn’t an alternative to it at all. One class of true alternatives are word processors in the cloud, such as Google Docs or the ubiquitous Wysiwyg online editor on platforms like WordPress, although Maxwell did say that the next-generation HTML5 editors would likely overtake the latter very soon. Google Docs allows for collaborative authoring and editing—two people can simultaneously work on a document as long as they’re not making changes to the same paragraph—and you can see the revision history of a document, but it doesn’t really track the changes in a way that editors might want.

Another class of options includes simplified writing tools that allow you to focus on the words and not have to worry about document formatting; these include Scrivener and Editorially (in development). Part of this “back to the simple text editor” movement is the concept of markdown, a very lightweight markup language: gone are the intimidating tags that you see in XML; instead you use underscores to format text into italics, asterisks for boldface, etc.

For versioning and editorial workflow, Maxwell mentioned Git, a software tool that programmers use. It allows multiple people to edit a document at the same time and will flag editing conflicts when they arise. Although there’s a possibility it will creep into the mainstream, Maxwell thinks it will likely remain primarily a tool for the software development community. Other tools that allow versioning are wikis, which allow you to see a page’s revision history, and annotation tools that are used for peer review in scholarly publishing.

Finally, Maxwell gave us a demo of Poetica, which is being developed by a programmer and poet pair. Writers can upload or input plain text and ask for editorial input; an editor can then make suggestions, which appear as overlain editorial markup. The impressive demonstration elicited some oohs and aahs from the audience; as Maxwell later remarked to me, “You could feel the air pressure drop when everyone gasped.” He fielded several questions about what the software could and couldn’t do, and he suggested that people contact the developers for a chance play with it and send them comments about what kinds of features they’d like to see.

Iva Cheung—The Editorial Wiki: An indispensable communication and training tool

I’m glad I got to talk to the PubPro group about the remarkable usefulness of the editorial wiki that I built while I was editorial coordinator at D&M. I’ve covered all of the points in my talk in a previous post, so I won’t repeat them here, but I was so encouraged by the responsiveness of audience members to the idea. I hope some of them will decide to implement a wiki—or something like it—for their own organization, and I’m always available to consult on such a project if they go forward.

The sessions, each only forty minutes long, prompted incredibly interesting discussions that continued through the lunch break and at the afternoon’s networking tea, a completely unstructured session in which participants could grab a tea or coffee and keep the conversation going. We also invited pre-registered freelancers to join us for the tea, because we couldn’t pass up the opportunity to put editors and indexers in the same room as those who might be interested in hiring them.

We wrapped up the day with a brief closing session, where we gave away two books, Adrian Bullock’s Book Production, which went to Lara Smith, and International Paper’s Pocket Pal, which went to Anne Brennan.

All in all, PubPro was an eye-opening, inspiring day. (Check out the Storify that EAC-BC compiled.) A million thanks to our amazing crew of volunteers, without whom the day would not have gone nearly as smoothly: Maria Jose Balbontin, Megan Brand, Lara Kordic, Jesse Marchand, Dee Noble, Claire Preston, Michelle van der Merwe, and Grace Yaginuma. Thanks also to EAC-BC (especially professional development co-chairs Tina Robinson and Eva van Emden) and the Canadian Centre for Studies in Publishing (particularly Rowly Lorimer, Suzanne Norman, and John Maxwell), as well as our event sponsors—Friesens, Hemlock, Ingram, and West Coast Editorial Associates. I’m elated by the positive feedback I’ve received so far from participants. We may have to do something like this again!

PubPro 2013—Networking tea registration open

If you’re an editor, indexer, or designer and would like to meet a roomful of managing editors and publication production professionals who hire freelancers, join us for the networking tea portion of the PubPro 2013 unconference. Come for a coffee, tea, or light snack—as well as the opportunity to chat up and swap business cards with managing editors from across B.C.

  • When: Saturday, April 13, 2013, 2:45pm–3:35pm
  • Where: SFU Harbour Centre
  • How much: $5 for EAC members; $10 for non-members

Register now!

If you’re interested in the unconference itself, there’s still time. Registration closes April 5.

