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Reflections on Copyediting I

Matthew H. Dick(Department of Natural History Sciences, Faculty of Science, Hokkaido University, Sapporo, Japan)


Matthew H. Dickさんは、2005年から2010年3月までZoological Scienceの英文校閲を担当。今回の記事は、その間の経験からの思いや考えを記事にして頂こうというものです。

2回の連載となりますが、SPARC JapanニュースレターのWebサイトには日本語訳も掲載しますので、併せてご覧ください。

(動物学会事務局長 永井 裕子)

The copyeditor plays a small but important role in the involved process by which a scientific manuscript becomes a published article. The demands placed on the copyeditor vary from journal to journal. In this article I discuss, among other things, how the dual factors of author competence and editorial policy affect the job of the copyeditor. The article will appear in two parts in the SPARC Japan Newsletter. In the first part, I define copyediting and outline its place in the publication process, especially with regard to journals dealing with a high proportion of non-native writers ― that is, authors writing in English but whose native language is not English. In the second part I examine how journal format and style affect the process of publication, and along the way give vent to a pet peeve ― asking why all journals use a different reference format. I end with some general advice to authors.

● Copyediting and the role of the copyeditor

According to the The Chicago Manual of Style (15th Edition, University of Chicago Press), copyediting incorporates two processes: mechanical editing and substantive editing. Mechanical editing deals with correct capitalization, spelling, hyphenation, abbreviation use, punctuation, table and figure formats, and citation format. It also involves basic grammar, syntax, and word usage. Substantive editing, as the name suggests, deals with more substantial issues such as rewriting for smoothness or to eliminate ambiguity or redundancy, and reorganizing paragraphs or out-of-place parts of the text.


The Chicago Manual cautions against substantive editing with an overly heavy hand, such as changing unusual figures of speech or idiomatic usage, or modifying the author’s style, even when the copyeditor feels that this is overly flashy or boring. The Manual notes that substantive changes should be made with the approval of the author, but also notes that journal editors, working under a tight schedule, may “need to do substantive editing without prior consultation with authors if problems of organization, presentation, and verbal expression have not been addressed at earlier stages” (Chicago Manual, 15th Ed., Section 2.56; my italics in the text).


Figure 1
Figure 1: Diagram illustrating the process of converting a raw manuscript into a published article. Arrows between participants in the process indicate transfer of versions of a manuscript or information related to the manuscript; dashed arrows specifically indicate the copyedited manuscript in the system used by Zoological Science. For details, see the first section of the text (Copyediting and the role of the copyeditor).

The copyeditor is only a small part of the process that conveys an author’s work from the manuscript stage to a published article (Figure 1). For readers unfamiliar with how scientific articles are published, which varies in minor details among journals, I will briefly describe this process. Apparently not everyone understands it, because the author of one novel I read had the heroine, a brilliant chemist, eking out a living selling her scientific articles to journals. In real life, scientific journals never pay for articles, and in fact, some journals charge the authors for publication.


The first stage involves peer review and revision. An author submits a manuscript to a journal, usually electronically. One of several reviewing editors will judge whether the manuscript is suitable in topic and breadth for publication in the journal; if so, the editor will send the manuscript (again, usually electronically) to at least two peer reviewers knowledgeable in the relevant field. The reviewers judge the manuscript in terms of scientific novelty, importance, and rigor, and adequacy of presentation. Each submits to the reviewing editor a written report containing his/her recommendation (rejection, or publication with minor or major revision), along with a detailed list of suggestions for improvement directed to the author. Assuming the reviewers recommend publication after revision, the author revises the manuscript and submits the revision to the reviewing editor, who returns it to the peer reviewers to check whether the revision was adequate. The author will incorporate any further recommendations from the reviewers in a final, revised manuscript. The reviewing editor, relying on his/her judgment and the recommendations of the reviewers, will decide at this stage whether to accept the manuscript for publication.


