Why academic conference posters suck

I’ve been to dozens of conference poster sessions, but I struggle to think of a single thing I’ve learned from them. I don’t think I’m alone, considering the antipathy toward academic posters I’ve noticed among colleagues and librarians.

Continue reading “Why academic conference posters suck”

Editing global English (Editors BC meeting)

Robin-Eliece Mercury is an editor and applied linguist who taught composition in Japan and the Czech Republic. At the November Editors BC meeting she moderated a panel discussion about the particular challenges and considerations when editing authors who are not native English speakers. On the panel were

  • Glauce Fleury, a freelance writer and communications specialist based in Vancouver. Previously she worked as a journalist in her home country of Portuguese-speaking Brazil.
  • Carol Zhong, who has taught English and edited in Canada and abroad, including in China and Hong Kong, and now specializes in academic work.
  • Joel Heng Hartse, an applied linguist who lectures in the Faculty of Education at Simon Fraser University.

Mercury framed the discussion by asking us to think about whether our national association has role to play in creating guidelines, strategies, or tools to help editors approach this kind of editing. “All of us have our personal preferences or policies when editing copy from a non-native speaker of English,” she said. “How can be aware of and sensitive to non-native speakers of English” while meeting the expectations of those who publish and read their work?

Heng Hartse began by pointing out that he’s the only non-editor on the panel, although the work of academics and editors does overlap a lot. His research interests are in the globalization of English and World Englishes. “The pluralization is very intentional,” said Heng Hartse. “It’s ideologically purposeful. We want to emphasize the pluricentricity of English. English is increasingly not the sole possession of a single people, nation, or cultural group.”

Just as we wouldn’t say that a Canadian speaks worse English than an Australian, we can apply the same attitude toward those who speak Singapore English or Indian English, for example. World Englishes “recognizes each variety as legitimate and having its own norms,” said Heng Hartse, which can lead to some interesting controversies. We are seeing more situations in which writer, editor, and audience are working with different norms.

“What responsibility do individual editors have to learn about World Englishes and their role in the global context?” Mercury asked Zhong.

“It’s like any other aspect of professional development,” said Zhong. “We need to become familiar with what they are, in what context they’re used, how we can best serve writers and their audience—with sensitivity.” Ultimately, we have to make sure that the document’s readable. “Other academics all over the world have to understand what someone in Singapore has written.”

Fleury wanted editors to understand that “nonstandard is not a mistake. The challenge is to understand what is standard for the audience.”

Zhong says that tries as much as she can to maintain an expert’s voice and style, but context is important. Sometimes authors will write a term or word that they’ve heard somewhere but haven’t used in the right way. Her example was an author’s use of “significant others” to refer to other important people. She explained how that term is usually used and suggested other possibilities that might be clearer to the reader.

Zhong also adjusts her level of editing depending on the purpose of the document. “I edit course material for the Open University of Hong Kong,” she said. “It takes place the place of a lecture, so it has to be accessible to the students. And it has a certain degree of informality that you don’t get in a journal article. So I edit more intrusively: students have to understand the material without the instructor.”

“I query a lot,” said Zhong. “You have to be as clear as possible and always give options. ‘Did you mean X, or did you mean Y? If you meant X, you’ll need a comma here. If you meant Y, maybe you could say it this way.’”

“Is it fair for editors to assume that non-native speakers of English need extensive editing?” Mercury asked Fleury.

“No, it’s not,” she said. “You will find native speakers who are working as writers and need extensive editing. It’s not a problem of second-language speakers or writers. It’s a misconception that second-language writers are not good writers that will give more trouble than pleasure to editors.” Those who are serious about a language, Fleury said, will never stop studying it. “If you can choose, just work with the right writers.”

“How can we edit with a sensitivity to authors who are non-native speakers of English, when standard English is expected?” Mercury asked Heng Hartse.

“The first thing is not to assuming a non-native speaker has a deficit compared with a native speaker,” he said. “There are many ‘literacy brokers’ between author and publication.” The process could involve many people—family members, colleagues, editors—“all of us making contributions to the text.”

“Approach their work in an open-minded way,” said Heng Hartse. “We need to step back and be reflexive about our perceptions. Build an ethic for yourself of continually asking—What is style? What is grammar? What is just a pet peeve? It’s incumbent on us to develop a way of dealing with other people’s text that respect them, while bringing our expertise.”

“What’s your approach in getting agreement with you and the author in terms of how far you would edit the text stylistically?” Mercury asked Zhong.

“Authors normally tell me what they want me to do,” she said. Some authors want her to focus only on grammar, spelling, and punctuation. “If you have any questions, ask. Don’t go ahead and make changes.”

Heng Hartse warned us to be aware of “rules” that are actually a product of folk linguistics—like “don’t end a sentence with a preposition.” “None of us are immune to the ideological dimension of making language choices,” he said. “That’s where we have to be careful.”

Mercury asked Fleury if she’s encountered editors’ prejudices as a writer whose first language isn’t English.

“Sometimes an editor will say, ‘Oh, this is good!’ Was there a prejudice or an expectation that it wouldn’t be good? There’s a misconception that native speakers are better writers in that language and that non-native speakers wouldn’t be good writers and would need a lot of work. That’s behind why people are surprised.”

“I’m aware of my weaknesses and strengths,” said Fleury. “I wouldn’t submit anything as a final product if it’s not good enough. If I don’t think I have the skills to write about a specific topic, I will refer a friend.”

“My two prejudices,” said Heng Hartse, “are that (1) I’m right, and (2) I understand what the writer means.”—and it’s important to check these, he said.

Mercury asked the audience if it would be helpful for an organization like Editors Canada to synthesize some of the considerations we’d discussed into guidelines to help the growing number of editors working with non-native speakers of English.

Ruth Wilson responded: “I haven’t heard anything tonight that wouldn’t apply to any thoughtful, sensitive editing in any other discipline. All of the [Professional Editorial] Standards apply equally to this. We’re just opening a window to a new discipline.”

“It’s good to have an open discussion about bias,” said Wilson, but what we’re talking about isn’t a new skill set but an expansion of existing skills.”

Kyra Nabeta asked the panel if they considered it important to know the writer’s language and culture.

“It’s important to be familiar with it,” said Zhong. “I feel I have an advantage. I’m familiar with historical events, place names, expressions, people… It’s not as if you can’t learn that, but for me it’s like a shortcut, because I have that background that gives me an advantage.”

(The evening ended with a few questions about editing translations that got directed to me. For interested readers, I’ve summarized some past sessions about writing for translation, Global English, and editing books in translation. Or check out my posts under the “translation” tag.)

Biomedical research reports as structured data: Toward greater efficiency and interoperability

I’ve been working on this paper since September, and I was hoping to publish it in a journal, but I learned today I’ve been scooped. So I see no harm now in publishing it here. I want to thank Frank Sayre and Charlie Goldsmith for their advice on it, which I clearly took too long to act on. I’m posting it as is for now but will probably refine it in the weeks to come.

Apologies to my regular readers for this extra-long and esoteric post.

Comments welcome!



Reporting guidelines such as CONSORT,[1] PRISMA,[2] STARD,[3] and others on the EQUATOR Network [4] set out the minimum standards for what a biomedical research report must include to be usable. Each guideline has an associated checklist, and the implication is that every item in the checklist should appear in a paragraph or section of the final report text.

But what if, rather than a paragraph, each item could be a datum in a database?

Moving to a model of research reports as structured or semi-structured data would mean that, instead of writing reports as narrative prose, researchers could submit their research findings by answering an online questionnaire. Checklist items would be required fields, and incomplete reports would not be accepted by the journal’s system. For some items—such as participant inclusion and exclusion criteria—the data collection could be even more granular: each criterion, including sex, the lower and upper limits of the age range, medical condition, and so on, could be its own field. Once the journals receive a completed online form, they would simply generate a report of the fields in a specified order to create a paper suitable for peer review.

The benefits of structured reporting have long been acknowledged, Andrew’s proposal in 1994[5] for structured reporting of clinical trials formed the basis of the CONSORT guidelines. However, although in 2006 Wager did suggest electronic templates for reports and urged researchers to openly share their research results as datasets,[6] to date neither researchers nor publishers have made the leap to structuring the components of a research article as data.

