Editing the Evidence with Electronic Publishing

By Meadow, Charles T. | Yearbook of English Studies, Annual 1999 | Go to article overview

Editing the Evidence with Electronic Publishing


Meadow, Charles T., Yearbook of English Studies


There is considerable discussion today about the role of editors and editing in the context of electronic publication. Much of it includes suggestions that publishers, hence also their editors, simply be bypassed in favour of author self-publishing by means of the Internet. What often happens is that discussions concentrate on issues of speed of distribution, economics, and copyright. The purpose of this paper is, first, to discuss the varying roles of the publisher/editor and library/archive in the new world in which publishing becomes increasingly dominated by electronics and, secondly, to consider implications for our ability to rely on the content of the printed record.

I am not an ardent, dogmatic digiphile, to coin a new word. I see many advantages in electronic publishing and some disadvantages. I am also a lover of traditional books, but one who believes that (my own preferences quite aside) the world will move inexorably towards electronic publishing and that at some future date (far in the future, I may add) virtually all publishing will be in electronic form.

Editing is a word with many meanings, ranging from minor modification of a manuscript to almost any activity of a publisher, including selecting works to be published, advising authors on content, modifying content, or managing the production process. Selection includes refereeing, which is only one step removed from critical reviewing, and this distinction could fade in time. While libraries and archives are not normally involved in editing, their role in preserving the record of a culture affects the activities of authors and publishers, for both of whom preservation and continuing distribution are important. Editing can, and at times does, determine the content of a text, quite independently of what authors may do.

Maintaining records is most commonly done by libraries and archives. The difference between these institutions is not clear-cut. Libraries are usually created to serve the needs of a group of users, which group may require complete coverage of various subjects or disciplines. An archive, in the sense used here, is a collection of documents or records about a person or organization. The emphasis is on completeness of coverage. Libraries do not always undertake complete coverage of all that comes from a publisher, institution, or person, and there is not necessarily an archive for every document-producing institution.

In this paper, I consider some aspects of the print world which seem most threatened or open to improvement, depending on one's point of view. Then I go on to the promise of electronic publishing, what has to be done to enable the change-over, and finally, what is actually likely to happen. The print world I will discuss is mostly that of books and scholarly journals, with a few excursions to other forms.

The magnitude of changes in the publishing process and its products, some already realized and some yet to come, calls for major changes in editing and in the expectations of authors and readers. We need what Kuhn called a change of paradigm and I believe we will have one whether we consciously choose it or simply let it happen.[1]

As all readers of a publication such as this know well, the conventional process of publishing a book or journal typically involves an author's first creating a text then persuading a publisher to accept and publish it. Sometimes, the persuading goes the other way and I suppose the most successful publishers always make it look as if the author were doing the soliciting. It is important, though, to realize that acquisition, the process of finding and selecting works to be published, is a critical part of the publisher's role. When there is no filtering or selection process, there is likely to be relatively little editing. The selected works subsequently offered to the public become the basis upon which the publisher and its future output are judged. …

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