Conference 2008: 20:20 Vision: Looking forward, looking back

Page owner: Conference director

Reports from the 2008 conference at St Catherine's College, University of Oxford

Workshops and seminars

These edited articles first appeared in the conference supplement of the November/December 2008 issue of Editing Matters.

Whitcombe Lecture: Usage and correctness in the Oxford English Dictionary

Charlotte Brewer, fellow of Hertford College and professor of English language and literature, Oxford University

Reported by Laura Hicks

Charlotte Brewer, author of Treasure-House of the Language: The living OED (Yale University Press, 2007), gave this year's Whitcombe Lecture.

Having begun her academic career as a medievalist, Charlotte Brewer has more recently concentrated her research on the history and revision of the OED. She has been working on the treatment of sexual and political terms in the dictionary, and is about to begin investigating its treatment of the 18th century, which it originally neglected. Her research findings are being fed directly into the current revision. With this background, she was more than qualified to discuss 'description' and 'prescription' in the history of the OED.

Appropriateness or pedantry?

'We can say with confidence', began Charlotte, 'that all those involved with language, writing and so on have a strong sense of fitness and propriety, although not all are pedants.' Our concern is for the appropriateness of words, and so we feel that writers need fixed standards and conventions to make their work clear and comprehensible. Here, Charlotte displayed a passage from the Bookseller describing Lynne Truss's work, which referred to the journalist's 'disinterest in sport', going on to say that errors of this type, including the misuse of 'enormity' and the confusing of 'flaunt' with 'flout', underlined the need for a good dictionary.

There is, however, always room for disagreement on the use and misuse of various words, although the Queen's English Society would not agree – this group is extremely prescriptive.

Charlotte said that the lack in English of both consistency of usage and any usage rules leads to disorientation among both writers and readers, and she admitted that there were places where the OED can make the waters even muddier!

The OED: Background

The OED in its printed form is its second edition: 20 volumes, published in 1989. All the 'spin-offs' – Shorter, Concise, etc. – come from it, but are, of course, smaller. The first edition was begun in the 1860s, with Volume 1 being published in 1884 and the last one in 1928. It was reissued in 1933 with a supplement, and there were further supplements in the 1970s and 1980s. All new revision is now done online.

Charlotte then addressed the question 'Why is it the definitive record of the English language?'. She showed us an extract from the original 'Proposal for a New English Dictionary' of 1859:

The first requirement of every lexicon is that it should contain every word occurring in the literature of the language it professes to illustrate.

We entirely repudiate the theory, which converts the lexicographer into an arbiter of style, and leaves it to his discretion to accept or reject words according to his private notions of their comparative elegance or inelegance.

The dictionary was to be empirical – i.e. evidence-based. Members of the London Philological Society read every book they could find published between 1150 and the (then) present day, noting the words used. Charlotte showed an example of the handwritten slips used: a headword, a definition and a source. This recording of the past usages of words and the changes thereto was different from the building practices of other dictionaries, and made the OED unbiased and non-judgemental. By 1905, the words noted exceeded five million, but it wasn't possible to include them all. Eventually, half a million went into the dictionary, with two million quotations so that usages were always reflected.

In 1933, Sir William Craigie and C T Onions were in charge of producing the supplement, in which they reiterated the original thinking and planning, and it is this approach that makes the OED the supreme authority.

Propriety and correctness

Charlotte admitted that, despite this approach to building the OED, issues of propriety and correctness do arise. Returning to her earlier examples, she examined the backgrounds to 'disinterested' and 'nauseous'. The history of both the 'right' and the 'wrong' meaning of each word shows that, from almost the same dates, both usages have appeared, so there is no absolute authority for one firm decision. Craigie's remark of 1934 was applicable here:

Some of our predecessors in the science of lexicography thought it was part of their duty to improve the English language. We have got beyond that stage, and consider that if it is to be improved it is not our business to do so, but record it as it was and as it is.

And this is what lies behind the theory and, largely, the practice of the OED today.