Structured data reporting is already becoming a reality for practitioners: radiologists, for example, have explored the best practices for structured reporting, including using a standardized lexicon for easy translation.[7] A study involving a focus group of radiologists discussing structured reporting versus free text found that the practitioners were open to the idea of reporting templates as long as they could be involved in their development.[8] They also wanted to retain expressive power and the ability to personalize their reports, suggesting that a hybrid model of structured and unstructured reporting may work best. In other scientific fields, including chemistry, researchers are recognizing the advantage of structured reporting to share models and data and have proposed possible formats for these “datuments.”[9] The biomedical research community is in an excellent position to learn from these studies to develop its own structured data reporting system.

Reports as structured data, submitted through a user-friendly, flexible interface, coupled with a robust database, could solve or mitigate many of the problems threatening the efficiency and interoperability of the existing research publication system.

Problems with biomedical research reporting and benefits of a structured data alternative

Non-compliance with reporting guidelines

Although reporting guidelines do improve the quality of research reports,[10],[11] Glasziou et al. maintain that they “remain much less adhered to than they should be”[12] and recommend that journal reviewers and editors actively enforce the guidelines. Many researchers may still not be aware that these guidelines exist, a situation that motivated the 2013 work of Christensen et al. to promote them among rheumatology researchers.[13] Research reports as online forms based on the reporting guidelines would raise awareness of reporting guidelines and reduce the need for human enforcement: a report missing any required fields would not be accepted by the system.

Inefficiency of systematic reviews

As the PRISMA flowchart attests, performing a systematic review is a painstaking, multi-step process that involves scouring the research literature for records that may be relevant, sorting through those records to select articles, then reading and selecting among those articles for studies that meet the criteria of the topic being reviewed before data analysis can even begin. Often researchers isolate records based on eligibility criteria and intervention. If that information were stored as discrete data rather than buried in a narrative paragraph, relevant articles could be isolated much more efficiently. Such a system would also facilitate other types of literature reviews, including rapid reviews.[14]

What’s more, the richness of the data would open up avenues of additional research. For example, a researcher interested in studying the effectiveness of recruitment techniques in pediatric trials could easily isolate a search to the age and size of the study population, and recruitment methods.

Poorly written text

Glasziou et al. point to poorly written text as one of the reasons a biomedical research report may become unusable. Although certain parts of the report—the abstract, for instance, and the discussion—should always be prose, information design research has long challenged the primacy of the narrative paragraph as the optimal way to convey certain types of information.[15],[16],[17] Data such as inclusion and exclusion criteria are best presented as a table; a procedure, such as a method or protocol, would be easiest for readers to follow as a numbered list of discrete steps. Asking researchers to enter much of that information as structured data would minimize the amount of prose they would have to write (and that editors would have to read), and the presentation of that information as blocks of lists or tables would in fact accelerate information retrieval and comprehension.

Growth of journals in languages other than English

According to Chan et al.,[18] more than 2,500 biomedical journals are published in Chinese. The growth of these and other publications in languages other than English means that systematic reviews done using English-language articles alone will not capture the full story.[19] Reports that use structured data will be easier to translate: not only will the text itself—and thus its translation—be kept to a minimum, but, assuming journals in other languages adopt the same reporting guidelines and database structure, the data fields can easily be mapped between them, improving interoperability between languages. Further interoperability would be possible if the questionnaires restricted users to controlled vocabularies, such as the International Classification of Diseases (ICD) and the International Classification of Health Interventions (ICHI) being developed.

Resistance to change among publishers and researchers

Smith noted in 2004 that the scientific article has barely changed in the past five decades.[20] Two years later Wager called on the research community to embrace the opportunity that technology offered and publish results on publicly funded websites, effectively transforming the role of for-profit publishers to one of “producing lively and informative reviews and critiques of the latest findings” or “providing information and interpretation for different audiences.” Almost a decade after Wager’s proposals, journals are still the de facto publishers of primary reports, and, without a momentous shift in the academic reward system, that scenario is unlikely to change.

Moving to structured data reporting would change the interface between researchers and journals, as well as the journal’s archival infrastructure, but it wouldn’t alter the fundamental role of journals as gatekeepers and arbiters of research quality; they would still mediate the article selection and peer review processes and provide important context and forums for discussion.

The ubiquity of online forms may help researchers overcome their reluctance to adapt to a new, structured system of research reporting. Many national funding agencies now require grant applications to be submitted online,[21],[22] and researchers will become familiar with the interface and process.

A model interface

To offer a sense of how a reporting questionnaire might look, I present mock-ups of select portions of a form for a randomized trial. I do not submit that they are the only—or even the best—way to gather reporting details from researchers; these minimalist mock-ups are merely the first step toward a proof of concept. The final design would have to be developed and tested in consultation with users.

In the figures that follow the blue letters are labels for annotations and would not appear on the interface.

Figure 1: The first screen an author will see after logging in. (A) Each author will have an account and profile, including affiliations; many journals already have author accounts as part of their online submission infrastructure. (B) An autocomplete field with a controlled vocabulary of the types of study supported by the system. (C) Many types of articles either have no associated reporting guidelines or are unlikely to have a set structure (such as commentaries and letters). This button allows authors to submit those articles in the traditional way.
Figure 2: Once the author selects the type of study, the appropriate associated form will load. If the author had chosen “randomised trial (cluster)” in Figure 1, for example, the CONSORT form with the cluster extension would load.
Figure 3: First page of the CONSORT questionnaire. (A) Because reporting guidelines and checklists vary in length, only after the form loads can the interface indicate progress through the questionnaire. A user-friendly system would also include a way for users to jump to a specific question or page. (B) The help button to the right of each field could bring up the associated section of the CONSORT Explanation and Elaboration document. (C) An autocomplete field with a controlled vocabulary of the possible sections in a structured abstract, such as the one from the National Library of Medicine.[23] (D) Required fields are indicated by an asterisk. (E) Users should be able to navigate to the next page without filling required fields in this particular page. Only at the end of the questionnaire will the system flag empty required fields. (F) Users should be able to save their progress at any time. Better yet, the system could autosave at regular intervals. (G) Users should also be able to exit at any point.
Figure 3: First page of the CONSORT questionnaire. (A) Because reporting guidelines and checklists vary in length, only after the form loads can the interface indicate progress through the questionnaire. A user-friendly system would also include a way for users to jump to a specific question or page. (B) The help button to the right of each field could bring up the associated section of the CONSORT Explanation and Elaboration document. (C) An autocomplete field with a controlled vocabulary of the possible sections in a structured abstract, such as the one from the National Library of Medicine.[23] (D) Required fields are indicated by an asterisk. (E) Users should be able to navigate to the next page without filling required fields in this particular page. Only at the end of the questionnaire will the system flag empty required fields. (F) Users should be able to save their progress at any time. Better yet, the system could autosave at regular intervals. (G) Users should also be able to exit at any point.
Figure 4: Item 3a on the CONSORT checklist. (A) The trial design field could autocomplete with the trial design types in a controlled vocabulary. If the study design is novel, users may click on the “Design type not listed” button to submit their articles traditionally. (B) Each checklist item should allow authors to elaborate if necessary. This box could support free-flowing text with formatting (e.g., Markdown) and LaTeX or MathML capabilities. (C) If a statement needs a citation, users could click on the “Cite” button, which would allow them to input structured bibliographic data. An ideal system would let them import that information from a reference management system. (D) The “+” button generates another “Additional information” box. Content from multiple boxes would be printed in sequence in the final report.
Figure 4: Item 3a on the CONSORT checklist. (A) The trial design field could autocomplete with the trial design types in a controlled vocabulary. If the study design is novel, users may click on the “Design type not listed” button to submit their articles traditionally. (B) Each checklist item should allow authors to elaborate if necessary. This box could support free-flowing text with formatting (e.g., Markdown) and LaTeX or MathML capabilities. (C) If a statement needs a citation, users could click on the “Cite” button, which would allow them to input structured bibliographic data. An ideal system would let them import that information from a reference management system. (D) The “+” button generates another “Additional information” box. Content from multiple boxes would be printed in sequence in the final report.
Figure 5: The user has chosen a full factorial design, and the system automatically brings up a box asking the user to fill in the number of variables and levels.
Figure 5: The user has chosen a full factorial design, and the system automatically brings up a box asking the user to fill in the number of variables and levels.
Figure 6: Completing the number of variables and levels generates a table that the user can use to fill in the allocation ratios.
Figure 6: Completing the number of variables and levels generates a table that the user can use to fill in the allocation ratios.
Figure 7: An example showing how structured inclusion and exclusion critieria might be collected. Sex and age are required fields; researchers may select, Male, Female, both, or Other (for example, if the study population is intersex). (A) Users may fill in other inclusion criteria below. The field to the left is a controlled vocabulary with an “” option. Selecting “condition” will allow the user to select from a controlled vocabulary, for example, the ICD, in the field to the right. (B) The “+” button allows the user to add as many criteria as necessary. The subsequent screen, for exclusion criteria, could be similarly structured (minus the age and sex fields).
Figure 7: An example showing how structured inclusion and exclusion critieria might be collected. Sex and age are required fields; researchers may select, Male, Female, both, or Other (for example, if the study population is intersex). (A) Users may fill in other inclusion criteria below. The field to the left is a controlled vocabulary with an “” option. Selecting “condition” will allow the user to select from a controlled vocabulary, for example, the ICD, in the field to the right. (B) The “+” button allows the user to add as many criteria as necessary. The subsequent screen, for exclusion criteria, could be similarly structured (minus the age and sex fields).
Figure 8: Item 5 on the CONSORT checklist, which asks for “The interventions for each group with sufficient details to allow replication, including how and when they were actually administered.” Subsequent screens would let the user fill in details for Groups a, b, and ab. Because interventions are often procedural, journals may wish to encourage users to enter this information as a numbered list, which would help readability and reproducibility.
Figure 8: Item 5 on the CONSORT checklist, which asks for “The interventions for each group with sufficient details to allow replication, including how and when they were actually administered.” Subsequent screens would let the user fill in details for Groups a, b, and ab. Because interventions are often procedural, journals may wish to encourage users to enter this information as a numbered list, which would help readability and reproducibility.
Figure 9: Participant flow diagram, generated based on study type. The participant flow in each group would have the same fields as the one shown for Group 1. They are collapsed in the figure to save space.
Figure 9: Participant flow diagram, generated based on study type. The participant flow in each group would have the same fields as the one shown for Group 1. They are collapsed in the figure to save space.
Figure 10: Item 15 on the CONSORT checklist asks for “a table showing baseline demographic and clnical characteristics for each group.” Once again, the number of groups is based on the trial design specified earlier. Users could generate their own tables in the system, upload tabular text (.dat, .csv, .tsv) or spreadsheets (e.g., .xlsx, .ods), or link to data-sharing sites. For analysis and discussion sections, the interface would also accommodate uploading figures, much as online journal submission systems already do.
Figure 10: Item 15 on the CONSORT checklist asks for “a table showing baseline demographic and clnical characteristics for each group.” Once again, the number of groups is based on the trial design specified earlier. Users could generate their own tables in the system, upload tabular text (.dat, .csv, .tsv) or spreadsheets (e.g., .xlsx, .ods), or link to data-sharing sites. For analysis and discussion sections, the interface would also accommodate uploading figures, much as online journal submission systems already do.
Figure 11: Final page of the CONSORT questionnaire. (A) A user should be able to preview the paper before submitting. The preview would be generated as a report in the same way as the versions for peer review and for eventual publication—a compilation, in a specific order, of the data entered. (B) Button for final article submission. Once users clicked on this button, they would be alerted to any required fields left empty.
Figure 11: Final page of the CONSORT questionnaire. (A) A user should be able to preview the paper before submitting. The preview would be generated as a report in the same way as the versions for peer review and for eventual publication—a compilation, in a specific order, of the data entered. (B) Button for final article submission. Once users clicked on this button, they would be alerted to any required fields left empty.