What does your markup say about you?

This interview also appears on The Editors’ Weekly, the Editors’ Association of Canada’s official blog.

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A friend of mine was venting to me about his old boss, who used to look over his reports. Whenever his boss found an error, he’d not only circle it but also emphasize his discovery with an exclamation point—a practice that drove my buddy nuts. Encoded within this tiny mark of punctuation was his micromanaging boss’s chiding disapproval: “HEY! THERE’S A MISTAKE RIGHT HERE! WHAT’S WRONG WITH YOU?”

I was relating this story to my good friend Naomi MacDougall, an award-winning designer, and she told me she once had to work with a proofreader whose markup she found “overly aggressive.” We both had a good laugh about that, but the conversation got me thinking: Whereas most of us have switched to editing on screen, a lot of us still proof on hard copy, and our markup is often the only communication we have with a designer, whom we may not know and may never meet. It’s a bit of a weird working relationship—more distant than others in the publication production chain. How can we be sure that our markup isn’t inadvertently pissing off the designer? I asked Naomi to sit down for an interview to talk about some of these issues.

IC: When you mentioned that a proofreader you’d worked with had “overly aggressive markup,” what did you mean by that? What did the proofreader do that rubbed you the wrong way?

NM: Mostly it was the use of all caps and lots of exclamation points at the end of every note. It made me feel as though I was being yelled at. The tone of the markup put me on the defensive.

IC: Are there other things proofreaders have done that you wish they wouldn’t do?

NM: There have been times when the markup hasn’t been clear, and obviously that’s tricky. It’s frustrating to have to sit there and puzzle over what a letter is. Also, occasionally, I feel like the markup has left too much for interpretation. Because we’re often going through these changes quickly, I don’t want to have to be deciphering code.

On the flip side, if something is very obvious in the markup—like if a letter is dropped or a word inserted into a sentence—then you don’t have to spell it out again by rewriting the sentence in the margin. But when there are lots of moving words and punctuation marks in a sentence, it’s really helpful if the proofreader rewrites the sentence in the margin.

I guess what I’m trying to say is that I’d like as much clarity as possible in markup. I’m intelligent, but I’m not a mind reader.

IC: When there’s a problem like a bad break or a widow, would you prefer that the proofreader just point out the problem so that you can find a solution, or would you rather the proofreader suggest a fix?

NM: That’s a good question. In most cases I would say just point out the problem, unless it’s obvious it’s going to be very tricky to fix—then it’s hugely appreciated when the proofreader suggests a fix, especially if it involves cutting or inserting words.

IC: What’s your preference when there are more extensive passages of text that need to be inserted? How long would an insert have to be before it’s better to send you new text in an email rather than writing it in the margin for you to rekey?

NM: I would say I’d want new text for anything longer than one sentence or two short sentences. There’s just more room for error when I have to type a bunch of text. And if you’re moving more than, say, four words around in a sentence, just rewrite the sentence and have me retype it. It takes less time than moving all those words around and making sure they’re all in the right place.

IC: I think you were telling me earlier that different proofreaders approach word substitutions differently. Some mark a word as deleted and then add a caret to show that a word in the margin should be inserted, whereas others just cross out the word in the proof and write its replacement in the margin, without the caret.

NM: Yes, I like the caret. I find it clearer.

IC: It’s a visual cue for the designer to look in the margin.

NM: Exactly. It takes out that second of guesswork.

IC: Which can really add up!

NM: Yes!

IC: Is there anything else proofreaders do that you really appreciate?

NM: I always appreciate a neat printer, and I always appreciate it when a proofreader uses a bright ink, like red or purple or anything that stands out against the type. Often I’m scanning a page quickly, and if the markup is in pencil or black or blue pen, I tend to miss more of the changes. They don’t jump off the page as easily, so I have to take more time to look at each page closely.

Also, I really appreciate it when the proofreader suggests a global change at the beginning of document if a word is misspelled throughout. It’s so much quicker for me to search and replace these in one go. But I also like it when these words are highlighted in the text so that I can double-check that the change was made and check for reflow, since, during a global change, there’s always the potential for a line to break differently.

