An American Editor

December 19, 2011

Working Effectively Online VI — The Books

One thing I have noticed when discussing resources with my colleagues nowadays is that they often rely on online resources rather than printed books for everything they can. For example, rather than opening The American Heritage Dictionary of the English Language, now in its just-released fifth edition, to check a spelling or a definition, they will go to Dictionary.com or Merriam-Webster online.

The good about doing so is that (presumably) the online sources are not only accurate, but are updated regularly and thus more current, than a print book can be, at least if the supplementation is in print form. Even the venerated Oxford English Dictionary has turned to online, offering a year’s subscription for the (relatively) paltry sum of $295.

I don’t disapprove of using online resources — as long as one is choosy about the resource. What is good about the Internet is also what is bad about the Internet. It is easy to post information; anyone can do it. I make use of online resources that are specific to the type of editing I do and that are no longer available in print form or I don’t use often enough to warrant purchase of a print version. Three good examples for me are the National Library of Medicine (NLM)’s Catalog, which provides access to NLM bibliographic data for journals and books; NLM’s PubMed, which comprises more than 21 million citations for biomedical literature from MEDLINE, life science journals, and online books; and Integrated Taxonomic Information System (ITIS)’s Catalogue of Life: 2011 Annual Checklist, a comprehensive catalogue of all known species of organisms on Earth that contains 1,347,224 species, which is probably just slightly over 2/3 of the world’s known species.

But when it comes chemical compounds, spelling, definitions, grammar, and usage, I prefer the printed book.

I was thinking about this anomaly — doing 100% of my editing work online yet still using print resources to check things — and wondering whether my continued reliance on print books as resources lessens the effectiveness of my online editing. Alas, I can come to no definitive conclusion.

The answer is, at best, “maybe or maybe not.” For example, in experimenting with using Dorland’s Illustrated Medical Dictionary (31st ed.) online versus the print version, I discovered that the online version is ill-designed and requires multiple steps to get to what may be a dead end. Generally, I found using the print version easier and quicker. The same was true when I experimented with Stedman’s Medical Dictionary (28th edition).

I also have a habit of liking to look in multiple sources. As a result, I have built up a good library that is focused on my subject areas. I also like to check history. For example, while Dorland’s 31st likes eponyms to be nonpossessive, the possessive was preferred for years and many editions past. When a client insists that, for a particular book, the possessive needs to be used except in those instances that were specifically noted to be nonpossessive (I always loved that about Dorland’s — there was no rhyme nor reason to when an eponym was possessive or not; they were just possessive or not — before the 31st edition), I simply whip out a copy of an earlier edition, something I cannot do with online sources.

Let’s not forget the expense. A lot of colleagues use only free resources. I’ve always been leery of free sources. After all, it takes time and money to put this material together, to check it for accuracy, and to update it. I know I struggle just to find time to update the list of books I’ve edited, to the point that I have neglected to do the updating for a couple of years. I’ve viewed this like the free antivirus programs — they are great until the first time they aren’t great. We all know that the free antivirus program cannot be as good as the paid version of the same program for the logical reason that, if it were as good, the company would be out of business.

The online sources that I would rely on in many areas are not inexpensive. And the cost grows as one renews each year. In contrast, I buy a print book and its cost amortizes over the years of use; it is a one-time payment, which appeals to the frugal in me.

Regardless of whether we use print or online resources, the bottom-line is whether we use a sufficient number and variety of resources to ensure that we are providing the best quality of editing or information that we can to our clients. I once asked at a seminar, “How many editors present regularly check word usage and if you do, in how many sources?” I was surprised to discover how few check usage and wasn’t surprised that those who do usually check one source. When I probed further, I discovered that usage was checked by Binging or Googling.

I admit that I had never thought to Bing or Google a usage question; I have always turned to the various usage books I have sitting next to my desk. Interestingly, the most important usage guide for American English, Garner’s Modern American Usage (3rd edition) by Bryan Garner, isn’t available online except as part of Oxford University Press’ Dictionary Pro package, which must be expensive because they don’t post a price — you have to request it.

I guess this is one area where one has to compromise. Some things are readily and reliably researched online; some things are better researched in print. Whatever your editorial field is, you need to keep handy both online and print resources. The biggest advantage that print has is the ability to go back to earlier editions if necessary – online resources tend to always go forward without preserving the previous. Yet, as I have discovered on several occasions, there are times when the answer to a question cannot be found in the current edition, but can be found in a previous edition, which is why I keep past editions of all my resource books.

I suspect that in future years fewer print resources will be used by editors and a greater reliance will be placed on online resources, especially as those of us who grew up using print resources retire and those who grew up on the Internet take over.

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