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Attention to detail


“Your great attention to detail is both a blessing and a curse”  – Chinese proverb

This message, found in a fortune cookie, inspired the folks at Oxford University Press (the Pencil and question markpublishers of the AMA Manual of Style, used by ANS), to start a blog!  The blog is the AMA Style Insider, and I highly recommend it – even for those who are not blessed with great attention to detail!  It is free of charge and anyone can visit the blog — I recommend that you subscribe to stay informed of many important issues facing writers, editors and publishers.  As they note in the announcement that circulated about the new blog, even though the AMA Manual of Style is over 1000 pages long, there are endless issues and questions that come up for writers every day.  And, the issues they address are not limited to any one approach to “style” – in fact they refer to other style manuals and traditions besides their own.

So far there are only a handful of posts on the blog, but every one of them is interesting!  They deal with topics ranging from recent FAQ’s from users of the AMA Manual of Style, to word usage (heathy vs healthful for example), placement of an apostrophe, the dangers of duplicate e-publication, and much more!  And, the information addresses not just the “facts” of how to handle problems of style, spelling, grammar, usage, and so forth, but the issues surrounding the problems and various points of view about how to deal with the issue in your own work.

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  1. Taking the “curse” side of this for a moment, I often reflect on the impact of barriers to knowledge production and sharing, that accompany the explosive growth in ways to do both. It is one of the reasons I prefer list-servers and blogs over journals and books. My original critique of Emily Rosa’s Journal of the American Medical Association paper on Therapeutic Touch appeared online, on the Martha E Rogers listserver, the day after the article was published in JAMA, in 1998. It took more than 5 years, and far more revisions than it was worth making, as an author, before essentially the same critique appeared in print in 2003.

    Print journals and books, along with their peer review processes, are relatively conservative approaches to judging and disseminating knowledge. They have the distinct advantage of implementing rigorous standards and the distinct disadvantage that they inhibit and delay contrarian and poorly presented views.

    I have in mind two examples of things that illustrate both extremes. Either example might, today, have resulted in ideas that either would have never seen the light of day, or which might have shared the light of day with so many other contributions that they would have hardly been noticed, or which might have never seen the light of day to the betterment of the author. One is an example of something of inordinate value that might have been lost. The other is an example of something the author wished would have been lost.

    John Forbes Nash’s dissertation (http://www.princeton.edu/mudd/news/faq/topics/Non-Cooperative_Games_Nash.pdf) challenged some of the most fundamental premises of extant economic theory and the mathematical theory of games. It might easily have been cast off today as the work of a fringe heretic or relegated to a low tier journal specializing in publishing heretical views.

    It was accepted, and was instrumental in Nash’s winning his Nobel Prize, in large measure because the people who reviewed it, who voted on its merit, addressed its content rather than its form, or Nash as the author.

    Had Nash had to meet the rigors of modern day publishing, as an article author, the submitted article may not have made it successfully through the review process. Instead, a reviewer might have noted minor grammatical issues, improperly formatted references, or the reviewer may have questioned Nash’s assumptions because they were inconsistent with prevailing dogma. The reviewer might have rejected the article outright, or perhaps suggested that Nash revise it, or try to publish it elsewhere. The reviewer might even have been good enough to suggest several “lower tier journals that publish that sort of stuff.”

    Nash might never have revised it. He might never have submitted it to another journal. In Nash’s case, “attention to detail” might have posed a formidable barrier to knowledge production and dissemination.

    On the plus side, before Einstein published his theory of Special Relativity (http://www.physik.uni-augsburg.de/annalen/history/einstein-papers/1905_17_891-921.pdf) his first two papers presented flawed theories of intermolecular forces (http://www.physik.uni-augsburg.de/annalen/history/einstein-papers/1901_4_513-523.pdf and http://www.physik.uni-augsburg.de/annalen/history/einstein-papers/1902_8_798-814.pdf). Those papers exemplify the distinct advantages that can accrue as a result of “attention to detail” though in the instances of those papers, did not.

    Einstein might have been saved some amount of embarrassment had the editorial staff been able to identify the theoretical flaws in those papers rather than perhaps, assuming that the content was probably substantially correct, because the articles were well formatted.

    Somewhere, there is a very delicate balance between the conservative advantage that rigorous attention to detail provides, through such conventions as the AMA Manual of Style, or the Publication Manual of the American Psychological Association, and the barriers “attention to detail” present to “non-adept” authors.

    In our current realm of academic and professional publishing, particularly when an author’s work spans several disciplines, each author must master many different style manuals just to submit articles in relevant publications. Each style manual likely lies well outside the author’s areas of expertise.

    In all likelihood we probably get, in the aggregate, in our hundreds, if not thousands, of journals, exactly what we ought to expect from such a ponderous system: A preponderance of articles and books with fairly limited substance and exquisite attention to detailed formatting requirements and a limited number of articles that result from deep thought and significant lapses in attention to formatting detail.

    Perhaps it is time for a universal, 20 page (preferably much shorter) manual of style that even the most severely syntactically and semantically challenged authors can master in less than a day of relative inattention to detail. Perhaps a manual with no table of contents, no footnotes, no cross-references, no complicated formulas, no more than 3 levels of headings, a minimum of a size 14 font, with 1 1/2 inch borders, and it would be very, very helpful if the content was targeted at a 6th – 8th grade reading level so as not to stress the authors’ skills.

    That, I think, would be a manual of style that aspiring authors around the world might embrace.

    🙂

    April 30, 2011

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