Monday, June 18, 2007

Are Publishers Making Themselves Useless?

No matter how nicely I try to format my camera-ready papers, occasionally I will get an email like this from the publisher:
  1. On page 2, top of column 1, you have a widow (last line of a paragraph at the top of a column), this is a bad break, please tighten the previous column or force a line over to eliminate this bad break.
  2. On page 2, bottom of column 1, there is an orphan, please tighten the previous material or force the head over to the next column. (The use of \vfill\eject placed before the head commmand will force text to the next page or column).
  3. Please make the body of the references section flush left/ragged right (not justified). This will eliminate letter and word spacing of references with urls (web addresses).
  4. On the last page, please use \vfill\eject before reference 19 to move more over to column two (2) and produce a more balanced last page. (This command is great for forcing material over to the next page.) Be sure that you have run bibtex, then cut and paste the references from your bbl file into your tex file.
I cannot understand why the author has to deal with all these typesetting issues, if there is publisher involved in the process. Isn't typesetting something that the publisher does? Given that I have submitted my LaTeX sources and all the necessary files needed to compile the paper, it is trivially easy to fix all these issues.

In the pre-digital age, a publisher would assign an editor to each accepted paper who would read the manuscript, fix grammatical and syntactic errors, typeset the article, and prepare a nice, readable version from the manuscript, which was either written by hand or typed in a typewriter. Today it seems that publishers want to push all the typesetting work to the authors, minimizing as much as possible the cost of production. Makes sense (economically).

However, as publishers push more and more of their responsibilities to the authors, they increasingly make themselves irrelevant. There is no reason to pay a publisher to prepare proceedings or even journals when the publisher does not even want to take care of the most esoteric publishing-related issues. In fact, there is no reason for a publisher to exist at all. What is the added value that a publisher offers? Open access and the web made already a significant part of the publisher's role obsolete; if publishers voluntarily make typesetting the task of their suppliers (authors), then they voluntarily make themselves a useless part of the workflow, ripe to be dropped completely in the near future.