Other considerations


When journals moved from print to online dissemination, publishers recognized the value of digitizing their archives so that older articles could also be searched and accessed. Analogously, if publishers not only accepted new articles as structured data but also committed to converting their archives, the benefits would be enormous. First, achieving the eventual goal of completely converting all existing biomedical articles would help researchers perform accelerated systematic reviews on a comprehensive set of data. Second, the conversion process would favour published articles that already comply with the reporting guidelines; after conversion, researchers would be able to search a curated dataset of high-quality articles.

I recognize that the resources needed for this conversion would be considerable, and I see the development of a new class of professionals trained in assessing and converting existing articles. For articles that meet almost but not quite all reporting guidelines, particularly more recent publications, these professionals may succeed in acquiring missing data from some authors.[24] Advances in automating the systematic review process[25] may also help expedite conversion.

Software development for the database and interface

In “Reducing waste from incomplete or unusable reports of biomedical research,” Glasziou et al. call on the international community to find ways to decrease the time and financial burden of systematic reviews and urge funders to take responsibility for developing infrastructure that would improve reporting and archiving. To ensure interoperability and encourage widespread adoption of health reports as structured data, I urge the international biomedical research community to develop and agree to a common set of standards for the report databases, in analogy to the effort to create standards for trial registration that culminated in the World Health Organization’s International Standards for Clinical Trial Registries.[26] An international consortium dedicated to developing a robust database and flexible interface to accommodate reporting structured data would also be more likely to secure the necessary license to use a copyrighted controlled vocabulary such as the ICD.


Any new system with wide-ranging effects must be developed in consultation with a representative sample of users and adquately piloted. The users of the report submission interface will largely be researchers, but the report generated by the journal could be consulted by a diverse group of stakeholders—not only researchers but also clinicians, patient groups, advocacy groups, and policy makers, among others. A parallel critical review of the format of this report would provide an opportunity to assess how best to reach audiences that are vested in discovering new research.

Although reporting guidelines exist for many different types of reports can each serve as the basis of a questionnaire, I recommend a review of all existing biomedical reporting guidelines together to harmonize them as much as possible before a database for reports is designed, perhaps in collaboration with the BioSharing initiative[27] and in an effort similar to the MIBBI Foundry project to “synthesize reporting guidelines from various communities into a suite of orthogonal standards” in the biological sciences.[28] For example, whereas recruitment methods are required according to the STARD guidelines, they are not in CONSORT. Ensuring that all guidelines have similar basic requirements would ensure better interoperability among article types and more homogeneity in the richness of the data.


Structuring biomedical research reports as data will improve report quality, decrease the time and effort it takes to perform systematic reviews, and facilitate translations and interoperability with existing data-driven sysetms in health care. The technology exists to realize this shift, and we, like Glazsiou et al., urge funders and publishers to collaborate on the development, in consultation with users, of a robust reporting database system and flexible interface. The next logical step for research in this area would be to build a prototype and for researchers to use while running a usability study.

Reports as structured data aren’t a mere luxury—they’re an imperative; without them, biomedical research is unlikely to become well integrated into existing health informatics infrastructure clinicians use to make decisions about their practice and about patient care.


[1] “CONSORT Statement,” accessed October 04, 2014, http://www.consort-statement.org/.

[2] “PRISMA Statement,” accessed October 04, 2014, http://www.prisma-statement.org/index.htm.

[3] “STARD Statement,” n.d., http://www.stard-statement.org/.

[4] “The EQUATOR Network | Enhancing the QUAlity and Transparency Of Health Research,” accessed September 26, 2014, http://www.equator-network.org/.

[5] Erik Andrew, “A Proposal for Structured Reporting of Randomized Controlled Trials,” JAMA: The Journal of the American Medical Association 272, no. 24 (December 28, 1994): 1926, doi:10.1001/jama.1994.03520240054041.

[6] Elizabeth Wager, “Publishing Clinical Trial Results: The Future Beckons.,” PLoS Clinical Trials 1, no. 6 (January 27, 2006): e31, doi:10.1371/journal.pctr.0010031.

[7] Roberto Stramare et al., “Structured Reporting Using a Shared Indexed Multilingual Radiology Lexicon.,” International Journal of Computer Assisted Radiology and Surgery 7, no. 4 (July 2012): 621–33, doi:10.1007/s11548-011-0663-4.

[8] J M L Bosmans et al., “Structured Reporting: If, Why, When, How-and at What Expense? Results of a Focus Group Meeting of Radiology Professionals from Eight Countries.,” Insights into Imaging 3, no. 3 (June 2012): 295–302, doi:10.1007/s13244-012-0148-1.

[9] Henry S Rzepa, “Chemical Datuments as Scientific Enablers.,” Journal of Cheminformatics 5, no. 1 (January 2013): 6, doi:10.1186/1758-2946-5-6.

