Re: STM Publisher Briefing on Institution Repository Deposit Mandates

From: <ZielinskiC_at_ZW.AFRO.WHO.INT>
Date: Tue, 20 Jan 2009 15:33:12 +0200

Fytton Rowland is treading on thin ice when he says "in India...where
the staff are very good at checking the references, but no (sic!)
quite so good - for obvious reasons - at improving the English.".
About two percent of India's 1 billion people claim English as their
first language - 20 million people. So the reasons are not so


Nevertheless, my United Nations system editing experience suggests
that the worst editorial problems are often posed by native speakers,
not by second-language writers. People using English as a second
language tend to deploy a limited vocabulary in a small range of
grammatical shapes and sentence structures. They also seem to handle
"which/that" and "owing to/due to" choices better, never use
archaisms like "whilst" or "amongst", don't confuse subject and
object... Errors are generally consistent and thus easy to correct
(so that, for example, in something written by a German with a poor
command of the language, you simply lasso the verb back to the middle
of a sentence...). There are exceptions to this rule, of course. I
still remember with anguish a text written by a Japanese scholar...


Overall, most authors seem happy enough when you correct their texts.
They express a guilty gratitude that you have saved them from
humiliation and make endearing excuses for their mistakes ("My
calculator wasn't working," said one abashed writer when I pointed
out that his numbers didn't add up, and that the actual result
contradicted his principal conclusion).


In general though, to really screw up syntax and grammar, you need a
British or American native-English speaker, and they can also be the
most patronising and quarrelsome when you correct their work
(especially if you have a surname like mine).







Chris Zielinski

WHO Sub-Regional Office in Harare, Zimbabwe

E: and


-----Original Message-----
From: American Scientist Open Access Forum
On Behalf Of J.F.Rowland
Sent: 20 January 2009 13:43
Subject: Re: STM Publisher Briefing on Institution Repository Deposit


I started my career in information work as a full-time scientific

copy-editor at The Biochemical Society in London.  I can say that the

where we (the staff copy-editors) *did* find a lot of substantive
errors was

in the reference lists; scientists were then (40 years ago)

bad at getting references right.   From memory I would say a typical

rate was about 20% of the references in a given paper having some
sort of

error in them.   Of course, today we have many automated systems for

handling references that avoid rekeying them.  But the author has to
get the

reference right in the first place.  And if you ever use the Science

Citation Index to do a citation analysis, you will see in a moment

there are an awful lot of 'orphan' references in there, orphaned

because there is an obvious misprint in them.


That aside, the main benefit of copy-editing is in the improvement of

language to make it clear and unambiguous, expecially if the authors

working in a language that is not their mother tongue.  In chemistry,

particularly, attention to the niceties of nomenclature is also

if you get the nomenclature wrong, you end up referring to the wrong

compound, which is certainly a 'substantive' error.


There is much anecdotal evidence that the standard of copy-editing

deteriorated in recent years, probably owing to cost-cutting by

 It is rarely done today by in-house permanent staff.  It is
outsourced and

the rates paid do not encourage thorough work.  It may also be done

India, where the staff are very good at checking the references, but

quite so good - for obvious reasons- at improving the English.


See my 'Points of View' piece in the current issue of Learned

 I'd better make very sure to get this reference right  (8-)  !


Rowland, F. (2009) Copy-editing - Essential or Frill?  Learned

22(1), 71-72


Fytton Rowland, retired, formerly at Loughborough University, UK.


On Mon, 19 Jan 2009 18:36:09 -0500

  Stevan Harnad <amsciforum_at_GMAIL.COM> wrote:

> On Mon, Jan 19, 2009 at 3:14 PM, Sandy Thatcher

><> wrote:

> The only statement in Stevan's commentary that I find


>> and questionable--because it is stated with such

>>certainty of its

>> truth, with no reference to any empirical backing, which


>> unusual for Stevan--is the claim that it is "exceedingly


>> (Stevan's emphasis) for copyediting "to detect any


>> errors" in articles. I have no evidence to disprove this


>> that is based on systematic investigation of my own, but

>>in all

>> the years I spent as a copyeditor myself, it does not

>>ring true,

>> and was not consistent with my own experience in editing

>> scholarly work in the humanities and social sciences.

> But Sandy, you were copy-editing books, and I was

>talking about journal

> articles (OA's target content)!

> And during those years you were copy-editing at

>Princeton, I was editing (a

> journal) at Princeton. My only evidence is from those 25

>years: Lots of

> substantive errors were caught by the editor (me!), but

>that was part of the

> peer review, the editor being a super-peer. Negligibly

>few were ever caught

> by the copy-editors...

> Are the sciences any different? Not according to one

>editor who

>> has worked on thousands of scientific articles, who

>>commented on

>> a draft of my article on "The Value Added by


>> (Against the Grain, September 2008). Among other things,


>> testified that "even in highly technical articles 'the


>> are usually accompanied by thickets of impenetrable

>>prose,' and a

>> lot of his work 'involves making sure that the text and


>> equations say the same thing.' He also adds that he

>>checks 'the

>> basic math in tables, since it's amazing how often

>>scientists get

>> the sums and averages wrong.'"

> There's a lot of awfully bad writing in science, alas,

>and the copy-editing

> is usually so light that it doesn't make the writing

>much better. But I said

> *substantive* errors, and the responsibility for

>catching those is the

> referees' (and editor's), not the copy-editor's.

> A study by Malcolm Wright and J. Scott Armstrong titled


>> Towers of Knowledge" in the March/April 2008 issue of


>> also found high rates of errors in citations and


>> partly because researchers relied on preprints and never


>> to check the accuracy of citations and quotations from


>> preprints. I would consider these "substantive errors,"


>> they are not simply matters of style or grammar. So, I

>>would ask

>> Stevan whence his high degree of confidence in this


>> derives. Nothing in my experience, or that of other

>>editors I

>> have asked, bears it out.

> Sandy and I clearly mean something different by

>"substantive errors": I

> wouldn't consider citation errors substantive (though

>it's certainly useful

> to correct them).  I think citations and even quotations

>will be

> increasingly checked by software, online, as everything

>is made OA. But I

> agree that only the future will decide how much

>copy-editing service

> author/institutions will be prepared to pay for, if and

>when journal

> publishing downsizes to just peer-review (plus

>copy-editing) alone.

> Stevan Harnad
Received on Tue Jan 20 2009 - 14:05:29 GMT

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