IC: Do you ever return communication on the proofs? What kinds of things to you say to the proofreader?

NM: Not often, but if I do it’s almost always a note that a change can’t be made because of reflow issues—mostly to do with hyphenation. And occasionally I’ll make note of a design style that overrules a type change.

IC: We’ve focused on hard-copy markup so far. Any thoughts about proofreaders working on PDF?

NM: I know in some instances I’ve missed smaller fixes in PDFs, like a change to one letter or a punctuation change, because they’ll just show up as tiny, tiny marks, and they’re easy to miss even in the full list of changes. If you click on the markup and add a short comment to it, though, it pops up as a little box, so it jumps out.

PDFs are great for shorter publications; I can copy and paste the text right out of the markup boxes, so that makes my life easy! But for a big book, hard copy is preferable. Having to go back and forth between windows on the computer is the issue.

IC: How much does it annoy designers when we make a change on first proofs and reverse it on second?

NM: It’s not usually a big deal—unless it’s a complete change from Canadian to U.S. spelling throughout, say. If that ping-pongs, then it can get annoying—though I’m sure it is for everyone involved! In that case a note about global changes is hugely appreciated.

IC: What can a proofreader do to ensure that the relationship with the designer is as collegial and productive as it can be, given that it’s such a bizarre, arms-length interaction?

NM: If markup is done professionally, then the relationship will be smooth. Just be clear, be thorough, and print neatly… and no all-caps yelling!

IC: Yes! I think those are all of my questions. Do you have anything to add?

NM: Just that I appreciate how much work goes into a thorough proofread, and I don’t know how you all do it! Sometimes your hawk eyes blow my mind!

Book review: Book Production

More than any other role in publishing, production seems to be one in which people learn by doing. Whereas editors and designers have a wealth of  professional development courses and workshops at their disposal, those who shepherd publications through the production process don’t have as many options for structured learning. Some design courses touch on how to liaise with commercial printers, but most of the managing editors and production managers I know started off in either editorial or design and fell into the rather critical role of project management without specific project management training.

The lack of formal training hasn’t been particularly detrimental to those in production, who are generally tapped for those jobs because they’re already super organized and are adept at problem solving. What courses and workshops also offer beyond just their content, though, is a tribal culture, where you can learn from more experienced peers through an oral history of sorts. When that aspect is missing in your career, it can be pretty easy to feel isolated.

Enter Adrian Bullock, a publishing veteran who has written Book Production (published by Routledge), a lucid and comprehensive guide to everything from project management and prepress to printing, binding, and getting stock into the warehouse. Written in crystal clear, plain English, this book offers practical advice about how best to balance the needs of a book’s various stakeholders, recognizing that in the real world, the goal of publication production management is to reach an acceptable compromise between speed, quality, and cost. Eschewing the sentimentality that publishing-related books often carry—about the industry’s contributions to culture, the beauty of books as artifacts, etc.—Bullock’s book is grounded in the best practices of making the business of publishing viable:

The big difference between a publishing project and, say, building a school, is that publishing projects are usually carried out in a highly competitive, commercial environment, where there is an unremitting drive to produce new products and a premium on bringing them to market as speedily and cheaply as possible, working in the knowledge that someone else might get there before you, and produce a better or cheaper project into the bargain.

In this kind of environment time becomes speed, money becomes price, and quality can become relative. Skills, equipment and project logic are all co-ordinated to make the project move faster and cost less than one’s competitors can. (p. 7)

One of the book’s major strengths is the way in which it formalizes project management principles in a publishing context. Bullock emphasizes the need for a well-defined project management cycle that incorporates a clearly articulated plan, implementation, and also a post-mortem phase:

It is precisely because life in production can be so relentlessly hectic and busy, and there is a tendency to move without thinking from one project to another, that reflection plays such a vital part in project management, and why reflection should be formalized to become standard procedure at the end of a project, giving everyone involved a chance to discuss what they think went well, what didn’t go well and how things can be done better the next time. Reflections should take no longer than 20–30 minutes, especially if project team members know that it is standard, and come to the meeting prepared. (p. 76)

