Five myths about academic editing

The quality of scholarly editing is ‘extremely uneven’, says Brian Bloch

October 30, 2015
Editing journal article

Writing skills and academic skills are clearly not one and the same.

There is no doubt a correlation between the two, but even truly outstanding researchers do not always write well. Likewise, their work is not always well edited or translated.

Academics whose native language is not English are confronted with particular challenges in getting published (and in getting their work well edited). Over the past decade especially, the editing industry has burgeoned in the wake of an ever increasing globalisation of research and of academia in general.

However, this industry is insufficiently (if at all) controlled, and is often seriously problematic. Quality is extremely uneven, and users of editors, both direct (clients) and indirect (journals and readers), may fall prey to several “myths”.

The “good enough” myth
My first myth is the belief that cheap editors will still be good enough. This is seldom the case.

The problem is that in order to edit an article well, one needs not only to know the subject in question at a postgraduate level, but also how to write well and appropriately. Moreover, they must be motivated to do the job comprehensively.

It is not easy to find people with this combination, and if you take a cut out of an already not-so-wonderful hourly rate, a rushed job is all the more likely.

When an underqualified or undermotivated person gets to work, the result is often so feeble that one would never know that someone had been through the paper at all. 

If you don’t pay peanuts, you won’t get a monkey
The second (and related) myth is that expensive editors are necessarily better than cheap ones. This is of course rather awkward, because what then can one rely on?

All editors claim to have the right skills to ensure optimal grammar, sentence construction, clarity of meaning, but what’s actually done is often no more than simple proofreading – and even that may be patchy and inaccurate.

The native-speaker myth
Some people claim to be native speakers but are not. I once came across a German person who made this claim on the basis of having studied for three years in Manchester.

The native-speaking co-author myth
Academics often think that if they have one or more native-speaking co-authors, they do not need an external editor. This is often untrue. 

Such co-authors may not have good language skills, and also tend to be reluctant to act as free editors. Finally, there is no substitute for a fresh and objective pair of eyes.

The “if it was published, it must be OK” myth
I have often encountered remarkably poorly written work that has appeared in very respectable journals. The research may well be academically sound, but the writing is not. 

Does this matter? For those who care only about getting published for its own sake, perhaps not. However, poorly written work that cannot easily be understood and creates a bad impression is there to stay and can come back to haunt authors.

Either way, the impact on the discipline and on academic integrity is substantial.

Brian Bloch is a journalist, academic editor and lecturer in English for academic research at the University of Münster.

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