Journals’ English copy-editing services are inadequate and unethical

Editing is often assigned to doctoral students from very different fields – but substandard manuscripts may be accepted anyway, says Brian Bloch

October 4, 2020
Person marking an error on a page with red marker
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Academic editing ranges in quality from good to hopeless

The globalisation of academic research has led to an enormous emphasis on publishing in anglophone journals. For academics who are not native speakers, it is now a case of “publish in English or perish”.

Many authors know that it will greatly increase their chances of acceptance if their papers are properly edited before being submitted to ensure that the English is clear and accurate, both linguistically and academically.

This has led to a significant rise in the number of businesses and individuals offering academic (copy) editing services. Unfortunately, the qualifications, experience and skills of the vendors range widely – from excellent to severely challenged. I have seen many allegedly edited papers that, quite simply, still needed editing; you would never know that someone had been paid to fix the English. In the worst cases, they remain full of many familiar kinds of errors: incorrect word choice or order; no commas where they are desperately needed; convoluted and incomprehensible sentences; and hypotheses that make no real sense, even though they form the basis for the entire investigation.

One problem is a general and perhaps understandable lack of control and regulation of academic language services. Anyone can offer themselves up as an editor, even if they have no real academic expertise in the relevant field and/or little to offer in terms of language skills. The importance of this rare combination of skills cannot be overstated.

Another factor, which has become particularly prevalent over the last decade, is that most if not all major journal publishers now offer their own in-house language services. These offer copy-editing, translation, referencing, assistance with submissions and more. If an author approaches them to have a manuscript copy-edited, they inevitably charge a commission or retain part of what the author pays to the copy-editor. Given that freelance copy-editing is not a lucrative business in the first place, suitably qualified people are even less likely to be attracted to it if they do not receive the full fee. They may also be put off by journals’ excessively tight deadlines, dysfunctional insistence on preventing copy-editor and author from communicating with each other, and bureaucratic rules about what to do and what not to do, including how to get paid.

Hence, journals often rely on underqualified and inexperienced doctoral students to provide their editing services. Even where editors are well qualified, it is often in an unrelated area. People with a doctorate in fields where it is hard to get a job, such as medieval literature or history, may be desperate for income and/or to work from home. Those with qualifications in disciplines such as economics, on the other hand, tend to have alternative, much better paid options. Hence, someone with a doctorate in theology may be required to edit an article on economics – with predictably poor results.

The other major problem is the conflict of interest inherent to in-house language services. Journals feel a certain pressure to publish work that has been edited within the same company, however substandard in other ways, since this implicitly promotes their editing services. Many authors also believe that because they have in effect paid the publisher of the journal, they have a better chance of acceptance. They are probably right.

As guardians of the quality of the academic literature, publishers and journal editors have an obligation to ensure that academic papers are properly edited – or else not published. Their failure to do so may provide me with many useful examples of bad practice that I can use in my courses on academic writing, but surely the academic community deserves better. 

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

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