Some editors, however, do think some usages are incorrect, and show it, and even the original editors did occasionally try to 'improve'. Charlotte discussed as examples the entry for 'oblivious'; the recommended pronunciation of words beginning with the silent 'p' (citing P G Wodehouse's 'Psmith'); the various ways of saying 'vase' – vaze, vawse or vahse – and how 'pronunciation' should be pronounced: pronunsiation or pronunshiation? None of these editorial quirks influenced the general usage of any word.

Policy and practice

In the late 1950s, Robert Burchfield became the editor of the supplements produced in the 1970s and 1980s and of the second edition of the OED. He emphasized descriptive importance: racist terms could have unacceptable usage but should be included (OUP was sued for this in the 1960s), and 'rude' words, excluded from the first edition for legal and taste reasons, were to go into the supplement, although in the preface to Volume 3 (1982), Burchfield said that the meanings in the definitions were 'regrettable'. Charlotte added that, in the same place, Burchfield – who at the same time was also editing Fowler – admitted to having 'added [his] own opinions', and listed some of the words the usages of which he disagreed with, despite the fact that the quotations given did not match his judgements.

The online OED

The third edition of the OED is a completely online work. For this edition, more than 60 lexicographers have gone back to the first edition, and are scrutinizing every entry and the supporting documents, beginning at 'M', as this was where the practice to be followed was originally settled. A decision on Burchfield's opinions had to be made, so the symbol indicating that a usage was considered wrong was deleted, and usages are now never described as 'wrong'. However, as the opinions do give information on usage, they are reprinted with dates and attributed to Burchfield, and there are also references to books such as Fowler.

Thus, ended Charlotte, the OED is at last truly descriptive, with no absolutism or prescriptivism, although it is not always easy to be both descriptive and not prescriptive.

English on the internet

Professor David Crystal OBE, SfEP honorary vice-president

Reported by Michèle Clarke

The joy of listening to one David Crystal is a well-known fact, but to have the luxury of two – the real Professor Crystal and his doppelgänger or clone – is quite a bonus. Well, not really two but David on his own and at his best, performing a conversation between friends. More of that later.

David was talking about the internet and Txtng, the title of his latest book. The internet, with its origins in the 1970s, now has the largest collection of English words available. Are you addicted to it? Check a couple of criteria (of which there are 50):

  • If you wake at 3am, do you check your email?
  • Do you click 'Check email' again, even though a second ago it told you there were no new messages?

Mm. Sounds familiar.

David asked whether we are in the middle of a linguistic revolution. Yes and no, apparently. Revolutionary aspects could include effects on speech, writing, sign language and the whole new medium of 'computer-mediated communication' (CMC), now more popularly called 'electronically mediated communication' (EMC).

EMC vs speech

David and his doppelgänger then gave us an example of a successful reality conversation: A is talking and B is listening but also giving simultaneous feedback of expressions, gestures and answering 'noises'. EMC gives you none of that. It is self-contained and autonomous, and can be misinterpreted if, for example, you've left the caps lock on.

Style in EMC can vary enormously between age groups (yes, I do try to check my spelling and grammar even in informal emails, but youngsters probably don't!). In the 1970s, the geeks changed the language to delineate themselves as a group, simplifying punctuation, the use of caps and spelling – anarchy controlled by pragmatics. Breaking 19th-century rules of punctuation was very cool indeed. 'Hi!!!!!' and 'HELLO' cannot be 'seen' in speech. The new EMC style guides can't generalize about what or how to write, as ten years is too short for set rules to have been generated.

Chat rooms allow multiple conversations and the possibility of concentrating on all of them, something impossible in reality.

EMC vs writing

The amazing facility of the web to whiz from link to link is far more immediate than the use of footnotes, cross-references or a contents list. The permeability of the language on screen is something very different to the printed word. Even while you are looking at a web page, it can change (as long as you 'refresh' it).

However, the change in language itself is very small. New words and terms are introduced regularly in EMC (e.g. 'mouse mat') but these are still a drop in the linguistic ocean. There are only a few new grammar constructs, such as:

  • plurals ending in z (tunes vs tunez, indicating illegal downloads)
  • plurals of nouns ending in x beginning to take the Anglo-Saxon en ending (ox, oxen; box, boxen)
  • shorter sentences and paragraphs and a more informal style.

