One of the most despised characters in movies is Jar-Jar Binks, who appeared in the so-called prequels delivered as films 1/4, 2/5, and 3/6 in the Star Wars franchise. Binks dominated the disappointing first movie, “The Phantom Menace.”
That movie had other problems — poor pacing, a boring premise, weird new mythology (midi-chlorians), a wooden child actor, and a director who was clearly indulging himself and infantalizing his audience.
All of these problems may have been eliminated if there had been a strong editor in charge, as there was during the first three Star Wars movies. That editor was George Lucas’ wife at the time. She won an Oscar for her editing of the first (fourth, for you revisionists out there) film. The couple divorced after the completion of “The Return of the Jedi.”
This speculation is underscored by viewing a version of “The Phantom Menace” known as “The Phantom Edit,” where an unknown Hollywood filmmaker made a new cut of the movie, seamlessly eliminating long sections of fluff, ultimately issuing it through back-channels. “The Phantom Edit” is a tight, exciting, engaging movie, and a strong contribution to the Star Wars universe. If “The Phantom Menace” had been released theatrically in this edited form, audiences would not have been disenchanted and disappointed. In fact, they would have been thrilled.
Lucas’ lack of constraints showed up years before, as he issued versions of the original movies containing new digital creatures and enhanced explosions, particularly of the Death Star. Gone was the explosion in the original, with a unique violence and impact generated purely by physical effects. Instead, a less visceral and more elegant digital explosion took its place, cheapening the impact by upgrading the aesthetic, complete with a lovely ring of debris jettisoning out.
We are currently experiencing the same problem with “The Hobbit,” which is one book stretched to three movies, as opposed to its predecessor, “The Lord of the Rings,” which condensed three large books into three large films, and even then left a great deal of good material (“Mouth of Sauron” anyone?) on the cutting room floor. Without editorial controls, artists with power can drift into the self-indulgent.
We now face a lack of constraints in publishing. Once upon a time, printing provided a natural constraint, as editors met to see what merited the space they had available. Now, with no obvious boundaries, we have new possibilities emerging in response — mega-journals, cascading titles, data supplements, and more papers in existing journals, many of these published online-only.
But is this response good? Are we eliminating constraints thoughtfully?
Some claim that selectivity through scarcity became a cultural norm. Others believe the cultural norm exists, and scarcity merely became mistaken for it. In either case, the cultural norm was intermingled with physical constraints. With those constraints vanishing or gone, we’re forced to consider our cultural norms anew.
Are we willing to think again about replacing physical limitations with new constraints, like policies, page budgets, article budgets, or other limits that have nothing to do with the technologies of production but rather are informed by our desire for selectivity and our readers’ needs for relevance and quality?
Some artists in other media are embracing constraints because constraints create better experiences and higher-quality outputs. Television is one area where this is occurring, as new shorter seasons (13 shows instead of the traditional 20-26) are emerging. These short seasons tend to be more interesting, more exciting, and more unified than the more sprawling longer seasons of yore.
Books are the most radically condensed form of knowledge on the planet. Every hour you spend with [my book] is actually about three years of my life. You just can’t beat numbers like that.
In addition to distilling work into expression in a highly efficient form, books demand concision — from chapters to indices to volumes, books imposed constraints, order, and limits on expression, forcing authors to be brief and organized. Many e-books now suffer from bloat, especially if a professional editor was not involved — chapters that ramble, stories that sag, or scenes that lack structure.
Twitter is another source of useful constraints, as the limited space for expression drives creativity. In addition, newer features (hashtags and embedded links that don’t count toward your character limit) invite structured collaboration, so much so that “hashtag” has emerged into common parlance, as spoofed in this Jimmy Fallon skit:
Concise communication is a natural goal in time-compressed environments. Teenagers and others invented emoticons and other abbreviations to make their time online more efficient. These constraints have driven creativity and saved time.
Many editors are imposing lower word count constraints on authors, cutting the lengths of papers by half in some instances. This is a popular move with readers. In our flagship journal, we are publishing more single-page versions of articles in print with full articles online. These full articles are also shorter than they’ve been in the past, and the editors just moved the word limit down another few hundred at a meeting last year. Concision doesn’t have to be imposed purely by physical barriers. It can be imposed by fiat and policy.
The Journal of Experimental Medicine imposed constraints on data supplements in 2011, stating simply, “Enough Is Enough” in an editorial on July 4 of that year, a date that was perhaps a coincidence, perhaps a message. This was a year after the editor of the Journal of Neuroscience made a similar decision. While constraints along these lines are not making headlines like they once did, they are more common.
We are currently awash in papers, and some people are celebrating the lack of boundaries and lower capacity constraints in the current scholarly publishing ecosystem. This is especially striking as the market tilts more toward author preferences, and as publishers seem to become more servants of authors than servants of readers. In theory, this could be a good thing — everything gets published.
In practice, it’s less clear the benefits of unlimited publishing are possible given our current filtering environment. PLOS ONE published more than 3,000 articles in January 2014. You would have to read more than 95 articles per day to benefit from those directly. Assuming each took 20 minutes to read, it would take you 32 hours to read them all — most of an entire work week. Clearly, that’s not possible for full-time scientists. Even skimming the contents of PLOS ONE’s January output would take hours. Content flowing at that rate is not filtered for use. It is an invitation to filter.
Our filters aren’t necessarily up to snuff yet. Altmetrics is a proxy for the box office of an article, in this analogy. While box office is a type of filter, it’s purely quantitative and only qualitative via some questionable inferences (if you believe popularity = quality). We have yet to create our own version of a Rotten Tomatoes-like experience — a place to scale up a critical consensus that can help readers understand before using an article what that experience might be like. As you may have read, I’m supporting efforts to bring something like this into being, but other solutions are also possible and are sorely needed.
Matching services have been developed to help authors find outlets, but there are fewer services for readers to filter content, despite all sorts of efforts to create them (semantics, heuristics, curation, etc.). Journal brands and titles only go so far, especially when there are so many new brands and titles emerging. Google is perhaps the most useful filter currently, and that’s become a default starting point for many scientists. However, it’s also a bit of a sad statement when a great general search engine has to do for us what we cannot seem to do for ourselves.
Are we facing filter failure? Or just failure to filter? Shouldn’t we have our own “Phantom Edit” of the expanding and endless scholarly communications universe?
Lack of physical boundaries allows a new level of intellectual sprawl, and some see this as a virtue. I am not convinced. Boundaries and constraints signal relevance and drive innovation. Creating new, useful, functional, scalable boundaries requires work — which itself requires invention, investment, and risk. Publishers are made to take risks. That’s what we do. New filters are possible, new editorial models might be right in front of us. Where are the editors of the future? Where are the filters of tomorrow?
And, yes, this post could have been much shorter. Sorry about that. These blogs know no limits.