[10] Robert L Kane, Jye Wang, and Judith Garrard, “Reporting in Randomized Clinical Trials Improved after Adoption of the CONSORT Statement.,” Journal of Clinical Epidemiology 60, no. 3 (March 2007): 241–49, doi:10.1016/j.jclinepi.2006.06.016.

[11] N Smidt et al., “The Quality of Diagnostic Accuracy Studies since the STARD Statement: Has It Improved?,” Neurology 67, no. 5 (September 12, 2006): 792–97, doi:10.1212/01.wnl.0000238386.41398.30.

[12] Paul Glasziou et al., “Reducing Waste from Incomplete or Unusable Reports of Biomedical Research.,” Lancet 383, no. 9913 (January 18, 2014): 267–76, doi:10.1016/S0140-6736(13)62228-X.

[13] Robin Christensen, Henning Bliddal, and Marius Henriksen, “Enhancing the Reporting and Transparency of Rheumatology Research: A Guide to Reporting Guidelines.,” Arthritis Research & Therapy 15, no. 1 (January 2013): 109, doi:10.1186/ar4145.

[14] Sara Khangura et al., “Evidence Summaries: The Evolution of a Rapid Review Approach.,” Systematic Reviews 1, no. 1 (January 10, 2012): 10, doi:10.1186/2046-4053-1-10.

[15] Patricia Wright and Fraser Reid, “Written Information: Some Alternatives to Prose for Expressing the Outcomes of Complex Contingencies.,” Journal of Applied Psychology 57, no. 2 (1973).

[16] Karen A. Schriver, Dynamics in Document Design: Creating Text for Readers (New York: Wiley, 1997).

[17] Robert E. Horn, Mapping Hypertext: The Analysis, Organization, and Display of Knowledge for the Next Generation of On-Line Text and Graphics (Lexington Institute, 1989).

[18] An-Wen Chan et al., “Increasing Value and Reducing Waste: Addressing Inaccessible Research.,” Lancet 383, no. 9913 (January 18, 2014): 257–66, doi:10.1016/S0140-6736(13)62296-5.

[19] Andra Morrison et al., “The Effect of English-Language Restriction on Systematic Review-Based Meta-Analyses: A Systematic Review of Empirical Studies.,” International Journal of Technology Assessment in Health Care 28, no. 2 (April 2012): 138–44, doi:10.1017/S0266462312000086.

[20] R. Smith, “Scientific Articles Have Hardly Changed in 50 Years,” BMJ 328, no. 7455 (June 26, 2004): 1533–1533, doi:10.1136/bmj.328.7455.1533.

[21] Australian Research Council, “Grant Application Management System (GAMS) Information” (corporateName=The Australian Research Council; jurisdiction=Commonwealth of Australia), accessed October 04, 2014, http://www.arc.gov.au/applicants/rms_info.htm.

[22] Canadian Institutes for Health Research, “Acceptable Application Formats and Attachments—CIHR,” November 10, 2005, http://www.cihr-irsc.gc.ca/e/29300.html.

[23] “Structured Abstracts in MEDLINE®,” accessed January 14, 2015, http://structuredabstracts.nlm.nih.gov/.

[24] Shelley S Selph, Alexander D Ginsburg, and Roger Chou, “Impact of Contacting Study Authors to Obtain Additional Data for Systematic Reviews: Diagnostic Accuracy Studies for Hepatic Fibrosis.,” Systematic Reviews 3, no. 1 (September 19, 2014): 107, doi:10.1186/2046-4053-3-107.

[25] Guy Tsafnat et al., “Systematic Review Automation Technologies.,” Systematic Reviews 3, no. 1 (January 09, 2014): 74, doi:10.1186/2046-4053-3-74.

[26] World Health Organization, International Standards for Clinical Trial Registries (Genevia, Switzerland: World Health Organization, 2012), www.who.int/iris/bitstream/10665/76705/1/9789241504294_eng.pdf.

[27] “BioSharing,” accessed October 12, 2014, http://www.biosharing.org/.

[28] “MIBBI: Minimum Information for Biological and Biomedical Investigations,” accessed October 12, 2014, http://mibbi.sourceforge.net/portal.shtml.

Time to leave academic writing to communications experts?

In the Lancet’s 2014 series about preventing waste in biomedical research, Paul Glasziou et al. pointed to “poorly written text” as a major reason a staggering 50% of biomedical reports are unusable [1], effectively squandering the research behind them. According to psycholinguist Steven Pinker [2], bad academic writing persists partly because there aren’t many incentives for scholars to change their ways:

Few academic journals stipulate clarity among their criteria for acceptance, and few reviewers and editors enforce it. While no academic would confess to shoddy methodology or slapdash reading, many are blasé about their incompetence at writing.

He adds:

Enough already. Our indifference to how we share the fruits of our intellectual labors is a betrayal of our calling to enhance the spread of knowledge. In writing badly, we are wasting each other’s time, sowing confusion and error, and turning our profession into a laughingstock.

The problem of impenetrable academese is undeniable. How do we fix it?

In “Writing Intelligible English Prose for Biomedical Journals,” John Ludbrook proposes seven strategies [3]:

  • greater emphasis on good writing by students in schools and by university schools,
  • making use of university service courses and workshops on writing plain and scientific English,
  • consulting books on science writing,
  • one-on-one mentoring,
  • using “scientific” measures to reveal lexical poverty (i.e., readability metrics),
  • making use of freelance science editors, and
  • encouraging the editors of biomedical journals to pay more attention to the problem.

Many institutions have implemented at least some of these strategies. For instance, SFU’s graduate student orientation in summer 2014 introduced incoming students to the library’s writing facilitators and open writing commons. And at UBC, Eric Jandciu, strategist for teaching and learning initiatives in the Faculty of Science, has developed communication courses and resources specifically for science students, training them early in their careers “to stop thinking of communication as separate from their science.” [4]

Although improving scholars’ writing is a fine enough goal, the growth in the past fifteen years of research interdisciplinarity [5], where experts from different fields contribute their strengths to a project, has me wondering whether we would be more productive if we took the responsibility of writing entirely away from researchers. Rather than forcing academics to hone a weak skill, maybe we’d be better off bringing in communications professionals whose writing is already sharp.

This model is already a reality in several ways (though not all of them aboveboard):

  • Many journals encourage authors to have their papers professionally edited before submission [6]. From personal experience, I can confirm that this “editing” can involve heavy rewriting.
  • The pharmaceutical industry has long used ghostwriters to craft journal articles on a researcher’s behalf, turning biomedical journals into marketing vehicles [7]. We could avoid the ethical problems this arrangement poses—including plagiarism and conflict of interest—with a more transparent process that reveals a writer’s identity and affiliations.
  • Funding bodies such as CIHR have begun emphasizing the importance of integrated knowledge translation (KT) [8], to ensure knowledge users have timely access to research findings. Although much of KT focuses on disseminating research knowledge to stakeholders outside of academia, including patients, practitioners, and policy makers, reaching fellow researchers is also an important objective.

To ensure high-quality publications, Glasziou et al. suggest the following:

Many research institutions already employ grants officers to increase research input, but few employ a publication officer to improve research outputs, including attention to publication ethics and research integrity, use of reporting guidelines, and development of different publication models such as open access. Ethics committees and publication officers could also help to ensure that all research methods and results are completely and transparently reported and published.

Such a publication officer would effectively serve as an in-house editor and production manager. Another possibility is for each group or department to hire an in-house technical communicator. Technical communicators are trained in interviewing subject matter experts and using that information to draft documents for diverse audiences. In the age of big data, one could also make a convincing case for hiring a person who specializes in data visualization to create images and animations that complement the text.

That said, liberating scientists from writing should not absolve them of the responsibility of learning how to communicate. At a minimum, they would still need to understand the publication process enough to effectively convey their ideas to the writers.

Separating out the communication function within research would also raise questions about whether we should also abolish the research–teaching–service paradigm on which academic tenure is based. If we leave the writing to strong writers, perhaps only strong teachers should teach and only strong administrators should administrate.

Universities’ increasing dependence on sessional and adjunct faculty is a hint that this fragmentation is already happening [9], though in a way that reinforces institutional hierarchies and keeps these contract workers from being fairly compensated. If these institutions continue to define ever more specialized roles, whether for dedicated instructors, publication officers, or research communicators, they’ll have to reconsider how best to acknowledge these experts’ contributions so that they feel their skills are appropriately valued.


