With the arrival of open access, publishers are understandably worried they might be cut out of the process. To demonstrate their contribution, they’ve compared papers before and after copy-editing.
Given that Robert Campbell is President and Publisher of Blackwell, and Edward Wates is Blackwell’s UK Journal Production Director, it should be no surprise the study give a rosy picture of the contributions by their own publishing company.
It may also be no surprise that overwhelming number of errors involve citations – a category of error which might be caused in part by publishers’ insistence upon in-house style guides. (Even so, when that many people with advanced degrees can’t figure out how to format a footnote, citation formats need rethinking.)
The Wates and Campbell paper follows other data-laden but interest-driven attacks that amount to, “Open access: it’s not as good as you think”. See, for example, reports by the Publishing Research Consortium (Do Open Access Articles Have Greater Citation Impact?) and the Association of Learned and Professional Society Publishers (The Facts About Open Access).
These should be taken with a grain of salt – if publishers didn’t think open access posed a big threat, they wouldn’t be hiring PR strategists. A more balanced study can be found over at the open access Digital Library of Information Science and Technology (DLIST):
…there was no question that the work of the copy-editors improved the readability of most papers…
It’s remarkable that studies have been conducted on this topic. The value of copy-editing should be obvious. However, I am reminded of a Supreme Court of Canada copyright decision that bugged me because of the way the court characterized copy editing. Their reasoning was that fixes to spelling and grammar didn’t warrant copyright protection because this editing was a “mere mechanical exercise” undertaken “without any skill or judgement”.
This seems off the mark. If good writing didn’t take skill and judgement, we wouldn’t have copy-editors, would we? It would have been better for the court to say some types of skill and judgement attract copyright protection, whereas others do not.
Here’s the court’s final draft, absent my ‘mechanical exercise’:
Even though copy-editing is incidental to authorship, at least inasmuch as copyright is concerned, publishers who say that authors’ manuscripts are made better by editing are right. Author’s drafts are filled with errors and confusions in numbers enough to make a careful reader weep.
They are wrong though, that a world without publishers’ editors necessarily diminishes the quality of scholarly literature, and mistakenly assume open access must take place without copy-editing.
Also, it would be wrong to say that in-house copy-editors are saving scholarship from bad writing. A quick survey of the existing literature in any discipline will turn up a lot of excruciating prose. You can’t blame copy-editors for this – they aren’t supposed to make stylistic changes or re-write swaths of text to make them comprehensible. It is authors’ own fault when their papers are unreadable.
So, here’s a twist: Perhaps readers should be aware of the frailties of an author’s writing. If authors didn’t have publishers’ editing as a safety net, public ridicule in a free market of words might inspire them to learn how to use commas and format footnotes for themselves.
A more realistic suggestion is that authors pick up the tab for fixing their bad writing. There’s no reason for publishers to shift the cost of editing to readers and libraries.
Either way, open access gives authors incentives to be better writers.
How’s that for framing the debate?
(Hat-tip to OptimalScholarship via Peter Suber, for mention of the OA copy editing studies)
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