Good enough ?!?!
Goodenough!?! by AUSTIN_O via Flickr

I have a love-hate relationship with copy editors. I love when they fix the atrocious writing of others but hate when they start mucking with my own prose.

My co-author and I recently spent hours undoing the damage of a copy editor, who insisted on changing perfectly good English into writing that was unrecognizable to us. We wasted time arguing the semantic differences between “since” and “because,” and how rewriting someone’s sentence can lead to a different meaning of the results. The end of the relationship came after the copy editor insisted on spelling out acronyms when they were the proper name of journals, like PLoS Biology.

You can’t argue with someone with a stylebook.

As for love, I must disclose that I was once in love with a copy editor. Her photographic memory was perfect for finding discrepancies separated by hundreds of pages of text. She was also prone to finding inconsistencies in my words over several weeks. “Did I really say that?” I discovered that it was useless playing Ronald Reagan when she was unwilling to play Nancy. Like a manuscript, I was rejected.

Now where was I?

There are many who argue that copy editing adds real value to published products, although these claims usually come from copy editors themselves. Some publishers have given up on copy editing entirely. Others apply a light touch to the title and abstract but go no further. Editors are keen to push authors into the hands of a rapidly growing external academic writing and editing industry rather than absorbing the costs of copy editing themselves.

In the end, I suppose that it doesn’t matter what copy editors believe. The market will decide for them.

In a recent piece in the April print edition of Against the Grain (“Copyediting’s Role in an Open-Access World”), Sandy Thatcher, Director Emeritus of the Penn State Press, decided to find out exactly how much copy editors add to publications in the humanities and social sciences.

Thatcher entrusted a few copy editors to compare a small group of final author manuscripts deposited in Harvard University’s DASH (Digital Access to Scholarship at Harvard) repository with their published versions. Many DASH records include links to the publisher’s version of record.

He reported that most errors were minor, such as spelling errors, subject/verb disagreements, dangling modifiers, and others Thatcher calls “stylistic infelicities.” His editors also spotted more important problems in the author manuscript, such as quotation errors, citation errors, and errors in tables and figures. One editor came up with a more disconcerting error in an author version: The omission of author identity details, conflict of interest statement, funding information, and an acknowledgment section.

While Thatcher is clear to point out that most copy editor corrections were minor and made to improve the clarity of the language or to enforce a “house style,” he does point out the problem of errors in citation and quotation and how these types of mistakes have a way of being perpetuated in the scholarly record.

For me, the lack of author declaration and conflict of interest statements from an author manuscript are more problematic, as these omissions change the interpretation of a document. I’m much more concerned about enforcing transparency over style.

Institutional repositories are not set up as editorial offices. Those working to create a working digital repository or entrusted to solicit manuscripts from publishing faculty are not in the position to check for errors or omissions. Their roles are to gather up author manuscripts and make them publicly available. Behind this work rests the assumption that these manuscripts are “good enough” for public consumption.

Thatcher’s small but detailed analysis shows that, for the most part, author manuscripts may indeed be good enough for public consumption, but we should acknowledge some caveats with his study:

  • First, his study was conducted on the output of the most prestigious research institution in the world. We should acknowledge that Harvard scholars — representing some of the leaders of their fields — are also highly skilled in creating accurate, well-written manuscripts. Had Thatcher selected a different repository, we may have seen more errors.
  • Second, Harvard is located in an English-speaking country. Even if some of its scholars emanate from the non-English speaking world, we assume that they are competent enough with the language to make it to Harvard and join their faculty.
  • Last, DASH records include a link to the published version of the document. While DASH does its best to point to the authoritative version of the article, it becomes incumbent upon the reader to find out if significant changes were made to the article. I am unaware of repositories, other than PubMed Central, that link article correction and retraction statements to a deposited article.

Depending on how you interpret Thatcher’s findings, “good enough” may only be good enough for Harvard University.