The biggest impact on language has been blogging, which is unmoderated and, in this sense, very like the English of the Middle Ages. It could be this medium that eventually changes the English language, which has been rigid since the 18th/19th century, in the long term.

As regards texting, abbreviated words are nothing new. (Remember YYUR, YYUB? or Gt gd jb gd py on the underground Speedwriting adverts?) The internet apparently encourages reading and writing: the more the kids text, the higher their literacy scores. You have to know how to spell in order to leave letters out.

So is the internet really revolutionary? David thinks that it is, as a new medium, but as for having an impact on language, no, it isn't. I, for one, could have listened to David, and his doppelgänger, all day.

Careering around: Developing an international freelance career

Liz Wager

Reported by Val Rice

David Crystal is always a hard act to follow, but we were treated to an amusing and highly informative talk by Liz Wager, ably assisted, in pictures, by Herr Doktor Professor Johan von Quackmeister, a fluffy toy duck that is her travelling companion. Liz told us that he's a good ice-breaker and not at all fussy about his food! She adopted him as an antidote to Christmas newsletters – her Christmas letters are now all about Professor von Quackmeister's travels.

Liz began doing research for a doctorate in zoology but, tiring of it, moved into the pharmaceutical industry, gradually becoming involved in publishing and then training. Her first job was at Blackwells Publishing as head of publications and she eventually held the same position at Glaxo Wellcome. However, she decided that she really didn't enjoy research and managing people, so she turned freelance, giving training courses on medical writing and speaking, and has travelled all over the world.

Liz said that a question she is frequently asked is: What do you do? She's a freelance writer, editor and trainer for drug companies, doctors, communication agencies, universities, publishers.

When she was offered her first opportunity to go to Australia to lecture, she was very excited and told her mother who said: 'Couldn't they find anyone nearer, dear?'

Liz's advice to those of us thinking of branching out included:

  • Offer something different: develop a specialization. It's better to be at the top of a small tree than at the bottom of a large one.
  • Be different. Many trainers offer courses for researchers on how to write scientific papers, so Liz offers courses on publication ethics, the peer review process, trial registration, relations between journals and drug companies.
  • Build on your experience – everybody is an expert on something.
  • Keep your CV up to date, if only to increase your own self-esteem. It's amazing how much you find that you can do when you make a list of your skills and experience.
  • Find your niche. Some of us have specialized in training, web design, project management, indexing, copyright.
  • Volunteering can generate good publicity. Some jobs that Liz volunteered for, with organizations including the European Medical Writers Association, Council of Science Editors and EASE, have led to her being credited on websites and in their publications. She found one of her first training jobs through an advertisement in the EASE journal that was looking for trainers willing to go to Romania, and she gave up her holiday to do it.
  • Talk to people. Network, listen to people: their problems, what they do. Join things. Make friends, not colleagues.
  • People get to know you through published articles, commentaries, books. Blogs can be a good way of getting known. Liz writes a blog for the BMJ website, and sometimes her photo is put on the site.
  • Lots of publications need copy so take the plunge and write something. Write a book! Do research and write it up. Liz described two articles she'd had published by BMC Medicine and in Medscape.
  • Be passionate – you always have time for what you love. Liz campaigned for good publication practice within pharmaceutical companies.
  • Understand what motivates you. Is it money? Is it flexibility? Do you like security or are you prepared to take a risk? What's important to you? Liz is motivated by being recognized by people who have read her work.
  • Do what you enjoy. Liz enjoys: training, writing, publication, short jobs, variety, committee work. She doesn't enjoy: proofreading, project management, copy-editing, regular writing, commissioning, financial paperwork, VAT returns, unpacking.
  • Some businesses start as hobbies: Jancis Robinson, Alan Titchmarsh, Barbara Wodehouse.
  • Be flexible and plan. Research your location. Liz went to Egypt and discovered that, in Muslim countries, it's not a good idea to schedule workshops on Friday (the Muslim day of worship) or early in the morning in Ramadan because they all dine late and sleep late! Similarly, don't plan a working lunch in France!
  • Don't be too fussy about what you eat – you may only be given the local food.
  • Be prepared for anything: power cuts, strikes, computer breakdowns, travel delays.
  • Be flexible about price: different organizations have different pricing plans. If you are not sure, ask what the budget is. The fee could be bigger than you might expect.

