Is having a pay copy-editing service a new low?

Felipe Voloch calls the introduction of a service by which one pays Elsevier to fix the English of your article “a new new low”. This wasn’t my reaction at all, and I was curious what people thought of this.

My initial reaction is that this is how capitalism is supposed to work: people need a service they cannot provide for themselves, and so they pay someone to do it for them. I honestly don’t see how else the English of scientific articles (which is of quite uneven quality) is going to get fixed. It’s not the referee’s job to so comprehensively, and while it would be nice to think this could be handled by informal networks (which is essentially what Chris Brav suggests) this doesn’t seem to be happening.

Now, I could easily imagine that this is not actually a good service; my experience with copy-editors working on my accepted papers has not left me all that impressed but I don’t see why it is a priori problematic.

33 thoughts on “Is having a pay copy-editing service a new low?

  1. I just returned the page proofs for a paper to appear in Proceedings of the AMS, which had been worked over (at no cost to me!) by trained professional copy editors (who furthermore have a thorough knowledge of typesetting). I think the English was already pretty good, so I don’t know how well they’d deal with serious grammatical problems, but they did make some real improvements in readability. I haven’t encountered any publisher besides the AMS which provides a similar service.

  2. A few decades ago, publishers provided a number of services including typesetting, printing, distribution and, yes, some copy-editing. They deserved to be remunareted for it. The authors now do their own typesetting thanks to TeX, printing is obsolete and distribution is essentially free, thanks to the Internet and now they want to charge for the last value that they might have been adding to papers. To make more money they also resort to the kind of stuff that the earlier blog post talked about. I don’t have any goodwill left for commercial publishers.

  3. I don’t see why this service is necessarily tied to the publisher. If there’s a market for it, could not some 3rd party offer a competing copy-editing service?

    If they did, would Felipe have a similar objection?

  4. What I’m curious about is whether Elsevier’s English-fixers would respect the integrity of the mathematics itself, i.e., whether they hire people who understand the idiosyncrasies of mathematical English. That the copy editors at the AMS would do a relatively good job is not terribly surprising to me.

  5. Considering that they charge only $210 and promise to do it in four days, I can’t imagine that they can do too good a job. One of the last things I do to any of my papers is to make sure all the comma rules are followed and that all my pronouns have antecedents. Exaggerating a bit, it takes me 4 days to do that on a 30 page paper.

    In particular, they are likely to only be able to handle superficial problems and not anything involving subfield-specific idioms or the like. (Certainly they’re not going to check if your pronouns have antecedents.) They’re saying they’re not going to re-write, so phrasings which are natural in your native language but awkward in English are going to stay the way they are.

  6. Felipe- I don’t have much goodwill for commercial publishers either, but I think it will be healthier for them to have a business model in which the decision to pay is taken by the people who receives the services. If people are unhappy with the results of the proofreading, they don’t have to patronize it again. I’m not sure that the actual net effects of this service will be something I like, but it seems like a reasonable thing for a business to do (I think in part this is Jacques’s point, if I understand correctly).

    Todd- They do say “input from PhDs or PhD candidates in your field.” But, who knows? We won’t know until we hear from someone who’s used it.

  7. The Prentice-Hall copy editor who worked (for free) on the first edition of our Category Theory for Computing Science was quite wonderful. That is the only example I know of where a copy editor really knew what he was doing.

  8. With other publishers (like AMS and Springer), copy-editing of journal articles is ultimately paid for by subscribers, who, after all, are paying the publisher for polished articles.

  9. Here is how this could be a bad thing. More journals these days are refusing to publish in any language other than English (the last main alternative, French, is being refused). If these same journals charge non-native English speakers to copy edit their articles, then this is effectively a tax on mathematicians who are not fluent in English. Even if publishers like AMS and Springer do not now charge for English copy editing, they may find themselves pushed to charge if this becomes standard for most other journals.

  10. One impression I got, despite their explicit disclaimer, is that they are preying upon non-English speakers who are afraid that their papers won’t be considered if they don’t get Elsevier’s “proper” copy-editing.

  11. Jason- It has some unfortunate consequences that being a research mathematician now requires learning English, but I don’t see this being Elsevier’s fault. Not to mention that this service isn’t equivalent to Elsevier not copy-editing accepted papers (an action which should be criticized, if it has happened); it’s just offering the copy-editing a la carte. Fixing the English of a paper well after it’s been accepted for publication is closing the barn door after the horses are gone anyways; in most cases, the people who were going to read it have already read it on the arXiv.

    Felipe- I agree that that could be unfortunate, but it’s a criticism that could be leveled at essentially any organization that does publishing and anything else. The AMS and LMS charge for membership; one could certainly imagine worrying that one’s membership status will have an effect on whether one’s paper will be accepted (not that I’m suggesting that would happen).