Bullock is clear about the many demands of a job in book production. Above all, however, a project manager must be a good communicator:

Communication is a vital tool in managing the project: its value cannot be overstated. Poor quality communication is one of the commonest causes of unsuccessful projects… (p. 21)

Communication starts with the project definition and continues right through to completion. The more that people directly, and indirectly, involved in the project know about it, the better. Telling people – in-house staff, suppliers and other stakeholders, what is expected and what is happening, helps to manage expectations and eliminates last-minute surprises. (p. 22)

A sound project definition notwithstanding, the number of variables in a project mean that something will likely go wrong somewhere. Adrian Bullock offers this level-headed advice:

It’s only when the problem has been solved and the project is moving forward again – and only then – that you can start to work out what went wrong, how it went wrong, whose fault it is, how to prevent it recurring, and the amount of compensation you could reasonably expect, if the supplier is at fault. Remember that the person whose fault it might be could well be the person most able to sort out the problem. (p. 73)

Whereas Book Production‘s first section deals with managing editorial and design, its second half looks at physical production. Bullock gives a fascinating overview of the raw materials that go into a book—how paper is made, what kinds of inks are used for printing and glue for binding, etc.—and offers tips about selecting an appropriate commercial printer. Throughout, he reminds readers to be mindful of environmental issues, from considering recycled paper options to keeping track of the number of book miles that stock has to travel.

With the increased awareness of environmental and green issues, you would want to know how green your printer is in terms of how it manages its impact on the environment. This could be through an accredited environmental management system (EMS), which has been certified to a recognized standard such as ISO 14001. Or it could be that the printer has reduced its emissions of volatile organic compounds (VOCs) from printing, uses recycled paper, is FSC (Forest Stewardship Council) certified and has policies for waste recycling and energy reduction. (p. 65)

Bullock mentions several other standards and certification programs that production managers should be aware of, many of which can help streamline workflow. For example, ISO 9001 certification means that a printer has excellent quality management systems in place, making it unnecessary, some publishers believe, to proof printer’s proofs; using the International Color Consortium colour management system can eliminate the need for colour correction; and

JDF [Job Definition Format] is an XML-based industry standard, which is being developed by the international consortium CIP4 (the International Co-operation for the Integration of Processes in Prepress, Press and Postpress Organization). According to the CIP4 website, JDF:

  • ‘is designed to streamline information exchange between different applications and systems
  • is intended to enable the entire industry, including media, design, graphic arts, on-demand and e-commerce companies, to implement and work with individual workflow solutions
  • will allow integration of heterogenous products from diverse vendors to create seamless workflow solutions.’ (p. 98)

This last example shows that although Book Production is focused mainly on traditional print books, it also gives up-to-date information about XML and other digital workflows, as well as print-on-demand and short-run printing technologies. This book is packed with case studies that show the reader what kinds of scenarios can arise in book production and how best to implement the ideas that Bullock has laid out in the text. Those new to book production will appreciate this book’s clarity and thoroughness. Seasoned production managers will find affirmation in having their practices validated and reinforced, and they may even learn about some recent developments that might make their jobs a lot easier.

***

Rather than give this book away at an upcoming EAC-BC meeting, as I’ve done with the other books I’ve reviewed, I’ll be offering my copy of Book Production as a door prize to participants of the upcoming PubPro 2013 professional development event. Register now!

PubPro 2013—February/March update

I just sent this note out to my PubPro 2013 mailing list, and I thought I’d post it here, too. Apologies to subscribers who are getting this twice.

Registration for PubPro 2013 is now open!

You can register here.

Thanks to our generous sponsors—FriesensHemlockIngram, and the West Coast Editorial Associates—we’re able to book an additional room for sessions, rent projection equipment for all rooms, feed our volunteers lunch, and drop our event fees. Register soon to take advantage of the early-bird rates: $40 for EAC members and $50 for non-members. After March 22, 2013, rates increase to $55 for members and $65 for non-members. Fees include lunch.

