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Futuristic Simultaneous Reading Machine by Michael Hara. A complex machine fashioned from old technology displays books on a viewscreen, a typewriter and two books at the same time.
"Simultaneous Reading Machine" via michaelhara.com

As the technology for robotics, digitisation and artificial intelligence improves and becomes more prevalent, many occupations are at risk of being replaced by technology. But those in the business of scholarly publishing aren't yet at risk of complete replacement by robot authors, automated printers and copyediting software.

Almost half of all jobs in the USA are at risk of ‘technological unemployment’, according to research from the University of Oxford.1 Carl Frey and Michael Osborne note that routine tasks, such as in construction and packaging, are usually those identified as being most susceptible to computerisation. However, they have now developed a model to identify non-routine tasks which might be automated. They distinguish between non-routine tasks that robots might feasibly do and non-routine tasks that face serious engineering bottlenecks.

The bottlenecks identified are in three categories:

Perception and Manipulation

Creative Intelligence

Social Intelligence

Finger dexterity: Using fine motor skills to grasp, manipulate or assemble very small objects.

Originality: Developing creative ideas or solutions about a given topic, situation or problem.

Social perceptiveness: Being aware of and understanding others’ reactions.

Manual dexterity: Using gross motor skills (e.g., moving your hand or arm) to grasp, manipulate or assemble objects.

Fine arts: Knowledge of theory and techniques required to create works of music, dance, visual arts, drama or sculpture.

Negotiation: Bringing others together and reconciling differences.

Cramped work space: How often does this job require working in awkward positions?

Persuasion: Persuading others to change their minds or behaviour.


Assisting and caring for others: Providing personal assistance, medical attention, emotional support or other personal care to others.

Summary by Shelly Tan2

Thus, occupations that require high levels of perception, manipulation and creative and social intelligence are the ones least at risk of automation. Frey and Osborne identify recreational therapists, mechanic supervisors, social workers and choreographers as some of the occupations least likely to be replaced by a robot in the near future. Social workers, for example, require very little manual dexterity, must think creatively and innovatively, must be exceedingly socially aware, and often offer emotional support to their client.

On the other hand, telemarketers, taxation agents, hand sewers, and umpires and sporting officials are among those most likely to be replaced by software and automatic processes. Indeed, many of the occupations towards the end of Frey and Osborne’s list have already been automated to some degree – for example by goal line technology in football, or pre-filling tax forms.

How does academic publishing fare?

There are several aspects of monograph publishing that require different skills and flair. Authors tell a story and engage the reader, yet they need not type or write out their work. Editors help structure a cohesive and error-free account. Designers lay out an easy-to-read and beautiful book. Marketers connect to those interested in the content.

For scholarly works, there is an added layer of complexity. Authors are experts – often active researchers – as are the peer reviewers, whose intricate knowledge of the subject matter means the former are tasked with constructing novel arguments and making new links between old ideas, while the latter spot missed citations and highlight flawed logic. The high levels of creative intelligence exhibited by those in these two roles means they are unlikely to be replaced by software anytime soon. Frey and Osborne agree – their model predicts that authors have just a four percent chance of becoming replaced by robots anytime soon.

Publishers and editors (or editorial boards) are responsible for deciding whether a book will find an audience, and not only that – they ask if the subject matter will resonate with lay people and experts alike, whether the content forms a narrative or effectively argues a point and they determine how a book will provide a unique account of the subject matter? Creative and social intelligence are both important to being a successful publisher and editor.

Frey and Osbourne's model gives copyeditors and proofreaders an 84 percent probability of computerisation. Despite medium levels of social perceptiveness and providing personal assistance, a lack of dexterity requirements or fine arts skills means proofreading is labelled a 'high-risk' occupation.

But while software might be able to detect when you’ve mistyped ‘aluminum’ as 'aluminium' for your North American audience, or perform an online search to ensure that 'nonzero plaquette flux' is correctly spelled, it may never catch that you’ve written 'the Act does not contain an exception to this rule', instead of the opposite. In such specialised fields as those that university presses publish in, especially for novel research works, image recognition software is unlikely to ever reach a point where we do not need a highly qualified zooarchaeologist to help us identify that the mandibular condyle has been mislabelled as the mandibular notch. Editors and proofreaders perform a job with complex, non-routine tasks in which creative intelligence and specialised knowledge are absolutely crucial skills.

In spite of a trend for replacing copyeditors and proofreaders with software - "Copy editing is a luxury," Poynter media analyst Andrew Beaujon told the American Journalism Review in April 20153 - the motley niche of complex topics that scholarly monograph publishers produce means that you're not going to see robots take over the presses anytime soon.


1. http://www.oxfordmartin.ox.ac.uk/downloads/academic/The_Future_of_Employment.pdf

2. http://www.washingtonpost.com/graphics/health/watson-jobs

3. http://ajr.org/2014/04/15/copy-editors-in-digital-world/


Hannah McFarlane is the Production Officer for the Scholarly Publishing division at the University of Sydney. She hopes to never meet a robot who can do her job.

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