Liz's final slide contained a quote from Mark Twain:

Twenty years from now you will be more disappointed by the things that you didn't do than by the ones you did do. So throw off the bowlines. Sail away from the safe harbor. Catch the trade winds in your sails. Explore. Dream. Discover.

Looking forward, looking back

Reported by Ag McKeith

In this lively session in the big lecture theatre, we laid the basis of the next five-year plan. We got there in two stages. First, four of the previous chairs charted the SfEP's progress to the present, and then everyone got together in small groups to thrash out four questions.

Michèle Clarke (chair: 1988–96), who took over following the death of the founder, Norma Whitcombe, opened with a rundown of the first perceived needs of what was then the Society of Freelance Editors and Proofreaders. These were for:

  • local and special interest groups
  • training and sponsorship
  • a constitution
  • a newsletter.

As time passed, these blossomed into:

  • a newsletter – with colour!
  • seminars in brushing up skills
  • agreed hourly rates
  • involvement of the British Standards Institute
  • supportive corporate members (which had reached 34 by 1993 and now number 46).

The first annual conference was held in Cambridge in 1990. By the end of Michèle's term of office, membership had gone up from 60 to 360, and we had produced our first directory and five-year plan.

Kathleen Lyle (chair: 1996–2000) described how the new constitution of 1996 refined the membership structure and improved our professional image. Electronic change was the major factor during this period. Something was clearly going on: in 1993, only three members supplied email addresses in their directory entries, but by 1996, 22% of directory entrants had them. (Now, of course, we must be close to 100%.) Publishers were unsure how to use technology, and we responded with the first of our on-screen editing courses in 1996. SfEPline was set up in 1999.

Naomi Laredo (chair: 2000–04) felt consolidation and change were the defining aspects of her time at the Society's helm. The SFEP's name changed twice, and in 2003 it became a limited company, led by a council of directors. Meanwhile, the office had moved to Fulham. From 2002, only full members – who were now graded as ordinary or advanced – qualified for a directory entry; associates were no longer listed. The membership settled at around 1,200, the newsletter morphed into a magazine called Editing Matters and, in 2004, the second five-year plan was agreed.

Penny Williams, the retiring chair (2004–08), listed the seven major achievements of her tenure:

  • the first in-house training courses
  • the redesigned website
  • putting the directory online
  • getting the Sue Thomson grant
  • the BBC Christmas punctuation challenge (2005)
  • hiring an executive secretary
  • negotiating the City & Guilds Licentiate in Editorial Skills for advanced members.

Buzz groups

The historic context thus clarified, the conference settled down to discuss – in 'buzz groups' – four questions submitted by members whose answers would contribute to the next five-year plan:

  1. Is it time for the SfEP to seek a higher profile?
  2. Should members demonstrate their competence every few years to show standards are being maintained?
  3. Can we maintain standards and still be open to change?
  4. What can new members contribute?

The buzz groups' feedback is being digested and will be presented to the membership in due course.

After all this energetic buzzing, the meeting broke up and people surged off to the bar to discuss the question that there had been no time for: If we were only allowed one punctuation mark, which would we choose?

Workshops and seminars

Computer housekeeping: Customize your software and protect your PC

Tina Allen

Reported by Kersti Wagstaff

We started with the basic armoury – firewalls, anti-virus, anti-spyware, anti-rootkit, and full security suites – for all of which Tina had put together a vast amount of information, including the existence or otherwise of free versions. The entire handout is available to conference attendees from the office.

The listings do not show an order of merit (all will do the job), but particularly recommended were:

  • Comodo and ZoneAlarm (firewalls)
  • F-Secure and Kaspersky (anti-virus) – F-Secure has a very good online virus scanner
  • the internet security suites from F-Secure, Kaspersky and ZoneAlarm.

As for anti-spyware, a minimum of two programs is recommended, as no single one will catch everything, and they should be run once a week.