At this point, the manuscript passes to the production stage. The production staff (hereafter, Production) sends the revised manuscript to the copyeditor, who checks it and returns it. Production then transmits the manuscript to the printer. After setting up the article in print, the printer sends page proofs to Production, usually as a PDF file*1. Production forwards the page proofs to the author, who checks them carefully against the final version of his/her manuscript. There will be some differences, as the copyeditor will have made changes, and the author must determine whether s/he agrees with the changes, as well as detect any original errors that remain and errors made by the copyeditor. The author returns the page proofs to Production, after which the printer enters corrections to the print version. At this stage, a proofreader will often read a set of revised page proofs to catch errors missed by everyone else. Finally, the article goes to press.


*1 For some journals, the copyeditor checks and corrects the page proofs rather than the final, revised version of the manuscript, and indicates problems the author needs to address with “author queries” on the page proofs.

● Editing problems faced by non-native international journals  

Around 2005, when I was working as a research associate in biology at Hokkaido University, Sapporo, Japan, Dr. Yoshitaka Nagahama, then Editor-in-Chief of Zoological Science, a Japanese international journal published in English, asked whether I would be willing to copyedit for the journal. I agreed to give it a try, somewhat reluctantly, as I already had my hands full. From 2005 to 2009, I edited more than 500 articles.


The task of the copyeditor varies from journal to journal. Copyeditors for biological journals, especially those published in English in English-speaking countries, perform primarily minor mechanical editing, relying on the peer review process to correct substantive problems, or referral to professional editing services for manuscripts that obviously require extensive mechanical and/or substantive editing. International journals published in English by editorial staffs composed primarily or entirely of non-native English speakers (what I here call “non-native journals”), however, present a special case in which the bulk of the mechanical and substantive editing can fall to the copyeditor. Many of the international journals published in Japan by academic societies are in this category.


In this section, I will illustrate the problems these journals face by discussing my experience with Zoological Science. I want to emphasize at the outset that I consider Zoological Science a fine journal with an excellent, competent, dedicated editorial and production staff. I have published three articles in the journal as primary or corresponding author, and will continue to submit articles in the future. I use Zoological Science as an example simply because I am most familiar with it; the constraints it faces are typical of journals of its class, and my remarks are intended as analysis rather than criticism.


Zoological Science is published by the Zoological Society of Japan, under this title snce 1984 after consolidation of two journals formerly published by the Society, Zoological Magazine (1888-1983) and Annotationes Zoologicae Japonenses (1897-1983). The journal is multidisciplinary, containing original articles, reviews, and essays whose only common factor is that they are broadly related to the field of zoology; in Zoological Science, one thus finds articles on protein function or histology rubbing shoulders with articles on neurobiology, descriptive taxonomy, animal behavior, or molecular phylogeny. The journal is distributed in print to Society members in 12 monthly issues generally totaling over 1300 pages annually, and UniBio Press distributes it in digital form to libraries worldwide.


Table 1: Distribution of articles (n = 121) written by native and non-native writers of English published in Zoological Science in 2009, based on country or region of origin of the first author. For articles including at least one native writer among the authors (bottom part), the nationality of the first author is not specified.

Table 1

Most people participating in the publication of Zoological Science are non-native writers of English. At present (2010), the Editor-in-Chief and six of the seven reviewing editors are Japanese, as is the entire production staff, except for the copyeditor. To determine what proportion of authors are non-native writers, I analyzed papers published in Zoological Science in 2009 by country of origin of first author; in some cases, as when the first author was a non-Japanese graduate student at a Japanese University, I could only estimate the country of origin. The results are shown in Table 1. Non-native writers, including all co-authors, wrote roughly 93% of the papers. Only one paper, or 0.8% of the total, had a native writer as first author. Eight papers, or 6.6%, had a non-native writer as first author but included a native writer as one of the co-authors. One might assume that, with the participation of a native writer who could check the manuscript, these eight papers would be equivalent to those written by native writers, but this was not necessarily so. In some cases, the native writer apparently had no input at all in revising the English.


