On copyediting

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.

About rpg

Scientist, poet, gadfly
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28 Responses to On copyediting

  1. Jennifer Rohn says:

    Employing more copyeditors may very well mean charging more for subscriptions (or APCs). Acceptable trade-off? If you’re reading the paper you’re going to have to look at the figures anyway, where all should be clear.
    Where I used to work, we couldn’t afford enough copyeditor time to do the entire article, but we did try to clean up the worst abstracts. But there wasn’t enough time to do all of them.

  2. Richard P. Grant says:

    Not convinced that things are going to be clear from the figures, where this was essentially an introductory sentence, to be honest. And it’s the abstract, which (let’s be honest) is the only thing most people are going to read, even/especially journalists.
    While I sympathize with the time/money issue you describe, I do wonder if pinging a manuscript back to the author with a “Please run this by an English speaker” isn’t right either. Sounds arrogant, to me.
    To be fair, a lot of the blame lies with the system. Comes back to scientists being taught to write clearly (or not), regardless of language.

  3. Jennifer Rohn says:

    Editors can and do send articles back to authors, but after three or four rounds of this there is a point when it’s not going to get any better. The truth is that some foreign authors just don’t have amenable English-speaking colleagues and can’t afford polishing services.

  4. Richard P. Grant says:

    I’ve just realized I have a screenshot here of something else reasonably apposite, but am going to have to stick it in the post itself. Hang on a minute…

  5. Ken Doyle says:

    I checked into employment as a copyeditor back in the day, for several journals. Unfortunately, the pay sucked back then, and probably still does.

  6. Brian Derby says:

    I am just getting something published in Annual Reviews of Materials Research. They seem to employ copyeditors as I am getting wondeful support in ironing out creases in my prose. They also employed an artist to convert my powerpoint drawings into something understandable. However, I guess a reviews publisher operates to a different set of constraints. Nonetheless, I am very grateful for the service.

  7. Richard Wintle says:

    Argh! My eyes!
    I had to read the first sentence of your second example (the templating thing) twice just to determine whether or not it’s a “real” sentence. The rest of it gave me a headache.
    I recently reviewed an article for a not-at-all-high-profile (but nevertheless, peer-reviewed) journal of Eva’s acquaintance. It was clearly written by a non-native writer of English, and was, in a word, dreadful. The editor’s request to me was along the lines of “this is the revised manuscript, we know the English needs work, but we will extensively copy-edit it, so please simply focus on whether the concerns regarding the science have been addressed”.
    I pity da fool who ends up with that one on their desk. Eck. Eurgh.

  8. Richard P. Grant says:

    AR are pretty much text-books, so I’d expect that level of service. Congrats, Brian.
    Richard, that reminds me of some CVs I’ve had to read. Always liked getting ones from Singaporean applicants. Perfect English.

  9. Eva Amsen says:

    If that journal RW mentions is the one I think it is, the copyeditor is unpaid, and doing it for work experience, and only gets the ones that have been accepted based on scientific content. It has to first be sent for review otherwise she’s doing lots of pointless work editing rejected papers.

  10. Eva Amsen says:

    But the really bad ones get sent back with suggestive links to language services before reaching a reviewer, so the one you saw was not the worst-written one!

  11. Richard Wintle says:

    Eva – yes it is the one you’re thinking of. And that’s truly frightening… the revised version I saw had worse English than the original submission, unless my memory is playing tricks.
    I recently fact-checked a high school science textbook chapter from a Vancouver-based publishing house. That, by comparison, was sweetness and light and the scent of rose petals in a rain-washed dawn. Beautifully written, once I adjusted a few statements about Canadian participation in the Human Genome Project for them.

  12. Richard P. Grant says:

    “There isn’t any.”

  13. Peter Douglas says:

    I appreciate your efforts to create job openings for me, Richard. I have broadedned experience that might be applicable.

  14. Richard P. Grant says:

    Speling is overatted.

  15. Nicolas Fanget says:

    I’ve seen things you people wouldn’t believe. Grocer’s apostrophes in an introductory paragraph. I watched infinitives being split in the dark. All those moments will be lost at proofing… like commas in a thirteen-line sentence… Time to copyedit.
    with thanks to PKD

  16. Richard P. Grant says:

    heheheh–if there’s a ‘Comment of the month’, that gets my vote.
    Hmm. It’s my blog, innit? And it was so. Or it will be tomorrow 🙂

  17. Jennifer Rohn says:

    Nicolas, surely you meant “Grocer’s apostrophe’s”?

  18. Richard Wintle says:

    “There isn’t any.”

    Annotation, lots. Primary sequencing, not so much.
    Your chromosome 7 sequence would look pretty shabby without us Canucks… as would 14 and probably a bunch of others too.
    Old, old news at this point though.
    I’m off to read some more post’s and comment’s, to broadednen my horizon’s.

  19. Nicolas Fanget says:

    @Jenny Aaaaaaarrrrrrggghhh
    But really, its the misuse of it’s that really gets on my… its?

  20. Richard P. Grant says:

    I’ve seen a lot of “it’s”s recently, from people who should really know better. Its bugging me.

  21. Richard Wintle says:

    I am also a member of the it(‘)s police.
    What bugs me a lot is pluralization of non-words… as in “we sequenced all of the cDNA’s in order to determine…”.
    I am convinced it should be “cDNAs”, which actually looks a bit worse I think.
    Stupid language.

  22. Richard P. Grant says:

    Just… don’t, all right?

  23. Nicolas Fanget says:

    Richard, I agree that plurals of abbreviations in particular are ugly, so we try to avoid them if possible. I usually wouldn’t pluralize classes of molecules, as in “we isolated mRNA from Buggus novelius“, but would use the plural if e.g. they RT-PCR them, as in “the mRNAs x, y and z were amplified…”. Note that this post is not written in Nature style!

  24. Nigel Eastmond says:

    Authors are sloppy. Authors do not always have English as their first language. Editors should know better.
    I can add to the debate with another angle.
    Even with items that are produced professionally at incredibly high cost (£16,000 for a primary research paper, anyone?), authors and even sponsors can insist on excrutiating and incorrect points of style. “Drug X employs a reduced dosing interval.” No it doesn’t. It FEATURES a reduced dosing interval – this was not some arbitrary choice you made, you £100,000 per year pharma exec dumbass. I don’t care what your brand vobabulary is – it’s WRONG.
    Funnier is when journal style breaches a patent and gets a company in front of a magistrate. I’ll use a made-up name, but one company was allowed to use C.R.E.S. as a development name, but not CRES because CRES was a trademark of something else. The journal had an abbreviation style with no full points, and would not budge in its insistence in calling the drug CRES. The result? We nearly had to pull the paper to avoid legal action, and it was only this threat of zero reprint sales that forced the journal’s hand. Can you imagine?
    I’ll leave it there. I could go on all day and write a book for Jenny.

  25. Richard P. Grant says:

    Ooh, grab a Martini and tell us more, Uncle Nige!

  26. Elaine Byrne says:

    It’s not just articles – behold the following Nature job advert title (capitals not mine): “RECRUITMENT FOR DIRECTORS AND STUFFS WITH HIGH SALARY
    (PS I second the lorification of the first Fanget comment)

  27. Richard P. Grant says:


  28. Elaine Byrne says:

    Jeez, 2 misprints myself there. Sigh. I’ll get my coat

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