All these programs, together with your operating system, also need to be kept up to date. The advice is not to allow Windows to update automatically (set it to fetch updates but to check with you before installing them), but to set anti-virus and firewalls to do so, at least daily.

Backing up

The hot topic of the day was backing up. 'There are two types of computer user,' said Tina. 'Those who back up, and those who haven't lost any data – yet.' All PCs die eventually. So make a back-up schedule and make it realistic – otherwise you won't keep to it. Documents can be backed up by dragging and dropping on to an external hard drive (EHD) or flash drive, or by burning on to a CD or DVD. To copy the operating system and program files, however, you'll probably need backing-up software. Windows XP has its own back-up utility that is quite good and can be scheduled to come on automatically.

An EHD is a good option, as long as you disconnect it from the computer and keep it physically safe. Offsite storage keeps your files safe if your house burns down but you are at the mercy of the company offering the storage – it could go bust, or raise its charges for retrieval, or be out of the reach of EU law. The EHD is followed – in order of reliability – by CD/DVD (not CD-RW) and, finally, the flash drive – the least stable but most convenient. Note: Never 'defrag' (defragment) a flash drive – it will age it very, very quickly.


Clean the inside of your computer once a year – or (no shame) pay someone to do it for you.

Tina's presentation contained far more than I can report here, and included many keystroke series for particular tasks. I can only recommend that conference goers obtain a copy of the handout and read the whole thing.

Indexing for editors working with non-publishers

Ann Hudson

Reported by Melanie Thompson

I confess that I'm not a regular user of indexes. Once or twice I've had to supply proofs to indexers and check their end products, and the only time I had to supply one (way, way back) I dropped the index cards all over the floor after spending hours getting them into what I thought was the correct order. Mostly I'm annoyed by the indexes in cookery books: I'm a Ready Steady kind of cook who always has a random collection of ingredients in search of a recipe, but the indexes tend to go for titles and techniques, rather than listing all the possible uses for broccoli.

So I was eager to attend Ann Hudson's workshop, all the more so because the title describes my work precisely. Ann, a member of the Society of Indexers, ably rose to the challenge of cramming a great deal of information into just 90 minutes (supported by some excellent handouts and SoI booklets).

Highly skilled professionals

I learned that indexing is an art in itself, that indexers prefer to retain copyright of their indexes (so make sure you check the contract before you 'tweak') and that, contrary to perceptions, indexers are not nerdy types who endlessly reorganize their books/records – they are highly skilled professionals who work hard to interpret books from the readers' viewpoint. No more low-tech index cards either; it's specialist software and BS ISO 999 all round.

Editors who commission indexes need to plan ahead and warn the indexer when the proofs will be available (and do try to make that the final proof, please!). They should tell the indexer how much space they have to play with, and give them any notes on house style, etc. And once the index is complete and yours for checking, don't casually run a finger down the columns looking for errors in 'filing order' (alphabetization) – there are different ways of doing it depending on the circumstances. If in doubt, always check with the indexer.


It's easy to see that there's a lot of job satisfaction to be gained from indexing, and the Society of Indexers runs training courses if you're that way inclined. For me, I now feel better equipped to go out and commission indexers on behalf of my non-publisher and publisher clients, so this workshop certainly ticked the box for usefulness. Now, what can I make with celeriac, pak choi and swede?

Macro magic

Anne Waddingham

Reported by Tina Allen

Although I've used client templates containing some very complicated macros, I've only ever attempted very simple ones myself, usually rather blindly following Word Help, and the macros often posted on SfEPLine have been a complete mystery to me. I therefore anticipated a few light-bulb moments in this workshop, and since it was run by Anne Waddingham, it didn't disappoint.

Repetitive tasks

Anne introduced the concept of macros, explaining how much quicker they can make editing and how much more accurate. Computers, unlike humans, don't get tired or bored doing repetitive tasks, so they'll still be as accurate on change number 5,275 as they were on the number 1, and a great deal faster than any human!

A nifty little shortcut brought up a piece of text on all our laptops – a surprise to everyone – although those using Word 2007 were faced with an unexpected layout. Ably assisted by Kathleen Lyle, Anne took the different operating systems and Word versions in her stride and, unfazed even when the projector decided to go on strike, soon had us busy recording our very own macro, once we'd sorted out Word's security settings. Then it was time to run it, and we watched while it removed spaces and changed punctuation almost instantly.

