Copyediting is an activity that when not being actively maligned tends to be overlooked. But it’s a necessary step in science communication and publishing because clarity of expression is pretty darned crucial to getting your message across and avoiding misunderstandings. It’s doubly important when the language of publication is not the native language of the authors.
A shame, then, that even top journals do not employ copyeditors. Take the following sentence, that I found in an EMBO J abstract earlier today:
Abasic sites represent the most frequent DNA lesions in the genome that have high mutagenic potential and lead to mutations commonly found in human cancers.
Tell me, reading that, are abasic sites the most frequent DNA lesions, or are they rather the most frequent lesions that have high mutagenic potential and/or lead to cancers? I had to go and look it up, because proper journalism involves getting your facts straight and if I get something wrong then the excrement truly hits the air circulation device.
From the same abstract, I also found this wonderfully tortuous construction:
This amino acid templating mechanism was corroborated by switching to pyrimidine specificity because of mutation of the templating tyrosine into tryptophan. The tyrosine is located in motif B and highly conserved throughout evolution from bacteria to humans indicating a general amino acid templating mechanism for bypass of non-instructive lesions by DNA polymerases at least from this sequence family.
I know what you mean, but man, that’s painful.
This is not the authors’ fault. Were I to write an article for a German language publication I would hope that a good German speaker would be editing my prose to check for precisely that kind of ambiguity. Which means that I’d expect a copyeditor to be on staff (or based in India), which in turn (because these people need to eat occasionally) means that either I have to pay to publish, or pay to read.
And you know what? This is why science publication should never, ever be kostenlos, no matter where you stand in the Open Access debate.