In short, roughly 95% or more of all papers published in 2009 in Zoological Science were written entirely by non-native writers. In general, I have found that there is no correlation between the native language of non-native writers and their ability to write English; this is a function of the training and experience of individual writers. Some of the non-native writers I edited fell within the range of competence of native writers and required minimal editing; others appeared to be graduate students writing their first paper in English and required extensive and time-consuming editing, as in the following example.

Before editing:

Both sensory systems do not show a homogeneous distribution of their sensory components albeit they show heterogeneity in relation to molecular, anatomical, and physiological parameters in all the studies of vertebrates as now.
[33 words]

Edited version showing tracked changes (strike-through, deleted text; underlining, added text):
Both Neither sensory systems do not shows a homogeneous distribution of their sensory components; albeit they show both systems are heterogeneityous in relation to molecular, anatomical, and physiological parameters in all the studies of vertebrates as nowstudied to date.

After editing:
Neither sensory system shows a homogeneous distribution of sensory components; both systems are heterogeneous in molecular, anatomical, and physiological parameters in all vertebrates studied to date.
[26 words]

This example raises a number of issues. First, most native and non-native readers of English would understand the meaning of the sentence before editing, so what is the drawback were it not edited at all? I argue that perception is very important; writing containing many errors may induce the perception in the reader, warranted or not, that the research itself was likewise not rigorous.*2 In addition, the sentence after editing is seven words shorter than the original, meaning greater ease for the reader and less print space. In some cases, editing of syntax and eliminating redundancy can reduce the length of manuscripts by as much as 5%, or one full page in 20 pages of manuscript text.


Second, how does text like this make it through the peer-review process to the stage of copyediting? I suspect that non-native writers of English often recommend other non-native writers (e.g., scientists in their own country who they are familiar with or know personally) as peer reviewers, and these reviewers may themselves not feel competent to correct the English. The reviewers might recognize and note that the English writing needs revision, but without making concrete corrections, this will likely not get done.


Third, what could be done to ensure that only polished manuscripts without this level of errors reach the stage of copyediting? Ironically, the Instructions to Authors for Zoological Science state, “It is the authors’ responsibility to submit manuscripts that are written in concise, grammatically correct English. Manuscripts that contain excessive errors in grammar or usage will not be accepted for publication.” There are a number of problems here. Practically speaking, what constitutes an excess of errors is a gray zone. I would consider, for example, 10 errors in grammar and usage in a 20-page manuscript written by a native writer to be excessive; in copyediting a non-native writer, I would be delighted with only 10 errors in a manuscript of this length.


During my tenure as copyeditor, Zoological Science had no mechanism for ensuring that the conditions stated in the Instructions were met. The only way to do this would be to have someone, preferably a native writer of English, check every article at some stage, perhaps prior to acceptance of the final draft following peer review, and to make acceptance for publication conditional upon revision of the manuscript’s English. If an article has reached the decision stage for acceptance in poor condition, having passed through the peer-review process, probably the only option left for the authors is to submit the manuscript to a professional editing service. This would entail delay, and furthermore would entail significant expense in addition to the ¥20,000 publication fee and possibly other page charges levied by Zoological Science. At this point, authors could well object to the additional expense of professional editing, arguing that while their writing might not be as smooth as that of a native writer, it is nonetheless completely understandable. In a worst-case scenario under a policy requiring professional editing of a high proportion of manuscripts, prospective authors could simply decide not to submit their manuscripts to Zoological Science.


Zoological Science has chosen to address these conflicting demands ― writing quality versus expediency ― at the stage of copyediting, and it is hard to argue against this approach. It places a considerable burden on the copyeditor, who cannot, in the time available to him/her to edit 10 to 12 manuscripts a month, hope to bring each manuscript to the level a professional editing service might, but who can eliminate obvious errors and redundancy and smooth out the writing. Though many times I cursed the rough condition of some of the manuscripts I edited, I came to realize that this was perhaps the best compromise.


Exactly the same psychology applies in the submission of an essay along with an application for admission to university; an essay full of grammatical errors will induce the impression that the student is not very good, or at least did not care enough to ensure there were no errors.