By Axel Gelfert
It's been a while since I last wrote a post as part of the series 'Publishing as process', which I promised would discuss some of the mechanics of publishing. Sorry for the long hiatus -- in my defence, I was busy finishing a book and taking care of a newborn...
In my last post, I urged authors to proofread their books and papers properly; this usually requires several iterations -- it's amazing how one can read the same material over and over again and miss glaring typos (which is why it's important to budget enough time, so as to give oneself a break in-between). It helps, of course, if one can hire a research assistant (or get someone else to read one's manuscript as a favour); for both my books, I was lucky enough to be able to hire an undergraduate research assistant who did a stellar job spotting typos, highlighting possible ambiguities, and pointing out formatting issues.
Today, I'd like to continue in the same vein, but focus on interacting with copy editors. In my experience, the competence and professionalism of copy editors can vary drastically, even for the same journal. I've had my fair share of positive and negative experience. Some of the variation is due to publishers having outsourced production to companies overseas. Thus, my first book, A Critical Introduction to Testimony (published by Bloomsbury), was copy-edited very competently by an external company in India, and the most recent one, How to Do Science With Models: A Philosophical Primer (published by Springer) by a Springer subsidiary, also in India. (In the former case, I was able to get them to produce an additional -- third -- round of proofs, just to make sure that all my changes as well as the index were implemented correctly; in the latter case, I had to fight quite hard to get a very favourable endorsement by a senior scholar included on the inside cover -- the bigger the publisher, the more rigid their templates and production procedures seem to be!)
One recurring issue with journal publishing is the quick turnaround time: you wait for months to get the paper reviewed and accepted, and then an email arrives telling you to return the corrected proofs "within 48 hrs". As if this wasn't bad enough, it seems that some copy editors have a penchant for unilaterally making changes to the manuscript. Sometimes this may be due to technical issues. My recent book, in philosophy of science, contains a number of fairly complex mathematical formulas, and even though I had used a formula editor (and even had the source code in TeX), apparently these were typeset again separately, leading to some errors (which, luckily, I was able to catch at the proof stage). That much seems inevitable, given the complexity of typesetting software and the vagaries of word processors.
What seems less excusable are unilateral changes that are clearly intentional. I once received the proofs of a paper in which I had used the phrase "A nice example of this would be..." a couple of times. The copy editor had changed this to "A pleasing example of this..." which, correct me if I'm wrong, sounds a bit silly. In another case, I described a Gricean picture of communication, in which a speaker S (="she") tries to communicate a belief of hers to a hearer H (="he"). Using "he" and "she" in this way nicely helped to keep track of the different roles of the speaker and hearer. Unfortunately, in a misplaced attempt to be gender-neutral, the copy editor made changes that rendered the whole example unintelligible, by editing perfectly clear sentences into something like this: "The way in which H is intended to arrive at her/his belief that p is by taking S’s act of telling (for example, her/his perceptible utterance of certain sounds) as evidence of her/his intention to get H to believe that p, and subsequently to take her/his having that intention as evidence that S her/himself has the belief that p."
On yet another occasion, a copy editor with a penchant for etymology and differences between British and American English entered into a lengthy email exchange with me. While this was probably unnecessary, in the end I found it to be an informative exchange (especially for me as a non-native speaker/writer of English), and I was even a little touched by the detailed attention this person was giving my manuscript.
So, let's hear from readers about some of their best/worst experiences with copy editors!