I was a track change jerk last week. Someone did something minor that I didn’t like. So I showed my distaste via the comment function in Word. I know better.
Like most people, when working on a collaboration with a big team I eagerly await people’s comments on my comments. And while most you won’t admit it, I too get a thrill out of seeing some change I made via track changes accepted by the lead author.
This means collaborative track changes are not low stakes. And yet we treat them like they are. I add comments on papers that are as dismissive as they are uninformative (“awkward sentence”, “this makes no sense”). I change whole sentences or paragraphs without once explaining why I thought what they had was wrong. I treat the comments section as if it is a conversation between me and the person without acknowledging that these comments will be visible to the whole team.
This is not a blog post aimed at self-flagellation. It is more a call for discussion. Do we need track change etiquette? And if we do what should it be? A few thoughts:
- Acknowledge that track changes in big teams are public documents and that it doesn’t hurt to be nice.
- Acknowledge that you are not a professional proof reader (yes that means you). So if you change something put a comment explaining why. I had a great colleague this week point out a split infinitive via comments but also acknowledged that he was not sure if they mattered anymore.
- Point out the superb bits. The academic mentality is so optimised around criticism we find it really hard to acknowledge good work. Recognising good work is as much a critical skill as is recognising bad work.
- If you have something controversial or sensitive to say, do it in person, via Skype, or—if you really really have to—via email. Don’t do it in track changes or comments.
- Before changing something ask “is this just my personal preference?”.
My commitment is to be a better track change colleague from here out.