Please help us out by spreading the word to your colleagues and associates. We want to get as many managing editors and production specialists—and anyone who plays those roles, whatever their titles—out to this event as possible. (The event’s official hashtag is #PubPro2013.)

Win books!

When you check in at PubPro 2013, be sure to enter your business card into our draw. At the closing session, we’ll be giving away Adrian Bullock’s Book Production, just published in 2012, and the latest edition of International Paper’s Pocket Pal.

Switching gears

This message will be the last I send out to this mailing list. (My previous PubPro email updates, including information about presenting or leading discussions at the event, are archived here, and general information can be found on our main event page.) If you register, you’ll receive further correspondence about the event from EAC-BC’s professional development team, including details about how to get there and what you might want to bring with you. That said, if you have any questions, comments, or concerns about PubPro 2013, please don’t hesitate to email me.

I hope to see you on April 13!

PubPro 2013—January update

I just sent this note out to my PubPro 2013 mailing list, and I thought I’d post it here, too. Apologies to subscribers who are getting this twice.

I hope you’ve all had a good start to 2013. Some exciting developments on the PubPro front: Ingram and Friesens have come forward as event sponsors, meaning we’ll get to feed our volunteers lunch and book an additional room for sessions. We’re on the constant lookout for more help, though, so if you have any ideas for sponsors we could approach, please let me know. The more we can get on board, the lower your event fees will be.

With our unconference less than three months away, I thought I’d devote this month’s update to FAQs about presenting.

Do I have to present?

Nope—only if you want to.

All right, I want to. Should I give a presentation or lead a discussion?

Presentations are better suited to disseminating expert knowledge…

Say you’ve developed a great system for archiving all of your royalty-free images. By allowing all of your designers to search the database, you’ve cut down on duplicate payments for identical images and have been able to use the same image for multiple projects, saving an estimated $2,000 a year. You want to tell others how you created the system and give a demo of how it works.

… whereas discussion groups are better for ascertaining how others approach a particular problem that you face.

You’re thinking of creating a proofreading test for new freelancers, but you’re not sure if it’s worth it or how to write or administer such a test. You want to see whether and how others test their freelancers and what they’ve learned from their experiences.

That said, the sessions can take on any format and be as interactive as you wish. Maybe you want to give a brief presentation to set the tone and offer context but then open it up to a discussion. Go for it—there are no rules.

What about the time limit?

Okay, there is one rule. We’d like to accommodate all speakers and keep the event on schedule, so please stick to the forty-minute time limit, including Q&A. Each room will have a volunteer time keeper who will give the speaker a five-minute warning and a one-minute warning.

Do I have to make slides if I’m giving a presentation?

Nope—only if you think they’ll help. If you do make slides, bring them on a USB flash drive. They should be in PDF or PowerPoint format. Keep a backup somewhere in your email or in the cloud.

What happens on the day of?

Arrive early and give a one-minute pitch of your presentation or discussion to the crowd at the opening session. Based on how participants respond, we’ll add your topic to the schedule. Once the schedule is set, participants can attend any sessions they choose.

What’s with this whole voting thing? I don’t want to spend time putting together a presentation if I’m not going to be able to give it.

We’ll have plenty of slots to accommodate presentations; voting is mainly for room assignments, since the rooms that we’ve reserved accommodate different numbers of people.

One issue we may run into is that multiple people may wish to present about the same thing. In that case, it’s up to you to decide whether you’d like to go ahead with your presentation. It’s not necessarily a bad thing to have several sessions on the same topic, because it gives participants an alternative if they want to attend a different session at the same time as one of them.

Note, however, that if several people pitch the same discussion topic, we may consolidate those into a single session.

What if there are two sessions I want to attend at the same time?

Shortly after the event we’ll be asking all presenters to send us their notes and slides. We’ll package them up in a folder and share that with all event participants. It may not be the same as being there for the actual session, but it’s the next best thing.

Will there be WiFi?

Yes! So it’ll be possible to demonstrate online tools, live-tweet tips you’ve picked up, etc.

***

That’s it from me for now. If you have any further questions about presenting or about the event in general, please don’t hesitate to get in touch. You can find more information about PubPro 2013 on our main event page.