Two papers published in 2007 in Learned Publishing also investigated the changes between author manuscripts and final published versions. Ed Wates and Bob Campbell (“Author’s version vs. publisher’s version: an analysis of the copy-editing function”) tracked changes in 189 articles published in 23 journals — 145 articles from STM journals; 44 articles from humanities and social science journals. Most of the changes (42.7%) they report had to do with incorrect or missing references. A total of 34.5% of changes dealt with typographical, grammatical, or stylistic changes; 13.6% of changes dealt with missing data; and 5.5% concerned textual changes that altered the meaning of the text. They write:

None of these materially altered the conclusions of an article, which is more the purview of the peer-review process, but they did produce a more consistent and accurate article of record. This is particularly important in the electronic environment, where accuracy of linking, for example, could be critical in establishing correct citation data.

In a later issue of Learned Publishing, David Goodman and others compared 24 self-archived author manuscripts in biochemistry and the social sciences with the published version (“Open access and accuracy: author-archived manuscripts vs. published articles”). While they did not investigate citation errors, their results were similar to those of Wates and Campbell. Some of the author manuscripts were identical to the published version, suggesting that the publisher was not providing copy editing services. In others, where the English was deficient, the copy editor rewrote much of the article. While most editorial changes aided in the readability of the paper, in some cases Goodman preferred the author’s manuscript. He writes:

While differences were indeed found in article pair comparisons, none was serious enough to invalidate significant data, conclusions, or overall validity of the findings; none would warrant a published correction or retraction.

We should remind ourselves that all three studies investigate the changes that take place after a manuscript has passed through peer review. The purpose of copy editing is not to detect serious flaws in theory, methodology, analysis or interpretation — that is the responsibility of peer review — but simply to make a paper more consistent and readable. We should therefore not expect to find fatal errors at the copy editing stage, as implied in the Goodman study.

Still, we are left hanging on whether copy editing sufficiently improves an academic article to justify its persistence, and ultimately this question rests on whether you value its services.

Are accepted author manuscripts “good enough” for public consumption?

Enhanced by Zemanta
Phil Davis

Phil Davis

Phil Davis is a publishing consultant specializing in the statistical analysis of citation, readership, publication and survey data. He has a Ph.D. in science communication from Cornell University (2010), extensive experience as a science librarian (1995-2006) and was trained as a life scientist.


35 Thoughts on "Copy Editing and Open Access Repositories"

If I were copyediting this blog, I would put the following author query: “Ronald Reagan, not Ronald Regan?”

Of course, no one likes to have mistakes pointed out, which is probably why copy editors are so unpopular.

This error gets to the heart of the question — How much value does restoring the “a” add to this post? Was there really any ambiguity about who Phil was referring to? How many readers actually registered it as a mistake? Was anyone really confused?

What’s really interesting now is that I just corrected the error (and made it obvious, for posterity). With print, perfectability isn’t part of the publishing system. Do copy editors become more valuable with online publishing, because their role can extend further into post-publication?

It’s Reagan, not Regan…

These studies don’t assess the tacit impact of reading a paper with grammatical errors. Even if the conclusions remain intact, a sloppy paper may influence a reader as to the ability of the author to collaborate on the writing of future papers, to teach authoritatively, or to present well. To some minds, imperfect writing hints at a lack of rigor; readers may wonder if the author is unwilling to put checking systems in place in other areas, such as experimental design or analysis.

For an outside manuscript accepted for publication by a outside scholarly journal, not by one of our authors, I just queried the use of “years” where it probably should be “months.” A good copy editor catches more than missing serial commas; we are an extra pair of eyes trained to catch anything that seems wrong, additional protection against errors in content as well as copy.

“I love when they fix the atrocious writing of others but hate when they start mucking with my own prose.”

The writer obviously considers himself beyond criticism, while he admits the possibility that others’ writing may need fixing.

The very sentence quoted could do with some tweaking.

Ruth is correct. If you want a sloppy image, you may have a sloppy image.

Apparently, rhetoric is lost on you. The sentence you quote is about a mentality we all possess, which is to instinctively defend our own writing. Phil is the last person in the world who actually thinks his writing is beyond reproach or can’t be improved.

And I fixed the spacing problem you left in your comment, by the way. Just a friendly copy edit.

1. It is scarcely netiquette to comment on a space in such a post. When I post in this sort of format, I am unable to see the finished text. But I am indebted to you for you assistance.

