Cracking the nut of copyediting

We can do the research, write the articles, publish the journals, and peer review the contributions. But there is still one thing publishers can do that open access anthropology can’t do: copyedit.

In principle, our ideas don’t stop being right if they’re spelled wrong. In practice, academics get incredibly freaked out if you don’t adhere to the bizarre and illogical orthographical conventions of English. Copyediting is an indispensable part of creating open access anthropology, and it requires highly skilled people — our usual strategy of creating open source software to replace the Big Content’s technical infrastructure won’t work here.

This is the biggest challenge we face, and there isn’t a good solution: copyediting requires time, concentration, and training in a unique way of looking at texts. Open access works by leveraging the human resources of academy, but academics often lack the unique skill of copyediting. Given the amount of attention the rest of the publication process requires, we lack the time as well. Where are we going to get a cadre of cheap, high quality copy editors?

I see a couple of possible solutions.

The first and perhaps least likely solution would be to expand our existing model of copyediting. All over the country in little nooks and crannies universities, presses and professors have go-to people who they give copyediting work to: graduate students who have dropped out and support themselves on odd jobs, secretaries who have copyediting superpowers, and others who are in the margins of the academic system. With the Internet there might be a way to find these people and hook them up with work. If pooled the needs of several projects, perhaps that would be enough to clothe and feed a pool of copyeditors? If there was such a network it might attract work that we don’t even know is out there yet.

This approach could be combined with other means to encourage copyediting: making it a legitimate destination for subventions, combining it with lectureships or perhaps other quasi-academic positions like lab management or webpage design, and so forth. In addition to making it more explicitly part of the administrative work of the academy, we need to work to change our culture and to legitimate — indeed, to celebrate! — the incredible work that copyeditors do.

The second option is similar to the first: crowdsourcing. Break the job into many small pieces, use some technology to make it easy to collaborate, and then get many volunteers to do it. If the costs were very low — in the DIY range that homebrew open access projects usually run in — we could even pay people. In fact, this might be a way to help people discover their inner copyeditor and thus stimulate interest in solution #1.

Key to the second option would be to partner with groups that are working on existing solutions to this problem. For scanning OA documents and proofreading the OCR Ye olde and noble house of distributed proofreaders comes to mind as an example here of a great success we could latch on to: they want content and volunteers, we want an infrastructure to copyedit our work. I would say it’s a match made in heaven, but the devil is in the details on this one and we’d need a test run to see how it would work in practice. Another possible solution is Soylent, which I know less about but which looks promising and might very well be bent to our evil purposes if we wanted to actually copyedit, say, journal articles.

Going this route could be a way to turn average academics into copyeditors. It would require asking existing copyeditors to get used to a new and potentially less controlled system — something that might not appeal to the unique blend of selflessness and control-obsession that copyediting seems to instill in its adherents. It would be great to find a few, very small projects to get our feet wet in this area.

Alex Golub is an associate professor of anthropology at the University of Hawai‘i at Mānoa. His book Leviathans at The Gold Mine has been published by Duke University Press. You can contact him at rex@savageminds.org

21 thoughts on “Cracking the nut of copyediting

  1. You’re assuming that academic authors will cheerfully submit to someone else who tells them that “this sentence is unclear, because XXX; one possible rephrasing is YYY.” Many of them won’t. They resent correction as if it were flogging.

    I’ve edited for authors and for publishers; it’s usually much easier to edit for a publisher. The production editor has my back and can say to the author, “If you don’t want to accept corrections, then we can’t publish you.”

    Not always this way, of course. Authors with clout can resist editing … and the results are often ugly.

    BTW, Distributed Proofreaders only occasionally indulges in editing. We are committed to reproducing the historic text — with the exception of obvious typos, which we assume that the author her or himself would have wanted fixed. If the author’s grammar is faulty, or an author’s obviously preferred spelling is unattested in any dictionary, we leave the “mistakes” for readerly delectation.

    Copyediting for publication is something quite different.

  2. I’m not suggesting that authors send their articles out of copyediting, I’m suggesting that journal publishers do it. Also, please note that I was suggesting DP for cleaning up to OCR of scanned OA anthropology pieces, not for copyediting journal submissions.

  3. It’s late. There will be more to say tomorrow. For now, just try substituting “anthropologist” for “copyeditor” (or “copy editor”) to get a hint of some of the many problems with this post and with the thinking behind it:

    Where are we going to get a cadre of cheap, high quality anthropologists?

    If [we] pooled the needs of several projects, perhaps that would be enough to clothe and feed a pool of anthropologists?

    In addition to making it more explicitly part of the administrative work of the academy, we need to work to change our culture and to legitimate — indeed, to celebrate! — the incredible work that anthropologists do.

