Author Review of Copyediting Changes
November 22, 2006 to November 23, 2006
Here is a question for journal editors. A recent experience with a manuscript we submitted to a journal has me dumbfounded. I have never considered doing this in my role as journal editor, and in my experience as an author have never encountered it before.
The manuscript in question was reviewed, accepted and sent for copyediting prior to publication. We received the proofs with 3 days to review, a fairly normal practice. However, the article had been re-written! Sections had been moved from Methods to Results (incorrectly), the whole article had been rearranged, wording changed significantly, tables re-formatted in such a way that they presented data incorrectly, and the conclusions of the paper were reworded to say exactly the opposite of our findings. Some calculations were also performed (again incorrectly) and the results put into the paper. This was a fairly well-known North American journal that reports clinical and health outcomes research.
Even forgetting the errors that can be introduced into a manuscript, do any of the journal editors on this list agree that it is acceptable for your journal to make major modifications to manuscripts at the copyediting stage (ie, to rearrange data tables and sections of the manuscript, to change content, to perform new calculations—as opposed to grammatical, punctuation, style, and format changes that ensure the article conforms to journal guidelines)?
I would appreciate hearing opinions on this.
Sounds way beyond what is normally done. Most journals that I know, including ours, do extensive copy editing, but then return it to the author for approval. New England Journal often restructures papers, but also asks author approval.
Michael D Lockshin
Editor-in-Chief, Arthritis & Rheumatism
I agree with Dr. Lockshin. We also do extensive copyediting (sometimes it is substantive), but always ask authors to review and approve all changes before moving ahead in the editorial production process. Changes not approved by the author are not made. Authors see the final complete layout of their articles before publication.
Publishing Director, American Journal of Critical Care and Critical Care Nurse
I am breathless! It is unimaginable!! My copy editor is reluctant to add a comma!!!
In my long experience as an author's editor in a university biomedical research center, I've seen such misguided extensive editing twice. One paper had been accepted to a highly esteemed general interest journal and the other to the top journal in a specialty field.
In both cases, the corresponding author and I wrote to the editor-in-chief of the journal, explaining the reasons that the journal's editing was misguided. In both cases, the author was assured that such a thing would never happen again and the paper was restored to the version that had been accepted. In defense of those copyeditors—one of whom, I learned, lost his job—copyediting for a journal under rigorous deadlines can be highly stressful and, if the copyeditor doesn't acknowledge his or her limitations, simply exhausting. If a journal is severely understaffed or uses freelances who are working past their limitations to make ends meet, such a thing happens from time to time. That is not to say such unprofessional work is excusable—only that there may be as much reason for compassion as for indignation.
Extensive editing at the journal is not always problematic, though—when I was new to biomedical editing, I had the privilege of seeing papers accepted to Clinical Chemistry, which was then edited by J. Stanton King. Dr King's extensive editing of the papers I had helped with was breathtaking in its precision and insight—I learned so much from him!
To add a note to the discussion about author's editors—in an effort to unite this profession, the Board of Editors in the Life Sciences (BELS) was established in 1991 to provide a standard of proficiency for editing in the life sciences. Information about the Board can be found at www.BELS.org.
My very first journal article was an extensive review for a very major journal in my field. The copy editor came back with extensive re-writes, which didn't feel correct to me in terms of clarity or grammar. But what did I know? It was my first paper. I accepted all but one of the the extensive wording changes and have cringed every single time I read the paper in the 20 years since.
Although I have had other experiences that were problematic (although never to that extent), I do know enough now to say 'no' when I don't agree with the changes and have never been over-ridden by the editor. My closest was an argument last year with a copy editor who was not familiar with the class of statistics I was using in my analyses. After a long and very cordial exchange, we both agree that the way the statistics reported should stay as they were.
Perhaps we might double check the instructions we give to authors with proofs to remind them of their rights as authors and that they should talk to an author in case of a problem.
BTW - the problem seems to be that copy editors do their work and then send their changes with PROOFS rather than make their changes, send them in manuscript form and THEN the material goes to the typesetter.
Associate Editor, Journal of Adolescence
It seems very unusual to do the copy editing at such a late stage of the process. At Australian Prescriber, we do the copy editing before finally accepting the paper and do not publish the revised version without the author’s agreement.
The events Donna describes would have been unlikely to occur in the days of hot metal type; it was too expensive to make changes. Electronic publication creates the temptation to make multiple revisions.
John S Dowden
Editor, Australian Prescriber
Extensive restructuring of the manuscript, besides grammatical changes, is a common practice in many small medical journals; we have to do extensive changes with often restructuring the accepted manuscripts, omitting tables, figures, graphs; inserting other tables, graphs; presenting statistics in other ways, etc, to shape the manuscript in an acceptable form. Certainly, we do not (intentionally) change the contents/results of the manuscripts. However, we always ask the authors to check and approve the changes we made. Almost all these changes are accepted by authors; in fact, over the past 15 years of my experience, I encountered just two or three authors who did not accept some of the changes.
I strongly urge journals to take Nancy Darling's advice and send copyediting results to authors before the proof stage.
This is the main feature of the editorial process changes we instituted for an English-language journal published from a non-Anglophone setting. About 90% of the articles we publish receive heavy copyediting, and between 30% to 40% require major reordering of information, removal of figures, or reorganization of tables. And yes, even changes in numbers. (One wonders what peer reviewers do!) Authors have been unanimously pleased with the results because they are consulted at every turn on specifics and they see the effect of copyediting tracked at least once; the article remains their expression of their research experience, even in their own English voices.
The copyediting cycle is one month long. Occasionally an article has taken longer, usually because of author unavailability. In those cases, we've bumped the article from the assigned issue to the next one and substituted a less time-consuming article.