2. As a writer, I can assure you that I do not instinctively defend my own writing.

3. Although I also edit and proofread, I have sufficient humility to consult others on matters of usage and, where a book is concerned, to put myself in the hands of a copy editor.

As to netiquette, an error is an error, and you were the one lecturing about “sloppy.”

I think you’ve just provided evidence to refute your second point.

I agree with Ruth.

However, if you don’t care about the missing “a” in Reagan, if you don’t care about language, if your belief is that meaning is in some way totally separate (or at least separable) from grammar and syntax, then no, copy editing is not important.

Do you care if people write “regime” when they mean “regimen”? If not, then copy editing is not important.

If you can understand the orthography used in text messaging, does that make it acceptable for use in scholarly publishing?

First, Phil, how many unedited journal manuscripts written by non-native speakers of English have you seen that are in “good enough” shape to publish without having been copyedited?

Second, we copyeditors* aren’t the only ones who find that copyediting adds value. There is some research showing that readers prefer edited materials, perceiving them to be of higher quality than unedited materials:

*Yes, many of us in the United States who edit books and journals use “copyeditor” and “copyediting.” It’s more common to see “copy editor” and “copy editing” among U.S. journalists.

You should note that your first point is a caveat Phil put against the first study he summarized — just choosing papers from Harvard isn’t a good proxy for the larger world full of authors who either aren’t at Harvard or who self-select to stay away, quite probably because they struggle with written English. I think he’s well-aware of how much help these authors can use.

As to the two studies you offer to support your claim, one is a very thin study of a small group of news readers, and the type of editing done to achieve the effect the authors claim to have detected isn’t clearly delineated from what I can see; the second is even more difficult to understand viz copy editing, as it seemed the A/B test was unedited pages vs. pages edited by an excellent editor who probably did more than just spruce up the grammar.

As to your footnoted item, it’s always amused me that copy editors quibble over whether their field is “copy editing” (two words) or “copyediting” (one word). In some ways, it’s that kind of obsession with minutiae that both charms and reassures authors and bedevils and perplexes them. And I worked as a copy editor for years.

Kent, in your reply to me, “well-aware” should not carry a hyphen and “they’re” should become “their.” Even copyeditors need copyeditors.

Disagree on “well-aware” and fixed “they’re”. Thanks. Again, what part of my message was hard to understand despite those things?

Your message wasn’t hard to understand; it had sloppy errors.

Would you be so kind as to explain “well-aware” for the benefit of the uninitiated?


The adverb “well” is often used in combination with past participles to form adjectival compounds. The general stylistic principle for hyphenation is that if the adjectival compound is placed attributively (i.e. before the noun), it should be hyphenated (“a well-intentioned remark”) but that if it is placed predicatively (i.e. standing alone after the verb), it should not be hyphenated (“her remarks were well intentioned”). (

“Well-aware” does not need to be hyphenated in this instance. The hyphenation only occurs when the phrase is adjectival, i.e. when it is describing something after it. As “well-aware” in this context comes after the thing it describes (“He”) it does not need to be hyphenated.

I don’t think anyone is really saying copy-editing does not add some sort of value. But the cost of copy editing is currently more than the cost of copy editing.

Scholarly Communication is in a rut. It’s a broken market. Public funds to ‘do’ the research and write up the research, but the final job of putting it online locks it away from most and charges unsustainable high amounts to the people who created it in the first place. It also transfers the IP away from those who actually created the intellectual content.

Publishing (academic journals) can be seen as:
– facilitating between author/peer reviewers
– copy editing
– hosting on a website (and creating a printed version as well).

If copy editing can be removed from the publisher’s responsibility then that leaves clerical facilitation and web hosting as the final hurdles to resolve (oh and another, publishers own the names of well respected journals).

Perhaps copy editing can be carried out at the institution level, or outsourced to third parties who do it for a set fee (not for copyright ownership).

What level of copy editing is required in the future remains to be seen. Can we afford ‘House Style’? Do we need to format an article to look like a printed journal (which actually makes it harder to read online). If academics knew that spelling mistakes they left in their article would appear in the final version would they make more effort themselves to check it?