[1] Paul Glasziou et al., “Reducing Waste from Incomplete or Unusable Reports of Biomedical Research,” Lancet 383, no. 9913 (January 18, 2014): 267–76, doi:10.1016/S0140-6736(13)62228-X.

[2] Steven Pinker, “Why Academics Stink at Writing,” The Chronicle of Higher Education, September 26, 2014, http://chronicle.com/article/Why-Academics-Writing-Stinks/148989/

[3] John Ludbrook, “Writing Intelligible English Prose for Biomedical Journals,” Clinical and Experimental Pharmacology & Physiology 34, no. 5–6 (January ): 508–14, doi:10.1111/j.1440-1681.2007.04603.x.

[4] Iva Cheung, “Communication Convergence 2014,” Iva Cheung [blog], October 8, 2014, https://ivacheung.com/2014/10/communication-convergence-2014/.

[5] B.C. Choi and A.W. Pak, “Multidisciplinarity, Interdisciplinarity, and Transdisciplinarity in Health Research, Services, Education and Policy: 1. definitions, objectives, and evidence of effectiveness. Clinical and Investigative Medicine 29 (2006): 351–64.

[6] “Author FAQs,” Wiley Open Access, http://www.wileyopenaccess.com/details/content/12f25e4f1aa/Author-FAQs.html.

[7] Katie Moisse, “Ghostbusters: Authors of a New Study Propose a Strict Ban on Medical Ghostwriting,” Scientific American, February 4, 2010, http://www.scientificamerican.com/article/ghostwriter-science-industry/.

[8] “Guide to Knowledge Translation Planning at CIHR: Integrated and End-of-Grant Approaches,” Canadian Institutes of Health Research, Modified June 12, 2012, http://www.cihr-irsc.gc.ca/e/45321.html.

[9] “Most University Undergrads Now Taught by Poorly Paid Part-Timers,” CBC.ca, September 7, 2014, http://www.cbc.ca/news/canada/most-university-undergrads-now-taught-by-poorly-paid-part-timers-1.2756024.


This post was adapted from a paper I wrote for one of my courses. I don’t necessarily believe that a technical communication–type workflow is the way to go, but the object of the assignment was to explore a few “what-if” situations, and I thought this topic was close enough to editing and publishing to share here.

International editing—a panel discussion (EAC-BC meeting)

Anne Brennan moderated a lively panel discussion about editing beyond Canada’s borders at last week’s EAC-BC meeting. On the panel were:

  • Theresa Best, who spent several years editing educational policy documents in the UK, working not only on texts but also on metadata tagging for digital content;
  • Eva van Emden, who has clients in the U.S., Europe, and Asia, many of whom found her because of her background in biology and computer science; and
  • Carol Zhong, who specializes in academic editing for clients in Hong Kong as well as in Europe.

Both Zhong and Best worked abroad and kept those clients when they returned to Canada. Van Emden began editing for international clients early on in her freelance career, beginning with a magazine based in the U.S., which had posted the job on the American Copy Editors Society’s job board. The posting didn’t mention anything about the editor’s having to be in the U.S., so she applied for it and got it. Although some international clients find editors via EAC’s Online Directory of Editors, Best emphasized the need to be proactive in marketing. “All jobs I’ve ever gotten [with UK communications and editorial services agencies] were because I approached them.”

Van Emden maintains a mix of Canadian and international clients, but Zhong works exclusively internationally, as did Best before she took an in-house position in Vancouver a few years ago. Zhong had worked in house at the Open University of Hong Kong, where she got into academic editing, and after she moved to Vancouver in 2000 she continued working for them. She also helps a lot of professors prepare their journal articles for submission.

Jean Lawrence, who had referred some European clients to Zhong, also attended the meeting and had prepared a detailed handout of international editing resources (available in the members’ section of the branch website). “International academics are under pressure to get published in English-language journals,” she said, and “there’s an enormous need for editors in this area.” Agencies that pair academics up with editors exist all over Europe and Asia. “A good way to find reputable agencies is to look on journal websites,” which often have an “instructions to authors” section that strongly urge academics to have their work edited before submission and may list several agencies they would recommend.

Lawrence warned, though, that there’s a disconnect between what we expect to be paid as editors in Canada versus what people in some parts of the world can afford. And PayPal fees in some countries can be outrageous. An audience member chimed in, saying that on the flip side, to some businesses and organizations in countries like Iceland and Switzerland, Canadian editors are “cheap offshore labour” and that there are opportunities if you look for them. “How much can you charge an international client?” Brennan asked the panel. Best was able to make 30 to 40 pounds per hour; Zhong charges one of her clients 230 Hong Kong dollars per hour. Frances Peck noted that on an Editors’ Weekly blog post was a reference to what editors typically charge, but those rates are from the U.S. and are considerably lower than the going rates in Canada.

“How do you get paid?” asked Brennan. Van Emden has a U.S.-dollar bank account, and she transfers from the U.S. account to her Canadian chequing account. She also keeps an account in Holland. “It’s easy for Europeans to do bank transfers within Europe,” she said. Best and Zhong also maintain separate accounts for different currencies. Otherwise currency conversions have associated fees, and the bank may put a hold on foreign-currency cheques for up to thirty business days.

Brennan wondered, is it helpful—or maybe essential—to speak another language, if you want to edit internationally? Best worked in the UK, so English was all she needed, she said. Zhong speaks French, some Spanish, Italian, and a bit of Cantonese and Mandarin. “Absolutely it helps,” she said. “It helps with the text, because you know how they’ve translated what they’re trying to say.” Van Emden does a little Dutch-to-English translation and so can correspond easily with her clients in the Netherlands. Zhong said that she never has to communicate with her Hong Kong–based clients in any language other than English, because English is the language of academic instruction there.

Brennan asked the panel which style guides or style manuals they had to use. Van Emden said that one of her Hong Kong clients uses The Economist Style Guide, and her U.S. clients use the Associated Press Stylebook. Each journal, in contrast, has its own way of doing things, which can be frustrating. In the UK, Best said, everything is Oxford—Oxford English Dictionary, as well as the Oxford Guide to Style. One of her current clients uses the UN Editorial Manual. Zhong says that her clients sometimes use a mixture of U.S. and UK spelling and punctuation. The Chicago Manual of Style is used quite a lot, and she’s also had to use Harvard style for citations.

Brennan capped off the evening by asking the panellists what they considered the best and worst aspects of international editing. Van Emden struggled with time zones, which Brennan acknowledged could be a problem even in Canada. “In Europe, their working day is our midnight to 9am,” van Emden explained. “The turnaround times are short. Once, one of my projects got spam filtered, and I didn’t find out until eight hours later.” Sometimes, though, time zones can be an advantage, Zhong remarked. If she receives something during the Hong Kong working day, she can spend her day working on it and send it back to the client, who would receive it first thing in the morning. “What I love most [about international editing] is that I get to read interesting manuscripts that I wouldn’t normally get to read. It’s a cultural education. And it’s always gratifying when clients appreciate your work, especially when a journal accepts an article you’ve edited for them.”

Condensing texts: Lessons from a recent project

At the Editors’ Association of Canada conference in June, Elizabeth Macfie gave a talk about shortening text. From the program:

All editors and writers need to be able to shorten texts. Brevity enhances readability; squeezes content into limited spaces; saves money on translation, proofreading and printing; and increases social-media quotability. This session provides principles, techniques and tools for efficiently trimming texts, as well as the justification for that trimming. We’ll practise on material such as correspondence, newspaper articles and headings, reports, instructions, interview and meeting transcripts, PowerPoint slides, abstracts and tweets.

I was disappointed to have missed Macfie’s talk, which was at the same time as Helena Aalto and Laurel Boone’s, but I got a chance to chat with her during breaks at the conference and have looked through the excellent notes that she’s made available on the EAC website. At the time I was working on a project to shorten several academic reports—average length 20,000 words—to no more than 6,000 words each, for an upcoming anthology. I’ve completed the first major phase of that project and wanted to jot down some quick thoughts about my approach in case I ever find myself doing a similar project again, and I figured I may as well share them here.

The project

Way back when I was a student journalist, I was taught to load the front of a news article with critical information so that an editor working on deadline could easily trim from the bottom if the text didn’t fit. Too bad other genres aren’t as straightforward to cut.