  12. Ben Webster said: “in most cases, the people who were going to read it have already read it on the arXiv.”

    Kind of makes one question why we bother with journals anyway (especially considering they insist on seizing our copyrights). The peer reviewers and (usually) the editors do their part for free, why don’t we as a community organize a peer review process decoupled from the publication process… you know, move into the 21st century, and all.

  13. Felipe Voloch (11), but this worry seems a bit unfounded to me (except if I get something completely wrong). As far as I understand, and I would be very interested to hear if this were handled otherwise somewhere, all relevant decisions on a paper are made by the scientific editors / mathematicians. So, this worry would somehow assume that these mathematicians’ decisions were directly influenced by whether one uses this service or not.

  14. an_mo_user- I think you may have misunderstood Felipe’s argument; he wasn’t claiming that this would influence editorial decisions, but that people might use this service hoping to influence editorial decisions, and that Elsevier may be intending to exploit this dynamic (I’m not sure how else to interpret the word “preying”) to make money.

  15. I’m still worried about the quality of this service. Their money back guarantee says: “If your manuscript is rejected during peer review due to English errors, we will re-edit it for free – or refund your payment unless the text changed after our returned edits.”

    The problem is that papers with significant English errors usually also have very serious English stylistic deficiencies – poor word choices, awkward phrasings, and the like. The stylistic deficiencies are far greater barriers to understanding a paper than the errors. I don’t see how they are going to fix stylistic deficiencies, especially on $210 and four days.

    I can’t really imagine a paper in mathematics being rejected purely for errors – rather than stylistic deficiencies – in English.

    I am worried that this move will make it harder for Elsevier editors to reject articles on grounds of stylistic inadequacies in language – I can see some nasty three-way arguments going on between editors, authors, and the copy-editing service.

  16. Ben Webster, no I did not want imply that F.V. thinks it would influence editorial decision; sorry for the unclear formulation. I meant to say that IMO this service is a problem (in the direct way suggested) if and only if at least somebody believes it will influence decisions. Yet, it seems very unlikely to me that somebody will believe this; as it is, or so I assume, well-known that the publishing company itself does not decide what is published.

  17. If copy-editors can charge such small amounts, the bottom has fallen out of copy-editing.

    I wonder if it will be possible to estimate whether they do a good job. Even if they do a bad job, they might manage to suppress the price of proof-reading for a year or more while people slowly realize that the low price doesn’t deliver high quality.

  18. It’s maybe worth noting: the $210 figure that’s being tossed around is a minimum (it says “prices from $210”), which presumably is assuming a pretty short paper.

  19. Given how peer review and typesetting work in mathematics, the *only* services publishers like Elsevier provide now are:

    – providing a LaTeX template
    – providing a portal to manage the review process
    – copy-editing
    – a server to host the article

    The rest of their claimed services are, essentially, BS. Charging extra for one of these services is gouging, particularly if they offer guarantees they should not be allowed to enforce. I’ve been around the Canadian university system long enough to see the impact of Elsevier’s pricing on libraries. Now there are university slush funds set up to help authors pay for assorted publishing costs. Meanwhile, crap journals from Elsevier are packaged into their ‘bundles’, while we have to cut subscriptions of journals we actually need.

    I think as an author it would be good to have a for-fee copyediting service, if I so desired. This should be separate from the peer-review process.

  20. This is not meant as a defense of any particular publisher, but the role of mathematicians as typesetters of their own papers is frequently exaggerated. The average quality of the typesetting of published papers really is noticeably higher than in preprints on the arXiv. Granted, there’s a lot less work for the publishers to do when starting from TeX written by the author than there was in the days of typewritten manuscripts. Nevertheless, it’s frequently implied that the publishers no longer do any typesetting work at all, and that’s certainly not true.

  21. The “low” is not the existence of the service, but its necessity. Peer review is supposed to evaluate the scientific merit of a paper without taking into account the quality of its language, and then, if the paper is deemed worth publishing, to assist the author at making the necessary changes to language (and also at the correction of mistakes). If a publishing house does not deliver this, the authors are effectively giving away their papers for nothing in return.

    It is not a new low, though.

  22. As an academic editor, I find that all authors think they know how to write; however, in over 20 years of editing, I have yet to see a paper that did not seriously benefit from professional editing. How can people who aren’t editors claim there’s nothing wrong with their prose? It’s like diagnosing a patient without the knowledge of what their symptoms are or even mean.

  23. @Alicia, for context — none of my (~15) published papers have received any editing advice or improvement from the publisher. Sometimes, but rather rarely, improvements to prose have been suggested by the referee.

  24. @Scott Morrison : Some journals use copyeditors. I’ve gotten copyediting corrections (from the journal, not from the referee) from Duke, Advances, and the Journal of Algebra.

