The Track Change Jerk

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:

  1. Acknowledge that track changes in big teams are public documents and that it doesn’t hurt to be nice.
  2. 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.
  3. 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.
  4. 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.
  5. Before changing something ask “is this just my personal preference?”.

My commitment is to be a better track change colleague from here out.

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