My project consisted of nine master’s-level, thesis-length academic reports, each of which included standard components such as an abstract, introductory chapter, main body chapters, concluding chapter, and back matter (notes, bibliography, and up to several appendices). My job was to cut them down to digestible papers that would be compiled into a collection and used as teaching tools in both undergraduate and graduate classes.

Initial read-through

Look—don’t touch. Well, that’s the idea, anyway. I have to admit to cutting the abstract and appendices right away, to eliminate those distractions and to get a better idea of my true starting word count. Beyond those cuts, though (which were especially cathartic because they didn’t require much thought and they made me feel as though I’d accomplished something early on), I did my best to read through all of the text without deleting anything.

Putting the machete down for the first read prevents you from premature cutting; content that seems unimportant in an early part of the text may grow in relevance later on. It also allows you to get a good sense of the author’s main ideas. Highlight if you want—but try not to delete.

Structural cutting

“To retain the author’s voice, cut large chunks of text rather than individual words,” suggested Macfie when I spoke with her during the conference breaks. This phase of what I’ve called structural cutting—deleting whole sections, paragraphs, and sentences—is the analogue (or perhaps a subset?) of structural editing, and it’s a crucial step if you’re expecting to cut more than, say, 25% of your text. Working with changes tracked allows you to easily restore passages when you’ve decided you’ve cut too much.

Cut in several passes

What seems essential during one reading may reveal itself to be expendable during the next. If the schedule allows, let your brain and the text rest a bit before starting the next pass.

Cut introductions, conclusions, and back matter

Academic writing, particularly theses, can have a lot of repetition: “Tell them what you’re going to tell them, tell them, then tell them what you’ve told them” is an approach academics often quote and follow. Redundancy may be the antidote to confusion, but when your goal is to cut a text down to 30% of its original length, redundancy is a luxury.

The abstract, introduction, and conclusion are typically just summaries of the main body, and in those cases they can be cut right off the bat. You may have to restore part of the conclusion to give the final text a satisfying ending, but the introduction, which is usually a lot of signposting and scene setting, often doesn’t communicate the essence of the text. (In all of the reports I condensed, I could cut the introduction without losing meaning.) Certainly all appendices and go, as can most of the notes that don’t cite sources. Presumably if these were critical, they would be integrated into the main text.

Background and historical information—and academic reports and theses can have a lot of it, particularly in introductory chapters—can usually be cut or heavily condensed. If you find yourself asking if a paragraph really needs to be there, more often than not it can go. I also took advantage of authors’ tendencies to structure each chapter with introductory and concluding sections; again, because these repeated information within the chapter, I could cut these with no loss in meaning.

Cut quotes—especially block quotes

Writers often make a statement and then buttress it with a quote from an authority, essentially repeating information. Evaluate which one—the statement or the quote—holds the most weight, and cut the other. (I found I hung on to authors’ statements more than quotes, since they were often more concise and worked better with the surrounding text.) You can attach the citation for the quote to the statement if you need to, and keen readers wanting to know more can follow up with the source.

Cut examples

Writers use examples, much as they do with quotes, to support their point. But if their statement is understandable or authoritative without them, those examples—or at least most of them—can go.

Cut cross-references

Cut every reference to appendices or sections that no longer exist. My target word count was so much smaller than the initial word count that I took out internal cross-references entirely. Clauses like “As we’ll see in Chapter 2” were obvious flags for sentences that I could delete: either the information was repeated (in which case one of the instances could go), or it would be so much closer to the reference to it that such way-finding and priming tools were unnecessary.

Stylistic cutting

When I had the reports down to about 9,000 words, I refocused my efforts on phrase- and word-level cuts, concurrent with a stylistic edit that naturally eliminated wordiness. Although I don’t agree with everything in Strunk and White’s The Elements of Style, this phase is where “omit needless words” holds true.

If you’ve got a strict target word count (as I had), try to come a but under it so that you have some wiggle room if you need to adjust the text in the final phase.

Cut parentheticals

Parentheticals, whether they set are set off by commas, parentheses, or dashes, can usually be taken out without sacrificing the main point of the sentence. (Case in point: that last sentence.) Cutting them also preserves the author’s voice, because you’re not changing the way the author has expressed the main idea.

Cut metadiscourse

“It should be noted that” and similar phrases are self-conscious and unnecessary. Get rid of them.

Shorten lists

And I don’t mean cutting list items (unless they’re superfluous examples). Rather, because a list consists of a stem followed by list item A, list item B, list item C, and so on, see if you can find ways to integrate repeated information in the list items into the stem (e.g., “…followed by list items A, B, C, and so on”).

Apply usual stylistic editing principles

A cop-out? You bet. But eliminating redundancies, cutting wordiness (“a total of” is almost always unnecessary; “in an X manner” and “on a Y basis” can usually be shortened), changing voice from passive to active where appropriate, and using verbs and adjectives instead of nominalizations will not only shorten text but also make it a more engaging read.

Final read-through

Always—always!—read through the final text before submitting it to the author or client. Obvious advice, perhaps, but it’s especially important when cutting. If you can, let the text sit for a day or two and come back to it with fresh eyes and a (relatively) blank mind, so that you can easily spot where you’ve inadvertently cut out a definition or where you have to smooth the transitions between paragraphs and sections. Another option is to work with a partner who could do a cold read and identify confusing or choppy content.

Other thoughts


As liberally as I’ve written “cut” in this post, I tried not to use the term when I corresponded with the authors; “condense” or “distill” did a better job of capturing the spirit of my task. When I asked authors to review my work, I did acknowledge that condensing a text down to less than a third of its length necessarily meant that not all of the content was there but that I hoped they found the final text stood well on its own.


I was lucky to have had a flexible schedule for this project, which let me set the reports aside for a bit before returning to them for another pass at cutting. Once the information got a chance to percolate in my brain, I had a better handle on what was important and what wasn’t. So often I’d feel as though I’d hit a wall and just couldn’t possibly cut anymore, but being able to leave the text and come back to it always highlighted further opportunities to trim.

If you ever have to do major condensing, try to schedule plenty of time for it. The time you actively spend cutting is a small fraction of the time you need to let the text simmer.

Importing other skill sets

You don’t have to be an indexer to cut texts, of course, but my experience indexing certainly helped me pinpoint the authors’ main arguments in each paragraph and identify what not to cut. (It’s no wonder many indexers also work as abstracters.) Twitter, oddly enough, has also honed my cutting skills: I found myself applying the same critical thought process to cutting words and paragraphs as when I’m trying to squeeze a tweet down to its 140-character limit.


These notes are just a case study of one editor’s experiences with one project. Certainly if you were working with different genres, audiences, and word limits, you’d have to adjust your tack accordingly. I’d strongly recommend Elizabeth Macfie’s notes from her EAC conference talk for a more general overview of techniques and strategies for condensing text.

Book review: Science in Print

After reviewing Darcy Cullen’s Editors, Scholars, and the Social Text, which offered an insightful introduction to the world of scholarly publishing in the humanities, I found myself wondering which principles and practices within that book also applied to publishing in the sciences. I was hopeful that Science in Print: Essays on the History of Science and the Culture of Print, edited by Rima D. Apple, Gregory J. Downey, and Stephen L. Vaughn (published by the University of Wisconsin Press), might shed some light on the issue.

In 2008 the Center for the History of Print and Digital Culture at the University of Wisconsin-Madison sponsored an international conference on the culture of print in science, technology, engineering, and medicine; nine of the conference sessions were chosen to be included in Science in Print, released earlier this fall. The essays include

  • Meghan Doherty’s piece on how William Faithorne’s The Art of Graveing and Etching, a manual on the engraver’s craft, reflected standards of accuracy that he also applied to engravings for the Royal Society, which in turn reinforced scientific rigour among Royal Society members;
  • Robin E. Rider’s look at the importance of typography in late-eighteenth-century and early-nineteenth-century mathematical textbooks;
  • Lynn K. Nyhart’s overview of a decades-long series of publications, all arising from a German expedition to sample plankton in the world’s oceans;
  • Bertrum H. MacDonald’s tribute to the Smithsonian Institution’s role in scientific publication and information interchange between Canadian and American scientists in the late 1800s;
  • Jennifer J. Connor’s semi-biographical piece on George M. Gould, who in the late nineteenth century edited several medical journals and advanced ideas of editorial autonomy within medical journal publishing;
  • Kate McDowell’s probe of how evolution was presented in children’s science books between 1892 and 1922;
  • Sally Gregory Kohlstedt’s look at how textbooks and teacher resource books approached the burgeoning interest in nature study in the early twentieth century;
  • Rima D. Apple’s investigation into the influence of various publications, particularly government dietary guidelines, on fostering the primacy of meat in the American diet;
  • Cheryl Knott’s comparison between the reaction to Stewart Udall’s environmental treatise, The Quiet Crisis, published in 1963, and the reception to the book’s twenty-fifth-anniversary edition, published in 1988.