Visual Basic

We then moved on to more complex macros, with an introduction to Visual Basic. Anne had prepared a very complicated-looking macro, which we copied into the Visual Basic window. The exercise that followed threw up some interesting results. As Anne was keen to point out, computers just do as they're told, and will apply an incorrect macro just as obediently as a correct one. It's therefore worth deciding exactly what you want to do before writing the macro. Taking a little time to think about possible unwanted results can save a great deal of time later.


Slightly diverted by the sad tale of the proofreader who'd died at his desk, we got busy on the text with an even more complex macro, which removed chevrons, changed letter case, applied styles and changed spelling.

The 90 minutes flew by, and as we packed up and headed out the door, it was clear from the conversations between the various members that we were all determined to go home and benefit from our own macro magic. Some of the SfEPLine macros have already made their way into my regular work. An excellent workshop and a great introduction to macros.

Networking skills: How to mix business with breakfast

Sara Hulse

Reported by Ali Turnbull

At every SfEP conference I attend, there's at least one light-bulb moment – a new piece of wisdom to pick up, take away and use. This year, it came during Sara Hulse's excellent presentation.

When I go networking, I just breeze in and try to muscle in on other people's conversations. Then I wonder why nobody talks to me. Citing networking guru Will Kintish, Sara showed us why it is important to 'read the room' before you start working it. Kintish says that there can be six types of groups in a room:

  • single
  • open pairs
  • closed pairs
  • open threes
  • closed threes
  • four or more.

He advises against approaching closed groups unless you know someone in the group. So that's where I've been going wrong.

Benefits and opportunities

Sara enthused about the benefits of networking and how it has enhanced her reputation. It's not about selling yourself straightaway. Gradually you make people aware of who you are, what you do and how brilliant you are at doing it.

There are many different opportunities for networking, but Sara focused on the skills we need for local face-to-face events such as those organized by chambers of commerce or Business Link, usually free or at low cost. She didn't speak highly of the more evangelical organizations that insist on weekly attendance.

Preparation is key. Sara encouraged us to think what we want to get out of an event and who might be there, and to go equipped with a good stock of business cards.

Following up

A important skill is keeping the conversation going and also knowing when it's over. I've put this in italics because it is another of my failings.

Sara stressed that it is vital to follow up the meeting while everything is fresh in your mind (and the other person's). Writing additional information on the back of their business card can help you tailor the call or email to their needs. Keep records of the information you collect and keep in touch with the people you meet. Gradually you will start to build relationships and then to discuss projects where your expertise is valued.

Sara's two key messages were:

  • 'You are an expert.'
  • 'People do business with people they like.'

To her brilliant advice, I will add: 'Avoid puff pastry at all costs.'

Collective wisdom

Rod Cuff

Reported by Wendy Toole

This was an ingenious and ambitious workshop, its aim being to begin building the catalogue for a virtual library of the best reference sources for anyone involved in the editorial profession.

Advance work

Work had actually begun a few days before the conference when attendees were sent a substantial list of reference sources ranging from those that would give general guidance to newcomers to those relevant to high-level specialist work. The list included print and online books, dictionaries and bibliographies, guides to referencing and guides to style, places to find out how to abbreviate journal titles and places to learn how to get the best out of your Word program – anything and everything that a professional editor or proofreader might need to know.

Attendees were asked to look through the list in advance, jot down any ideas and comments and bring them to the workshop for discussion. Rod had included specialist sources for subject areas of which he had experience and invited suggestions for similar sources for a range of other subject areas that we could develop when the workshop group met.

First-hand users

A number of people had brought their laptops and were able to track through some of the search routes Rod described. At this stage, we benefited greatly from the comments of first-hand users of various resources – people who had found them exasperating, impenetrable or profoundly useful. In this session, we also discussed the various resources available through the public library service, which many people were not fully aware of. It seems that it's still worth consulting the more traditional sources of information!