    If the costs were very low — in the DIY range that homebrew open access projects usually run in — we could even pay people. In fact, this might be a way to help people discover their inner anthropologist

    Do you begin to see a problem here?

  4. Having done plenty of copy-editing for writers at all levels I always feel a bit like how I imagine Jesus felt amongst the Pharisees when I observe instructors’ application the Mallet of Loving Correction to students’ over incorrect use of block quotes and such as that. Really? Someone who thinks one inch margins and double-spaced text are the height of style is going to roll their eyes because a teenager got waylaid by the spell checker? (Which brings up the related but distinct issue of finding typesetters.)

    It would probably be worth your time to float these issues to some linguists. In my experience there is a greater respect for copy editors within their discipline than in most due to the fact that typos absolutely matter in the presentation of linguistic data.

  5. What about outsourcing our copyediting to India? No, really. It wasn’t long ago that the Chronicle ran a piece about sending essays overseas for cheap grading.

  6. While there are some Indian editors who are fluent in standard AmE and/or BrE, and do beautiful work, many English-speaking Indians speak English dialects that are BrE-derived and heavily influenced by Hindi/Bengali/Tamil/etc idioms. Companies/publishers that send their editing to India are frequently unhappy with the results

  7. I’m sorry, are you suggesting that Big Content does a good job of copy editing? You’ve been lucky. The only people who do a good job these days are university presses, who still care, and stake their reputations on it, and some society journals. But often it is the editor or their assistants who do it… ask anyone who’s edited a journal just how much of the copyediting they did, and just how little the publisher did. Wiley is particularly egregious in this respect… ask any editor, you’ll get an earful.

    The larger point is important though: paying good copy editors a fair wage is something scholars should feel *obligated* to do, and in fact not something they should feel entitled to receive from any given publisher, unless that publisher wants your copyright. If they do, effing demand it.

  8. I’ve attempted to submit a longer comment expanding on my previous remarks, but it has not appeared.

  9. Your initiative is interesting Rex, but as we can see from the above responses, academics won’t even hear about it. Something to do with bloated egos I’m guessing? I don’t understand why there can’t be a reasonable discussion about these ideas, i.e. expanding copyediting, quasi-academic positions (for those anthros who didn’t make it in the big world), crowdsourcing etc. It certainly is worth your consideration people.

  10. Another possibility is that copy editing of academic manuscripts will become much less common. It is entirely imaginable that standards in this area could drop as a result of larger shifts in how academic papers are published.

    As someone who works in computer networking, I think of voice communications as an analogy. The phone companies of twenty years ago would have had you believe that all sorts of technical guarantees were required in order to provide good quality service: circuits needed to be allocated, end-to-end delays needed to be bounded, etc. And they were right. But people today put up with lower quality voice communications because the entire environment has shifted. Voice over IP is cheap. Mobile phone technology is convenient. We’ve gained in some areas and lost in others.

    Similarly, a world of open access online publishing might simply end up being a world in which many more academic manuscripts have typos, badly set margins, poor phrasing, and the lot.

  11. “Does anyone have any idea what Douglas D. Edwards is talking about?”

    That the anthropologist, positioning his labor as intellectually superior, wants to hire someone to do a job he’d rather not be bothered with and wants to get it done as cheaply as possible, thus denigrating the value of the copy editor’s labor. Perfectly rational if the anthropologist is Mitt Romney. Not so forgivable in folk given to preaching equality and kumbaya.

  12. “Similarly, a world of open access online publishing might simply end up being a world in which many more academic manuscripts have typos, badly set margins, poor phrasing, and the lot.”

    Alternatively, some smart programmer(s) may improve the state of the art in spelling and grammar-checking algorithms and apply the same thinking to layout problems.

  13. John McCreery has understood perfectly what I meant. Let me try resubmitting my longer commentary, divided into separate installments. First installment:

    Thank you, MTBradley [and, now, John McCreery], for giving Rex a much-needed clue about what my hint was intended to point to. Rex’s response was disappointing but, in view of the obliviousness of his post, not surprising. This condescending post demeans and patronizes the profession of copyediting to an extent that would inspire widespread outrage within anthropology if it were directed at that profession — if such a post were even taken seriously.

  14. Interesting post. A few random thoughts:

    Timur says, “It is entirely imaginable that standards in this area could drop.” Well, standards have dropped significantly since I began publishing several decades below, and they continue to drop rapidly. This is an important problem, and I don’t have any easy solutions.