Being a bit of a math and typography nerd, I found resonance in Robin Rider’s essay, in which she says,

The visual culture of mathematics, done well, offers “enormous advantages of seeing,” as Edward Tufte would say. Readers learn much from the way mathematics is presented in type. Good typography highlights and reinforces ideas; indifferent typography (or worse) obscures ideas and stymies the reader. (p. 38)

—particularly since that last sentence applies just as well to non-mathematical texts.

Although not addressed as a specific topic in the book, the issue of the motivation behind academic publishing does rear its head in more than one essay. Both Lynn Nyhart and Jennifer Connor remark that the contributors to scientific and medical journals are generally not paid for their contributions. Writing about medical editor George M. Gould, Connor says,

After [publisher] William Wood of New York refused him permission that same year to reprint articles from its medical journals in his Year-Book—a digest of material that reached, according to Gould, thousands of readers—he distributed a circular about the relations between the medical profession and “lay publishing firms of medical journals.” Publishers do not pay physicians for their contributions, he noted, although they presumably profit from them; and, in this case, no other publisher—even those who do pay contributors—had objected to reprinting extracts. But above all, this publisher’s decision was wrong because it prevented the dissemination of medical knowledge. (p. 116)

Lynn Nyhart argues that publishing itself motivated scientific progress:

Maintaining the commitment to publish, I would suggest, was in fact what made these projects successful and important as science. (Conversely, the lack of a strong commitment to publishing following many voyages often resulted in the collected specimens languishing in boxes for years without ever being analyzed.) (p. 67)

Science in Print also looks beyond the academic realm at trade and popular science publishing, and the closing chapter by Cheryl Knott makes reference to Priscilla Coit Murphy’s book What a Book Can Do: The Publication and Reception of Silent Spring, saying

According to Murphy, it is the book (as opposed to the author) that launches social and political movements as it takes on a life of its own in ways the author and publisher could not have foreseen. (p. 201)

Knott reinforces this concept by showing how the evolution of the environmental movement and a changing political climate affected the success of The Quiet Crisis, an environmental book by former U.S. Secretary of the Interior Stewart Udall. It became a best-seller after it was first published in 1963 but saw a tepid reception when it was expanded, updated, and reissued in 1988. Knott discovered that readers often cite and recommend the original edition, even if they’d clearly read the newer one. She notes, “Such mix-ups indicate that many readers do not make the careful distinctions between editions that collectors, bibliographers, and librarians make.” (p. 217) In my experience, although publishers are aware of this reality, they are sometimes in denial about it as they try to find new ways of repackaging and marketing existing content. How do you capitalize on the cachet of a successful original edition while offering readers the new information they need?


Although Science in Print did offer me some new perspectives and gave historical context to the development of scientific publishing, particular in North America, I have to say that didn’t enjoy the experience of reading the book as much as I would have wanted, for a variety of reasons. I’ve been struggling for weeks to write a cohesive review of this book (and some may remark that I’ve failed), likely because I found that Science in Print itself lacks cohesion. I’m no stranger to reading and reviewing anthologies; despite being an assembly of contributions from different authors, they must still have an internal rhythm and logic—like a good album put together from a collection of singles. Science in Print takes too much of a scattergun approach, attempting to present numerous topics ostensibly connecting science and print culture that are really quite disparate. Perhaps a more effective approach would have been to select more of the conference sessions to publish but to group them by topic or genre and issue each of these as a separate volume, which would have allowed for more meaningful comparisons among contributors’ viewpoints.

And although I understand that scholarly presses generally don’t do much substantive editing, this is once instance in which a manuscript really could have benefited from a skilled stylistic editor’s hand. Take, for instance, this opening to one of the essays:

Educators in the early twentieth century faced the dilemma of how to build the skills of teachers so that they could teach directly from nature in a new progressive pedagogy emerging in the late nineteenth century known as nature study. (p. 156)

Most stylistic editors would be able to offer at least a couple of suggestions to make that sentence more engaging and approachable while conveying exactly the same information. (I should say that I don’t mean to pick on this one contributor—whose content was otherwise pretty interesting—I just wanted to offer an example.)

Finally, one aspect of the book that may have contributed to my discomfort while reading is the design (ironic, given Robin Rider’s astute analysis of the importance of good typography): the pages are dense, the type is small, and the lines are long. Robert Bringhurst, in The Elements of Typographic Style, writes, “Anything from 45 to 75 characters is widely regarded as a satisfactory length of line for a single-column page set in a serifed text face in a text size… A line that averages more than 75 or 80 characters is likely to be too long for continuous reading.” (v. 2.4, pp. 26–27) Science in Print definitely falls into the latter category. I would suggest that readers try the ebook and reflow the text to a comfortable line length, but it appears that the only available ebook version is a fixed-layout PDF. I haven’t read any other books published by University of Wisconsin Press, but if this book is based on a standard design template, the press may benefit from revisiting that template and revising it for readability.

Book review: Editors, Scholars, and the Social Text

Too often we see book production as a sequence of tasks—writing, editing, design, proofreading—forgetting that behind these tasks are professionals who have to work as a team to make a book happen. Editors, Scholars, and the Social Text (edited by Darcy Cullen, published by University of Toronto Press) urges us to shift our perspective—not only towards the dynamic, social aspects of the production process that are so critical to its functioning but also away from the notion that an editor is “an invisible figure who must leave no trace of his or her presence or as a taint to be expunged.” (p. 4)

Darcy Cullen, an acquisitions editor at UBC Press, has assembled an impressive cast of contributors to this authoritative collection, including Peter L. Shillingsburg, author of From Gutenberg to Google, and Amy Einsohn, author of The Copyeditor’s Handbook. We hear from academic experts as well as editors and designers in a rich mosaic of experiences and complementary viewpoints. In short, this unassuming volume brims with wisdom.

Editors, Scholars, and the Social Text focuses naturally on academic publishing, but much of the insight and information it offers would also be useful to trade publishers. It divides its attention between scholarly editors (scholars who develop, curate, and compile) and academic editors (in-house or freelance professionals who acquire manuscripts, copy edit, and project manage), and although I found many of the former pieces interesting, I gravitated towards essays about the latter, which were both a mirror of my own experiences and a window into a parallel universe. Editors (and publishers) may operate according to the same set of best practices, but they all have different approaches, and it’s these details that intrigue me most.

To give a sweeping review of such a heterogeneous collection would be an unfair oversimplification, so my goal here is to hit what I considered the highlights, from my perspective as an editor, rather than attempt to be comprehensive.

Cullen’s motivation for bringing together these essays carries a subtle but definite tone of activism. Of the legions of books devoted to publishing, most are focused on helping authors get their manuscripts published or marketed, yet, writes Cullen, “the ‘middle’ part of the publishing process, sandwiched between acquisitions and sales, is often closed from view, or viewed as closed off, even though it is here that the manuscript’s metamorphosis into book occurs.” (p. 3) The shrinking-violet stereotype of editors must be abandoned because it perpetuates a certain self-marginalization that denies the important social contribution of an editor to the publishing process. Cullen hopes that “these chapters engaging the question of minority cultures and ethnicity in the spheres of scholarly and academic editing and scholarly publishing should serve as an impetus to editors who still invisibilize themselves, so that they acknowledge their place and position of influence as it extends beyond the chain of production.” (p. 12)

That thread is carried through Rosemary Shipton’s brilliant chapter, “The Mysterious Relationship: Authors and Their Editors,” in which she gives readers a most cogent description of the editorial process, comparing trade and academic publishing. “So long as the editors’ contribution to publications in all genres… is not given the recognition it deserves,” writes Shipton, “editors will remain vulnerable to low salaries and, in times of economic downturn, early layoff.”

