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I know that the term "camera-ready manuscript" is usually used to indicate a final version of the manuscript that will go to press. But what does the term actually mean and why is it used instead of some other more descriptive term?

Specifically, the term seems strange because in my opinion publishing has no connection to photography, at least in the modern age of digital publishing. Where does the term "camera-ready" come from?

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From the Wikipedia article entitled "Camera-ready":

The term camera-ready was first used in the photo offset printing process, where the final layout of a document was attached to a "mechanical" or "paste up". Then, a stat camera was used to photograph the mechanical, and the final offset printing plates were created from the camera's negative.

In this system, a final paste-up that needed no further changes or additions was ready to be photographed by the process camera and subsequently printed. This final document was camera-ready.

In recent years, the use of paste-ups has been steadily replaced by desktop publishing software, which allows users to create entire document layouts on the computer. In the meantime, many printers now use technology to take these digital files and create printing plates from them without use of a camera and negative. Despite this, the term camera-ready continues to be used to signify that a document is ready to be made into a printing plate.

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    Just like the Save icon is still a diskette, or we still videotape things, or various other now-archaic language usages that will go on forever... – Jon Custer Jul 6 '17 at 15:42
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    It's actually used even when no printing actually occurs. Many conferences have only online proceedings. – Fred Douglis Jul 6 '17 at 15:45
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    Side note: the institution I got a PhD from still archives all masters and doctoral dissertations on microfilm - I believe this is still somewhat common though I may be mistaken. So, although the term may be outdated in some publishing contexts, its meaning is not entirely archaic within academia. – Bryan Krause Jul 6 '17 at 21:27
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    There’s a million of these about telephones... how many phones have dials to enter numbers with, bells to ring when they receive a call, or wall mounted mechanisms to hang the phone on when you’re done? – Stella Biderman Feb 26 '18 at 17:20
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    @Stella Biderman: My landline (have no cell phone) is wall mounted, rings, and is attached to the kitchen wall with a 3-4 foot cord. However, just a few weeks ago I purchased a hand-held portable version (using same landline, but a different outlet) to use when I need to talk to someone while at my computer. Until a few months ago I didn't need anything else, but lately I've had to do contract work at home (was laid off in September 2017), and for that reason I need something I can talk on without being restricted to the kitchen. – Dave L Renfro Feb 26 '18 at 18:27
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Technology academics in particular tend to use it to refer to the 'post-print' version of the article (i.e. the accepted manuscript after peer review changes). But frankly, that is a misnomer; because in terms of the publication process, the term 'camera ready' doesn't relate to the peer review process. It is a technical term meaning 'ready-to-print', rather than a publishing term.

Having said that, in practice, the term 'camera ready' refers to a process of getting ready to print the publisher's proofs - which is a post-peer review stage (in between the post-print and the version of record). So in other words, if the academic has identified the document as 'camera ready' rather than 'post-print', then so long as the document doesn't have publisher's copyright on it then it can be treated as the post-print (if they haven't identified it as such).

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