    Zora’s comment is right-on. In editing collections of chapters I’ve run into a number of colleagues who take it as a personal affront if you try to fix a split infinitive or a dangling participle. Today I might tell them to take a hike and reject their paper, but most of these happened when I was a junior scholar editing the works of more senior colleagues.

    Douglas D. Edwards makes an important point (and I think Rex must have been speaking ironically).

    Maybe if grad students got more training in the mechanics of writing, editing, and publishing, it would help push standards up (because presumably they would write better and insist on higher quality writing and editing).

    Has the quality of academic writing gone up or down as a result of blogging and other internet activity? I was recently criticized by a journal reviewer that my writing style was too much like a blog. I think blogging and such helps one express things clearly and efficiently, and those are good traits for any kind of writing. My impression for that paper was that I was, in fact, writing very clearly. And when the paper was eventually accepted, the copy-editor did not find much to fix. Now was that because my prose was great, or because the editing was too light?

  15. Douglas,

    Let me try to find your comment — one sec…

    I’m not seeing it. I think the volume of spam just made it recede into the mists of time. If you send me an email I’ll try to post it for you.

  16. @Michael: Do you know that old Hannah Arendt quote, that “academics have an instinctive fear of anything that isn’t inherently mediocre”? I think that explains some of the pushback you’ve got for writing too well.

    @everyone_else:
    Shortly after I posted this article I realized from the initial comments from Douglas, Zora, and A.Persi that I’d obviously struck a raw nerve: people who do copyediting who feel they have an antagonistic relation with the authors whose work they edit. Zora accused me of doing two things I didn’t do. Douglas thinks that the tone of my post is so obviously antagonistic because, I’m guessing, of some sort of unfortunate past history he’s had. Chris Kelty writes that “paying good copy editors a fair wage is something scholars should feel *obligated* to do” and then A.Persi complains of “big egos” and asks “why there can’t be a reasonable discussion about… expanding copyediting, quasi-academic positions… crowdsourcing etc.” — which is exactly what the post as about!

    You be arguing with someone but not with me.

    Honestly people: I wrote a post where I describe copyediting as a ‘superpower’ and ‘indispensible’, a post where I describe copyeditors as ‘highly trained’ and their craft as something to be ‘celebrated’ and the commentors argue that I’m demeaning and patronizing people? Come on folks: read the article that’s written.

    Admittedly this post purposefully combined several topics: copyediting and proofreading, the economics of book production and technical systems of collaboration, etc. But honestly, people.

    For the record, I think copyeditors are a vastly important and valuable part of the publication process. The reason I think this is because I have seen the value they add: I have worked with terrible editors (AAA staff, btw) and I have worked with amazing editors.

    It’s hard sometimes to receive edits, because your words matter so much to you. But anyone who has published anything of length knows that their name on the cover of the book actually effaces the team of people who actually work together to make a book what it is. Copyeditors are a vital part of that process.

    They are, as Timur and Kelty indicate, a part that is going away as many publishers downsize their operating budgets in order to supersize their profits. It may be that we can live without them — or that we will have to. But in a perfect world we need to find a way to keep the production methods while changing the business/technical structure that supports them. _That’s what this post was about_.

    Apparently the first step is building bridges to copyeditors who, for whatever reasons, have histories of distrust and antagonism with their authors.

  17. Why is it that we often treat collaborative professional relationships as if they were antagonistic? Editing is the example under discussion here. Of course writing and editing are collaborative, with a common goal of producing the best possible product. This should NOT be an antagonistic relationship. But a similar situation often holds with granting agencies. The grant administrators (program directors, staff, whatever) want to fund good research, they want researchers to submit the best possible proposals, and they want to help this happen. Yet researchers often see them as the enemy, the mean gatekeepers who are only looking to shoot down honest scholars. We are all in this together, and this kind of professional antagonism doesn’t help anybody.

  18. Honestly people: I wrote a post where I describe copyediting as a ‘superpower’ […] and the commentors argue that I’m demeaning and patronizing people? Come on folks: read the article that’s written.

    Someone who exhorts an audience of copyeditors to read the article that’s written after claiming he had described copyediting as a ‘superpower’ in the same when the text he wrote was “secretaries who have copyediting superpowers” may not necessarily be demeaning and patronizing copyeditors as much as he is being a bit thick.

  19. Yes, I’m very sympathetic to the difficulties here, but I’m afraid I agree with MTBradley. Copy editing isn’t, in fact, a super-power — it’s a craft that takes a lot of time and practice to learn. But your original post essentially frames the problem as “How can we get amateurs to do our copy editing for us on the cheap?” You don’t even mention the possibility of actually engaging the services of professional copy editors on a freelance basis. Surely you can see why this approach to the issue rubs some people the wrong way.

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