This is an overly simplistic view of academic publishing. Selection, correction, resolution of conflicts of interest, rejection, and publication take more than just copy editing and hosting. Stewardship of a corpus of articles often 100+ years old is a bigger task. Editorials teams numbering in the dozens across the world have to be aligned and managed. Authors, readers, and customers all need to be addressed.

As for copy editing, I think most readers know that it’s difficult to even define what we’re talking about with certainty. Some “copy editors” are proofreaders, while some are de facto content experts who edit manuscripts. There’s a vast range of expertise within the field. Having worked with those at the high end of the expertise scale, I can tell you that you DEFINITELY want those people on your side as an editor, author, or publisher. They will save your bacon quite often.

Authors aren’t pure of motive, perfect in execution, or appropriate for every audience. But to think that “clerical facilitation” is what leads to some of the great journals we have (oh, and web hosting) is simplistic to a fault. Journals rise or fall based on all sorts of factors not enumerated by your comment, Chris. And to claim that the market is “broken” is just reckless hyperbole. It’s hardly broken. It’s evolving and growing, but it’s hardly broken.

As for formatting issues, the fact is that the PDF still rules the world in online academic publishing, because our audiences trust and like the traditional journal page presentation. That will change over time, but it’s going to change naturally, not because we force it on readers.

The copyeditor who wrote about editing STM journals for the issue of ATG that I co-edited recommended discontinuing editing for house style as outmoded in the digital environment. My own little survey of journal articles on the DASH site convinces me that the editing done for journals is lighter than it is for monographs. When i edited monographs, I did more than was evident in the editing of the articles I checked.

Yes, as a matter of fact, I was confused by the misspelling of Reagan’s name. In a piece of writing that was otherwise clean, it gave me pause. Was it a joke? Was he referring to someone other than the former president?

Does copyediting/copy editing matter? Let’s look at it this way. Does it matter if you appear in public with a wrinkled shirt and uncombed hair? I guess not. The world won’t come to a screeching halt. But people might think differently of you.

I hope that the editor checked with the author to verify that he intended Ronald ReAgan and not Donald Regan; the comment about Nancy could fit either.

We are seeing an ever-growing (I don’t care if someone thinks I shouldn’t use a hyphen here) number of submissions that either are unintelligible or require significant polishing before they are ready for final publication. These are not limited to authors who speak English as a second language, and they are not limited to authors from schools other than Harvard. Some of this is because submissions are coming from all over the world, and some is because authors have come to rely on publishers to provide this service.

I think copyediting services provided by professional copy editors (now everyone can complain) is a valuable, necessary function that publishers still need to provide.

As soon as I edit this, I’ll submit it.

And, oddly enough, there’s also Secretary of the Treasury and later Chief of Staff Donald Regan, who served under Ronald Reagan.

Thanks for the spirited comments. Please do try to keep things civil.

First, let me divulge that the misspelling of the former US President’s name was unintended. I was not schooled in the United States and arrived in this country during the Clinton administration. As many can attest, I make errors like this frequently.

That said, my copy editor should be admonished for not spotting and correcting this typo. KENT, YOU’RE FIRED!!!!! 😉

Second, the intended purpose of this post was to delve into the question of whether copy editing is adding sufficient value to the academic publishing process in an environment where many authors are permitted (or required) to post their final manuscripts in open access repositories. If not, and the manuscript is a “good-enough” surrogate for the final published copy (or version of record), then publishers will need to consider whether to continue supporting this service. My remark that the market will ultimately decide the fate of copy editing represents the current state of the profession: Some publishers insist on keeping copy editors and maintaining a house style, others apply a light touch to copy editing, and some have decided to cease providing the service altogether–steering authors to commercial copy editors.

Ruth (#2) argues that sloppy writing may be indicative of poor attention to detail and may call into question the authority of the work. While I acknowledge this position, this argument only gives copy editing value through its association with quality science. It does not value copy editing in itself.

I’m not certain that all of the things that Ruth mentions can be grouped under the heading “good science.” Ultimately, if a paper is hard to understand or ambiguous because of language issues, some people (rightly or wrongly, good science or bad) will dismiss it simply because they don’t have time to decipher it.

I don’t think there’s really a question of whether copyediting adds value; the question is whether the added value is worth what it costs authors and publishers (i.e., the cost-benefit principle).

