Fresh: rant

XIV.3 May + June 2007
Page: 5
Digital Citation

Policies and practices

Jonathan Grudin

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A long time ago, before the Internet or at least before the Web, when you heard about an interesting book, how could you order a copy? It helped to know who the publisher was, but you still had to make contact. If you knew where the publisher was located, a free call to directory assistance would do it. A policy was born: References must include the publisher and city of publication.

Today, I usually bypass the publisher and go straight to Amazon or another online source. Publishers, if needed, are found on the Web. City listings are no help—the few publishers not absorbed through mergers and acquisitions seem to regularly shift addresses.

Practices changed, but policies haven't.

I'm currently reviewing the copyedited PDF proofs of a book chapter. The editor asked me to respond to exactly 100 "author queries." Many are requests to identify the city for a publisher of a journal or book. Few of the books are at hand. True, for most I can avoid a library visit by searching online to see what cities other authors listed. (When they disagree, as often they do, let the majority rule.) But it takes time to gather this information that no one will ever use. It is a ritual in service of an obsolete policy, wasting the time of copy editors and authors, wasting paper and ink.

Many of the other author queries ask for the page on which a quotation occurred. This, too, is a waste of time and ink for an article (or book) available online—in digital libraries, authors' Web pages, or elsewhere electronically. For example, the online versions of Vannevar Bush's 1945 essay "As We May Think," including one put there by its publisher, Atlantic, do not preserve the page numbering. Finding the page on which a quotation appeared is impossible online, and useless as well. To zoom in on a quotation, searching for a text string is faster.

Over the past several years, facing such requests, I have raised this issue with editors and publishers. After they get over their surprise that someone would challenge a policy steeped in tradition, many agree that it is pointless, but decide not to be the first to break with tradition. The result: countless hours diverted from useful endeavors.

Conflict between tradition and technology-driven transcendence, between policy and practice, will be a defining issue in the next decade. Structural supports for tradition are eroding wherever you look. Digital technology suffuses society with miniaturization and cost reductions, pushing it into every pore and joint. Generation Y, sporting skills in multimedia authoring, searching and browsing, and organizing virtual teams in multiplayer games, will transcend past practices like nothing ever seen.

Historically, exceptions to policies were often quietly adopted on behalf of efficiency or tolerated to promote social cohesion. Technology brings discrepancies between policy and practice into view and keeps them there. Benign neglect yields to noisy negotiation. Conversations between congressman and page could be overlooked—IM messages could not. With technology all violations of automobile speed laws can be detected; now selective enforcement becomes trickier to justify. When should we force practice to conform to tradition, policy, or regulations? When should we adjust policy to include exceptions that were tolerated because they were largely invisible, but no longer are?

Greater tests are coming into view: technology that is powerful enough and integrated fully enough into our lives to enforce adherence to policy. In the past, my provision of publisher address or quotation location was ultimately a negotiation between myself and an editor. We can now provide tools enabling a faraway publisher to detect where an editor allowed me to violate such rules, and insist that policies be followed. With such power it is imperative to reconsider the policies. A trivial example, perhaps, but less trivial instances will appear soon in a venue near you.

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Jonathan Grudin
Microsoft Research

About the author

Jonathan Grudin is a senior researcher in the Adaptive Systems and Interaction group at Microsoft Research. His Web page is

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©2007 ACM  1072-5220/07/0500  $5.00

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