  25. @Alicia: I don’t see anyone making the assertion that papers *can’t* benefit from professional editing. But in mathematics (I would assume all of the comments made on this blog to be specific to mathematics, unless they explicitly claim a broader scope), it is generally true that papers *don’t* get professional editing.

    Since I don’t manage a publishing company, I can only guess why, but my guess is that it’s because mathematical writing is more expensive to edit than other kinds. In many fields, 100% of a paper is English prose. In most others, non-prose is limited to tables and isolated equations. In math, non-prose tends to be spread uniformly throughout a document. This makes it far more likely that edits will affect, or at least involve, the substance of the paper, and not just the style. I do agree that English style can almost always be improved. But the nature of mathematical writing makes it more difficult, or at least more time consuming, for publishers to do this. So it seems that they tend not to bother.

    In over a decade of writing papers, I’ve had exactly one experience with a publisher’s editors changing my writing (not just my typesetting). There was a notation, defined in my paper and not uncommon in my field, that stood in for a phrase roughly akin to “[bleh] converges to [blah]”. The editor misinterpreted this notation as a noun, and “corrected” my grammar accordingly. The effect was to change statements like “[bleh] converges to [blah] in [a particular fashion]” to statements like “[bleh] converges to [blah] is [a particular adjective].” Total gibberish! This is the *only* experience I’ve ever had, as a mathematician, with professional editors changing my writing. And Scott’s experience— which is to say, no experience at all— is incredibly common, too.

    So it isn’t a mystery why mathematicians are suspicious of publishers’ claims of adding value with professional editing services. When we hear “journals”, we think mathematics journals, where we know from experience that this generally doesn’t happen. Editors probably do add a lot of value in other areas, and *could* (with sufficient investment of time and effort on the publisher’s part) add value in mathematics. But we don’t see it in our day-to-day lives.

  26. Well, one thing is for certain: cheap Indian editing mills, such as the one Elsevier uses (at least this is what I have heard), are taking over the editing business. The East Europeans have also gotten into the game and they crank out even worse work. Thanks to the many lousy so-called editors who work for these places, industry standards have plummeted.

    For example, the American Institute of Aeronautics and Astronautics outsources its editing to an Indian company that is currently looking for editors. That company pays less than 35% of my normal rates for light editing! What US editor can work for that? It was no wonder their two sample articles (published) were riddled with mistakes. However, the AIAA obviously feels that this is good enough.

    acb, that editor should never have been allowed near your paper! I hope you complained. Again, lowered standards allow these cheap editing houses to hire unqualified editors. I have edited many math and theoretical physics papers and find them to be no more or less error prone than those in other fields, although it is rare that I do not have to correct at least the variable italicization and punctuation And, yes, since the writing tends to be denser, it is less forgiving of errors. This is why technical editors need to have a background in the subject they edit: We are supposed to be much more than mere grammar checkers!

    Although my rates are higher than your standard offshore editing mill, I have a master’s in operations research/mathematical modeling and speak several languages. The editing and translation house I work with, (shameless plug), employs only extremely qualified editors, specialized by subject, and the author is guaranteed satisfaction.

    To make matters worse, most of the world’s scientists are now in Asia. Their papers tend to require heavy editing and a decent understanding of the subject matter (especially since many Asians do not use articles correctly, which can create great confusion). I know that Americans have been taught to associate higher prices with quality, but I’m not so sure about Asians or East Indians. In any case, foreign authors’ low expectations regarding their English are hurting the editing business.

    I personally have heard nothing good about Elsevier. They have changed from the quality-oriented company I worked with in the 80’s to a short-sighted, cash-hoarding corporation that cares only about profits. I wonder how the boycott is going.

  27. I am a professional in-house English editor. To my mind, Elsevier is perpetuating a scam with its editing service. Every paper submitted to an Elsevier journal from my department gets returned with the same stock reply, in which the quality of the manuscript is criticized. Such superificial criticism is followed by an advertisement for Elsevier’s Language Editing Service. In every case, I make some slight cosmetic changes (reduce the sentence length, change words here and there) and the paper is subsequently accepted for review. As the paper authors are in each case Chinese, I strongly suspect that Elsevier feels that they won’t argue back when their English is criticized (what non-native speaker would argue with a supposed native speaker?). As a native speaker, I can see their scam for what it is. They’re absolute crooks.

  28. In 1990, Prentice-Hall published Category Theory for Computing Science (by Michael Barr and me). Their copy editor made many insightful suggestions concerning wording that considerably improved the understandability of the book. This was balanced by the fact that, although they published the body of the book directly from our LaTeX, they reset the introduction, and in the process changed “\lambda calculus” to “*-calculus”. The only other change to the Introduction that I could find was that they respelled “Acknowledgment” (which was a heading, so easily noticed) as “Acknowledgement”, so I suspect that was the cause of the retypesetting.

    Charles Wells

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