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Revised. I was thinking about the way I write research papers, it involves a lot of revising to even get a "first draft," and subsequently I do a lot of revising also. Presumably this is fairly common nowadays, as computers have made revising papers easy.

However, in days of yore, before TeX/word processing, these revisions were not so easy, so I wonder:

Has TeX/word processing qualitatively changed the way we write papers? Specifically: (i) did people do less significantly less revising (or make fewer passes) before computers? (ii) did people have different approaches to writing first drafts?

My understanding is that, in the past, faculty typically had assistants/secretaries to type up hand-written notes, and sometimes special symbols/figures would be drawn in by hand (by faculty? or assistant?). Then I presume the faculty would go through and edit by hand, and necessary parts would be retyped. Possibly there would be another pass of this, but I can't imagine that many more revised typings were made. Did this mean less revising was done?

If so, did this force people to plan out their first drafts at the handwritten stages differently than now? At least for me, I usually have a basic outline in mind and then just start writing and go back to revise earlier parts while writing later parts (apart from the intro, which is sometimes written last). However, I guess this style is not so practical when writing by hand?

(Originally, my question was if word processing has changed the quality of papers, but that was deemed too opinion-based. Hopefully, this is something people can answer semi-objectively from their first or second hand experience.)

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closed as primarily opinion-based by Fomite, scaaahu, JeffE, ff524 Jul 19 '14 at 19:29

Many good questions generate some degree of opinion based on expert experience, but answers to this question will tend to be almost entirely based on opinions, rather than facts, references, or specific expertise. If this question can be reworded to fit the rules in the help center, please edit the question.

I'm not sure this qualifies as "good subjective" (per the help center definition) –  ff524 Jul 18 '14 at 17:01
This question is difficult to answer, since there were many changes in academic publishing beyond the typesetting. Arguably the most significant is that academia is much larger these days and more easily accessible. –  Dmitry Savostyanov Jul 18 '14 at 17:19
I don't know about research papers, but people definitely write better plays these days. Have you seen Shakespeare's spelling? –  Mark Meckes Jul 18 '14 at 18:20
I think the effect of word processing, if there is any, is going to be minuscule in comparison with the other factors affecting the 'quality' of the published papers. (As a side note, some academics have such a poor knowledge of how to use these softwares that they would almost be better off using a typewriter). –  Cape Code Jul 18 '14 at 18:24
@ff524: I'm not sure if it's a "good" subjective question either, but it's something I thought people with a better sense of the history of their field than me might have an insightful opinion on. Wow, that sentence turned out horribly. Maybe I should've planned it out first before writing it. Or revised it. –  Kimball Jul 19 '14 at 0:00

1 Answer 1

This question is really impossible to answer since it is impossible to compare new and old articles due to a lack of a fixed standard over time. Now in this case I think of now and then being a span of, say fifty years. The shorter the time span the more difficult any differences will be to identify.

First, the way articles are formulated has changed and the standards are in constant but slow change. Articles started out as letters (late 18th/early 19th century; usually directed to a person in a learned society) being publicly read to the society. These were very personal. Later, the more formalized writing started taking shape (late 19th/early 20th century). Second, the pressure to publish differs, which means articles are pushed through as quick as possible. We have gone from a situation where a paper every now and then has been replaced by n publications/yr rates to be acceptable (varies between disciplines). This can reduce the amount of time to be spent on each paper, on the other hand one can argue that one becomes more experienced. Third, the research community is growing larger and larger and although this is not directly affecting quality it means competition for resources and a necessity to write more and quicker. This will also feed back into the second point. As I see it it is not clear that we are going in any particular direction and part of the reason is that our reference as to what is good is also shifting.

So even if one considers the introduction of computers, it is difficult to assess changes because the reference with which to compare does not exist. In the same way it will be difficult to compare scientific research of the 18th or 19th century with research done today and state that modern research is somehow better by comparison. For a very good discussion on this topic I suggest reading Thomas Kuhn's The Structure of Scientifc Revolutions, The University of Chicago Press.

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Perhaps it's hopeless, but that doesn't mean I can't still hope for an interesting answer, does it? Still, even if people have no impressions of "word processing" (which I guess started around the '80s with TeX released in '78) making a difference in quality of writing, maybe that's an indication that there isn't much noticeable difference, and I can write my papers any way I please (which I do, of course). –  Kimball Jul 19 '14 at 0:10
Prior to slightly-modern typewriters such as IBM's "Selectric" and some proto-computerized typewriters, mostly too expensive for individuals to buy, staff typists did not "add value" much (except for faculty who could not type), and the revise-and-retype cycle was burdensome. Thus, up into the late 1970s, people typed all the Roman characters, moved rollers up and down, and drew in non-Roman characters by hand. During the Selectric Period and especially proto-word-processors that could treat non-Roman characters, typists did add value, because they'd have those machines... –  paul garrett Jul 20 '14 at 21:38
... with the advent of widely-available desktop computing either provided by math depts, or, eventually, cheap enough for individuals, again staff typists no longer added much value, and the possibility of revising-without-retyping changed everything. I note that pre-word-processing, seniority determined access to and priority with the limited staff typists, and wait-times for typing or retyping could be weeks. And as recently as 2005 I observed a senior colleague giving dictation to one of the few staff who could take shorthand, to ... –  paul garrett Jul 20 '14 at 21:40
... type up a letter, and the person giving the dictation would make the now-almost-forgotten editorial marks on the typed copy, send it back for retyping. There was/is "status" in giving dictation or having typing done by others? :) But, yes, in summary, the cost of revising was huge, and I think peoples' expectations were lower. Formatting was not possible either, except at publishers' houses. They'd re-typeset everything, so any visual effects an author came up with were a waste of time. Perhaps the ugliness of mathematics manuscripts in those days (as in ... –  paul garrett Jul 20 '14 at 21:43
... early SLN's) reinforced the quasi-Platonic mythology about the mathematics itself, since it sure didn't look so beautiful when clumsily drawn in by hand on the page! –  paul garrett Jul 20 '14 at 21:44

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