Dec 27

Andy Oram

Andy Oram

So when will the job of a technical editor be abolished?

The following fanciful predict-let was penned in 1966: is said that the job of a technical editor may one day be abolished altogether: in an era in which consoles may soon be found in every bedroom, technical journals and their editors may be replaced by a system of universal, personalized dissemination of information...

I'm sure that upon reading this, your head snapped back in admiration for the writer who anticipated the rich cultural plasma of commentary and information sharing that is just beginning to coalesce now, forty years later. I find several pearls of wisdom in this passage by Gerard Salton, written as he took the prestigious post of Editor-In-Chief of Communications of the ACM in January 1966. (The passage was quoted in the January 2008 issue as part of their 50th Anniversary celebration.

The depth of Salton's thinking in this passage becomes clearer as one considers that the made his life-long career in the field of information retrieval. He is best known for a 1960's project called SMART, which Wikipedia claims stands for "Salton’s Magic Automatic Retriever of Text," but which a 2005 paper by Eric Thul said means either "System for Mechanical Analysis and Retrieval" or "Salton’s Magic Automatic Retrieval Technique." SMART laid in place the practices that are still the basis of today's search systems:

  1. Semantic classification and indexing of words
  2. Counting and weighing words, with an awareness of special elements such as titles and abstracts
  3. Finding commonality between documents and search terms through vector algebra, enhancing the relevancy of results by assigning a higher importance to rare terms (perhaps SMART's most important contribution to improving searches)

Later in his career, in the 1990s, Salton worked on the automated creation of hypertext from separate documents.

The reason I take off on this tangent about Salton's cosines is that peer-generated content and good search systems go hand in hand. One cannot expect "technical journals and their editors [to] be replaced" unless readers can trace their way through the oceans of content on their own. Because the importance of findability came clear to me in my own research on community documentation, I recently created a survey on searching to answer several questions related to technical information.

So how do we interpret Salton's teasing speculation? We have to be very careful about reading our own understanding of peer development and review in 2007 back into Salton's words.

First, it's not clear whether he was deprecating the roles of editor as gatekeeper and quality manager, or the existence of journals. His passage goes on to say "some form of printed record of technical material is likely to remain with us for a long time to come," which is still the widespread opinion today in the age of's Kindle. I'm sure the current CACM editor put Salton's passage in the 50th Anniversary issue with unshaken confidence in her own job stability.

In addition to questions concerning the continued existence of technical journals (whether in print or online), we now have to consider two strands of development fanning out from Salton's visionary prediction: the role of journals and editors as gate-keepers, and the role of journals and editors as quality managers. I distinguished gate-keeping from quality control at the end of my recent Radar articles on reputation.

I believe that quality control was on Salton's mind as he wrote his prediction, conscious of the heavy burden placed on him to ensure the accuracy of the content he allowed to appear in the computing field's leading publication. This is why the passage I quoted about being replaced went on to say, "editors will, I suspect, be the first to welcome such a development."

Perhaps Salton, at the very start of his new position, looked forward to returning to his research and throwing off the frustrations of playing midwife to other researchers in their scribblings. More likely, he assumed that a technical editor would always be required, but that the difficult and risky parts of the job that concerned technical accuracy would be offloaded to peer reviewers, as in today's Wikipedia.

In no sense, I'm sure, did Salton imagine the logorrhea of the modern blogosphere, with people waking up in the morning and spilling their thoughts like an overturned latte on their keyboards, not to mention the phenomenon of rakes such as Matt Drudge being taken as news sources. Salton lived in a world of trained researchers reporting only on things they knew well and checking their results using well-established quality measures (unless I'm idealizing the research environment of the 1960s).

Although many computer jobs today require a lot more academic training and formal certification than they did in 1966, we also have gold mines of amateur and open source development, and there are positive aspects to this. The same goes for information production. Does this mean we're ready for the job of a technical editor to be abolished?

Anyone who feasts regularly on both blogs (which spice their finger foods with the most idiosyncratic concoctions) and Wikipedia (which boils its field-gathered ingredients down to a uniform flavor) can recognize that there is still room for something that stands part-way between the two. I love the spontaneous inspirations of bloggers as well as the rich factual bases provided by wikis, but I also want carefully argued and well-paced exposition of one point of view by one qualified author. Few authors can carry this off without editorial help, as you can demonstrate by checking self-published books.

Editorial help, yes. But by a trained editor? What's lacking when commentators and reviewers refine an author's insight through online collaboration?

I find that few commentators and reviewers take up the author's mission with the same concern that the author feels herself. They come up with inspired insights concerning one point or another made in her article, and can adjust individual passages to heighten their impact. But the good can be the enemy of the perfect. What the author needs is someone to stand back and ask tough questions about the various emphases placed on all the different parts of the paper, and their interaction:

  • What assumptions does the author make, and can justly make, about the reader?
  • What change is the author trying to effect in the reader's point of view, phrase by phrase and paragraph by paragraph?
  • Is each argument being made not only in the manner most likely to impress the reader, but in the location where the argument can redirect the reader's vector of thinking along the greatest possible angle?
  • Do the arguments form not only a forceful sequence, but a scaffold in which fundamental arguments underpin the most sophisticated ones, in the tradition of the best classical rhetoric?

These questions are the province of the editor. Any field that appreciates clarity and precision will benefit from professional editing. But if it can be rewarded and disseminated only in the same media where it has traditionally found a home--whether ACM journals or O'Reilly books--that's where editors will work. If the new media can find ways to integrate professional editing into their content, these media will improve their reach and relevance.

Maybe the next generation of Saltons will create search engines that vector-multiply the editorial quality of documents into the relevancy rankings of search results.

tags: publishing  | comments: 1   | Sphere It

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Comments: 1

  Kevin Farnham [01.15.08 10:52 PM]

A really interesting post, Andy. I started my career as a technical editor, then moved into programming, then started adding in technical editing and technical writing and blogging recently. An editor is a first reader, the first objective reader.

The freedom of the Web encourages editor-less publishing -- which, in my view, means we have a much higher level of online noise, that is detrimental in that it works to obscure the signal content that is genuinely meaningful. If the signal-to-noise ratio drops precipitously, then communication suffers.

Thanks for analyzing the history behind this quote and writing this thought-provoking post!

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