Topically specific

To further develop the more topically specific reference areas, we were asked to go into loose subject groups – STM, arts and education, legal, etc. Within these groups, we discussed reference sources that were of particular value in our work, with a view to populating further sections of Rod's list with useful web links and book titles. One member from each subgroup undertook to feed back to Rod the fruits of our discussions so that he could add this information to his master list.

At the time of writing, the workshop process continues. Rod is collating the information and ideas passed to him by the subgroup representatives and adding this to his database. In due course this invaluable resource will be made available to conference delegates. [This resource will eventually find its way into the Members' area of this website – SfEP internet director.]

Technologies to support an information publisher

Phil Caisley, British Medical Journal

Reported by Ed Rowe

The virtual world is utterly unlike the printed environment in many ways, including the sobering fact that it is unlimited. This brave new infinite world presents, at least for those publishers who can make the most of it, unprecedented opportunities.

Content as a commodity

As Phil Caisley put it, 'content' – words to you and me – has become a commodity. Anyone, from the lowliest blogger to the grandest scientist, can produce and publish content. The idea is to take that content and fill as much space with it as you can – in other words, push it through multi-delivery channels.

What's revolutionary here is that, where even fairly recently we would produce an article or a manuscript and then think about putting it on the internet, now the emphasis is on first getting the information and then creating products or brands from it. Here are some of the opportunities that Phil discussed in his presentation:

  • embedding content within other software programs – e.g. content from the BMJ Group's Clinical Evidence program appears within EMIS, the computer software used by GPs
  • making use of new content types – e.g. images, podcasts, videos, blogging, user-generated information
  • blended and cross-product content and intelligent search – highly technical functionalities that allow a website to present related news and information based on a user's preferences
  • communities – developing and supporting relevant information (and advertisements) for user groups
  • blogging
  • banner advertisement management and sales tracking systems
  • licensing software platforms to other parties.

The publication plan

Central to all this is what Phil called the 'publication plan'. In this, articles and papers, such as monographs, are produced from centrally stored data, written to meet the needs of, for instance, the activities of the BMJ Group's Learning, Journals, Knowledge and Careers sectors.

The point of particular importance for STM editors and writers is the BMJ Group's use of XML tagging and electronic workflow and content management systems to meet the demands of its products.

Indeed, much of the editorial work for the publication plan revolves around what Phil called 'structuring' and 'chunking' – that is, tagging, categorizing and abstracting relevant content (references being an obvious example) – in the central database so that the information can be reused in different ways or in the different products.

Managing change

Phil was honest enough to admit that some editors feel threatened by these developments. The problem, he said, is not the technology so much as the fact that staff rarely see an end-product. There's no easy answer to this, but Phil did say that the BMJ Group is absolutely committed to managing this change and to supporting its staff.

The BMJ's mission statement is: 'The right information at the right place in the right time in the right format – and can it be personalized?' This could perhaps have been slightly better applied to the presentation itself, which was a little long and might have benefited from further discussion of the electronic workflows and other issues affecting editorial staff, rather than the products themselves.

Diary of a conference warhorse

Jennifer Bassett


Arriving at Oxford station, I am hailed cheerily by fellow SfEPers and a bunch of us cram ourselves into a taxi. The driver, a jovial fellow, senses we are in party mode.

'Had this Oxford don in my cab once,' he tells us. 'She says to me, "Do you have any academic qualifications?" I says, "Yes, of course, I've got a degree in mathematics." She says, "You're joking." I says, "Well, you started it …' Encouraged by our appreciative laughter, he embarks on one about the vicar and the WI …

We arrive at St Catz, and marvel at its striking 1960s modernist design and elegant gardens. In my room, my laptop swiftly slots into the wireless network. I grab my AGM papers and hurry out across the quad, resisting the urge to fight a liar.

After the AGM, a fine dinner of asparagus, duck and summer pudding augurs well for the catering, and later, the usual suspects are found in the bar. New faces are welcomed, old friends exchange news – 'What kind of year have you had, then?' Penny Williams wonders about rewriting her talk for Monday, we discuss the likelihood of the Higgs boson, the future of the book, the evolution of the language … Oh, those life-changing conversations you have in the bar at conference …


The shower delivers pleasingly hot water but the cubicle offers no hook, no ledge, on which to park soap or sachet. (Is it men who design shower cubicles, I wonder?) My peevishness, however, is soon dispelled by the joy of finding at breakfast great platters of, good heavens, fresh fruit. Whoever heard of fresh fruit in institutional breakfasts?