“While I acknowledge this position, this argument only gives copy editing value through its association with quality science. It does not value copy editing in itself.”

If copy editing has a value, even if only by association with quality science, it has a value.

I’ve had good and bad experiences with copyeditors (the worst being the student assistant employed by a journal who changed half my article until it made no sense at all).

While I was a grad student, I worked as a RA to others, tracking down every footnote and checking every quotation. Even the most conscientious scholars make small errors in transcription. I only wish I had someone to do that kind of checking for me now!

I’m seeing more publishers though throwing the cost of copy-editing onto the author. So either you have the cash to pay for your own editing, or you accept maybe sending some errors to press. Is this the choice? (I’m also noticing more typos and errors in books published in the last couple of years – even by major university presses. Coincidence?)

Katrina, many university presses have always had small budgets but now have seen them whittled down to almost nothing. These presses want their freelance copyeditors to provide champagne work on a beer budget, so those freelancers who can edit other types of works look elsewhere for better-paying clients. I dropped university presses from my client list years ago because I couldn’t make a decent living working with them.


A “student assistant employed by a journal” is not a professional copyeditor. Just as owning a camera does not make one a photographer, owning a red pen (or a degree in English, for that matter) does not make one a copyeditor.

If I have done my job well, you will not notice my changes, and you may be surprised at how well you wrote some sentences.

There has been an ongoing, highly public critique of the Washington Post’s credibility since the paper is now full of typos, misspellings, poor grammar, and incorrect word usage (after the Post bought out the experienced copy editors). Even their Ombudsman has written mea culpas about how these constant errors in copy editing erode the reader’s trust in the overall reporting quality. I used to be a reporter, and even now, I cringe at poorly proofed and copy edited content, and it does make me wonder what else is “sloppy” in the content.

My two cents.

What is so terrible about having an extra pair of eyes to look over an article, story, or manuscript? Why would an author *not* want to publish the best piece of work possible? A copy editor offers a different perspective, a needed perspective, to an author. This service is invaluable!

When I see errors in copy, I conclude that the research, opinions, and arguments in the copy are also flawed and lazy. When I know that the author has paid attention to detail, I feel more confident about spending my (ever-dwindling!) time reading his/her work.

Just to amplify on Phil’s explanation of the study I conducted, I chose Harvard partly because of the claim that IRs serve the function of enhancing the reputation of a university; if the articles posted were replete with grammatical and other errors, then I would assume that this result would tend to disprove the claim. I also emphasized that the articles might be “good enough” for some purposes, like use in the classroom or keeping up with the literature, but not for scholarly citation, especially if they contained a lot of errors in quotations and references. It troubles me that later scholars would rely on such flawed works, thereby perpetuating such errors. Traditionally, copyeditors have not checked quotations because it was very time-consuming and expensive to do so. That cost, thanks to massive digitization projects like Google’s, has come way down as it is often easy to compare a quotation in a manuscript with the quotation in the original, now found in digitized form online. I would prefer myself that copyeditors spent more time checking quotes than on enforcing a house style, which has less to justify it in a digital environment anyway. I found enough errors in the Harvard scholars’ quotations that I checked to make a good case for more emphasis on this type of editing.

Rodney Says:

The adverb “well” is often used in combination with past participles to form adjectival compounds . . . . it should not be hyphenated (“her remarks were well intentioned”). (

But “aware” is not a past participle, as far as I am aware.

The link provided did not provide any hyphens at all.


The link provided was a citation, so to speak. Try a Google search for more info.

Interesting post, and the cited studies raise some provocative questions about the true value of copy editing (as an editor myself I appreciate the challenge they represent!). But this paragraph seems to answer the question for now:

“There are many who argue that copy editing adds real value to published products, although these claims usually come from copy editors themselves. Some publishers have given up on copy editing entirely. Others apply a light touch to the title and abstract but go no further. Editors are keen to push authors into the hands of a rapidly growing external academic writing and editing industry rather than absorbing the costs of copy editing themselves.”

That is, it’s not that publishers no longer recognise the value of good copy editing (they’re encouraging their authors to seek help elsewhere), but simply that their margins are so fine now that many can no longer (or don’t want to) pay for it.

Comments are closed.