But no time to linger over three kinds of melon. Sarah Price, our new chair, welcomes us, despatches the house notices and introduces our honorary vice-president, David Crystal. He speaks for an hour, without a single note, on 'English on the internet'. We learn how EMC (electronically mediated communication) differs from both spoken and written English. We are persuaded that, despite the thunderings of the language doom-mongers, txtng is gd 4 yng pepl and improves their literacy. And we hear, alarmingly, that blogging, that great outpouring of unmoderated continuous text, may prove to be the greatest agent for change in the language.

In the tea break, Professor Crystal is besieged by members with questions and discussion. Then, in a flash, it's time for the next keynote lecture. This I have to miss, having pressing business elsewhere, but I rejoin the throng at lunch (a very nice bit of fish), before hurrying off to Tina Allen's workshop on computer housekeeping. She takes us through all the things we should be doing to keep our computers clean, safe, backed-up, spyware-free, virus-free, trojan-free … Smug smiles ('Oh yes, I do that') soon give way to anxious grimaces ('Oh Lord, I've never done that').

The last session is the SfEP 20th anniversary plenary. Four previous chairs give us a crisp potted history of the Society, and then we form 'buzz groups' to discuss questions submitted by the membership in advance. The hubbub is immense, as delegates get their teeth into how to raise the profile of the society, how to maintain confidence in standards, what can new members contribute …

After this I nip into the exhibition/marketplace to buy my two SfEP anniversary mugs from Justina, exchange badinage with Helen and Bridget, and then back to my room to don glad rags for the banquet.

In keeping with tradition, the Linnets sing for us before we dine. The 'SfEP 20th Anniversary Song' has some rather neat lyrics (well, she would say that, wouldn't she?) rousingly sung to the tune of 'Funiculi, funicula'. Thunderous applause. Natch.

The banquet is a feast indeed, with fine wines and port (well, we are in an Oxford college, after all). But we are not idle, oh no. David Penfold and Ali Turnbull have devised a fiendish quiz for us, and in teams we grapple with abstruse literary byways and baffling rebuses. Back in the JCR we trip the light fantastic to the sound of Lionel's group, The Fat Cat Country Band. My, what whirling and twirling there is! What sore feet the next morning!


Full of eggs and bacon (too good to miss), I hurry to Rod Cuff's 'Collective wisdom' workshop. The aim is to start building the catalogue for a virtual library of the 'best' reference sources. The suggestions come thick and fast. The final compilation will be enshrined within the SfEP website, in the Members' area.

The Whitcombe Lecture is given by Charlotte Brewer on the Oxford English Dictionary. I'm in word heaven, listening entranced to the history and the quirkiness of the greatest dictionary in the world.

'We entirely repudiate the theory which converts the lexicographer into an arbiter of style and leaves it in his discretion to accept or reject words according to his private notion of their elegance or inelegance.' So wrote W A Craigie, co-editor of the first edition of the OED, and as editors we, too, would do well to keep in check our private notions of the elegance or inelegance of words.

At the end, Charlotte Brewer takes questions, and I am torn between lingering here and rushing off to Louise Bolotin's demonstration of the SfEPWiki, which I very much want to see. In the end I stay to luxuriate in dictionary talk, knowing that Louise has, generously, offered guidance to any member who needs it.

Lunch (swordfish, no less) quickly gives way to the seminars. In 'Introduction to copyright', Tim Padfield of the National Archives leads us deeper and deeper into the copyright forest. Before long, under his expert tutelage, unease begins to creep in, and by the end of the session, it's clear that a good many of us, in one way or another, have infringed copyright. A sobering thought.

Closing remarks, the raffle draw, the thanks, applause, congratulations and fond farewells. 'Goodbyeee, see you in York next year!' It's all over for another year, and SfEPers homeward wend their weary ways.