The relationship an editor fosters with an author is key to a book’s realization—and it may play a role in a publisher’s ability to retain an author: “When the collaboration works well,” Shipton writes, “inevitably authors bond with their editors—they request them for book after book.” But “if the collaboration between author and editor does not work well, the author very quickly feels threatened and loses confidence in the editor.” (p. 51) As one of the founders of the publishing program at Ryerson, her advocacy for the editing profession is grounded in her belief in high standards and a solid foundation of editorial principles, as she warns, “The most common disputes arise when copyeditors lack training and experience.” (p. 45)

Shipton explains that whereas “most trade publishers know that, to make their books excellent and interesting, to attract good reviews and other media attention, to win book awards, and to get that word-of-mouth buzz that entices readers to buy, they really should edit at both the macro and the micro level,” (p. 50) meaning that manuscripts at trade houses go through structural, stylistic, and copy editing, “scholarly publishers do not usually do intensive substantive editing—and for many good reasons. Their mandate is to publish books that make an original contribution to knowledge; most of their authors are professors or researchers; the majority of their readers are academics and students; and the number of copies they print of most titles is small.” (p. 52) Because they write for an academic audience, says Shipton, scholars “know that these readers will understand the specialized jargon and the guarded, often obtuse long sentences in which they make their arguments.” (p. 52) (I haven’t worked much with textual scholars, but based on my experiences with scientific scholars, I couldn’t help wondering if scholars’ resistance to being stylistically edited or have at least some clear communication principles applied to their writing is a symptom of an academic culture that routinely conflates abstruseness with erudition.)

Shipton also touches on issues specific to legal editing and educational publishing, adeptly showing not only the peculiarities of each genre but also aspects of our work that unite us all as editors; as far as I’m concerned, her chapter should be required reading in all introductory editing courses. Veteran editors—trade or academic, freelance or in house—would also benefit from her wisdom.

Amy Einsohn’s piece, “Juggling Expectations: The Copyeditor’s Roles and Responsibilities” provides equally valuable information for both novice and seasoned copy editors, encouraging them to pull back and look at their own vulnerabilities so that they can become more effective in their work. “Conflicting opinions about what constitutes good or acceptable expository writing can be particularly difficult to negotiate. Because any sentence can be rewritten (and arguably “improved” thereby), copyeditors must learn to resist the impulse to tinker,” (p. 79) she writes, cautioning that copyeditors “labour in the presence of benevolent or fearsome ghosts: a high school English teacher, a freshman composition instructor, one or more publishing mentors, and the authors of favourite usage books.” (p. 69)

Copy editing is an exercise in juggling quality, collegiality, cost, and control, Einsohn says. And true to the book’s overarching message, she emphasizes the importance of the relationships built—largely through clear, respectful communication—between copy editor and author and between copy editor and press. Most importantly, she offers concrete suggestions to improve these relationships and improve editor retention, including checklists, sample edits, and style memos.

Whereas Einsohn’s contribution focused on text, Camilla Blakeley revealed through a case study of an award-winning project of hers, The Trickster Shift by Allan J. Ryan, the complexities of editing an illustrated book. Tactfully mediating a relationship between the author and designer, securing permissions within a specified budget, coordinating captions and credits, and taking into account the effect these added tasks have on the project schedule are some of just some of the considerations for illustrated books, and, again, communication is paramount. On this project, Blakeley set up a meeting with the author and designer at the very early stages, which the designer, George Vaitkunas, credited with making the project particularly rewarding. Blakeley notes, “early communication makes the job not only easier but more pleasurable. This is significant.” (p. 156)

One point of hers that caught my attention was that “while an experienced scholarly editor knows that a table or a graph requires as much editing as a narrative—often more—most of us have no training in how to look at photograph.” (p. 165) She points to a positive editor–designer relationship as an opportunity for editors to educate themselves about these kinds of issues so that they can better serve the author, designer, and, ultimately, the book.

Blakeley’s contribution is packed with examples from The Trickster Shift—of such details as art logs and schedules—that are useful not only because they inform readers about the anatomy of an illustrated book project as it evolves but also because editors can easily appropriate and adapt these documents for their own use.

Blakeley does a tremendous job of giving the designer on her project a voice, but what sets this book apart is that we get to hear directly from designers themselves. Learning from designer Richard Hendel, for example, about not only how designers fit in to the book production process but also how designers view editors (both flatteringly and unflatteringly) can be an important step to better communication and a more effective workflow. Hendel stresses that “The designer cannot properly address a text until an editor has understood and clearly dealt with the physical aspects of the content: how chapters and chapter titles are arranged, how subheads are dealt with, kinds of extract, and the like.” (p. 175) Referring to English typographer John Ryder, Hendel writes, “Ryder felt that editors should be more critical about how something in the manuscript will eventually appear in the printed book—the need to edit visually before the design process even begins.” (p. 176)

In her chapter, designer Sigrid Albert looks at the evolving role of the designer and the changing relationship between editor and designer as the publishing landscape adjusts to accommodate ebooks and other technologies. “The traditional printed book as a highly crafted cultural object, whether in a humble, low-budget or a luxurious, highly produced format, is the goal of the editor and designer. At the highest level of the book production process, the editor has shaped a piece of history, and the designer has shaped a piece of art,” writes Albert, in one of my favourite quotes from the book.

Whereas the traditional book all but demands a strong, communicative relationship between editor and designer to transmit a single vision, digital books have meant that content and form are separate: “book content is increasingly being stored in databases and tagged with content-related markup—such as chapter titles, subtitles, subheads, extracts—by the editor, while the visual design is controlled by a separate style markup—such as margin widths, font, font size, font weight, colour, or line height—delivered by the designer.” (p. 184) Albert wonders if the relationship will only grow further apart as designers eventually stop designing single books and instead create digital templates that they license. Yet, Albert says, “From the designer’s point of view, the design process, despite the technological advances, still requires a synthesis of information and a variety of visual choices to form an aesthetic unity.” (p. 193)

Yuri Cowan (“Reading Material Bibliography and Digital Editions”) and Darcy Cullen (“The Object and the Process”) also explore the implications of a workflow that incorporates digital outputs, with Cowan taking a more theoretical approach and Cullen sharing the triumphs and growing pains of UBC Press’s first steps into the realm of digital production. Writes Cowan, “our editors can inform their theoretical approaches with recent scholarship in the sociology of material texts, creating a model of readerly engagement and a generation of reader/editors who will be neither overawed by the authority of print nor seduced by the hyperbolic claims made for the electronic edition.” (p. 236)

The book’s other contributors—Peter L. Shillingsburg, Alexander Petit, Peter Mahon, and John K. Young—offer scholars’ perspectives on various facets of the academic publishing process, and although these chapters are all worth reading for the sake of interest, I believe that the general editor-reader will find the essays I’ve mentioned most engaging and directly relevant to their work—and it’s to this specific but vast audience, editors of whatever genre and whatever experience level, that I wholeheartedly recommend this book. Freelance editors who have never worked in house may have the most to gain from this insiders’ view. As Amy Einsohn writes, “Some presses make an effort to train, coach, and acculturate their freelancers, but most freelancers have few opportunities to learn about the publisher’s activities, customs, and mores,” (p. 69) and being informed about a publishing house’s inner workings helps editors anticipate what may be expected of them.

UBC Press—and hence Cullen’s book—specializes in the social sciences, but I would be intrigued to see how the processes described in Editors, Scholars, and the Social Text compare with the workflow and author–editor relationships at academic presses focused on the natural sciences. Most of those authors probably will not read this book, and perhaps even most social science scholars hoping to get published would not think to read it. In many ways, it is much more information than they need to play their roles in book production. Yet, I hope that some academic authors choose to hear what Cullen’s roster of experts have to say. This book beautifully humanizes the publishing process in a way that could only foster mutual respect between professionals—ones with the common aim of producing great books.

Academic editing

At last evening’s EAC-BC meeting, David Harrison spoke about academic editing. His perspective was quite a bit different from mine—he seems to have gained most of his experience working directly with academic authors, often helping them prepare a manuscript for submission to a publisher, whereas I’ve worked on the other end, editing text that a publisher has already accepted.

Harrison has worked with authors as diverse as literary biographers, CGA systems analysts, expert witnesses, and public policy specialists. One client had initially hired Harrison to edit a grant proposal, so, Harrison emphasizes, academic editors can do more than work on just journal articles and books.

He says that, as with other editing, it’s important to understand the author’s purpose. Academic editors may wish to

  • create new knowledge
  • share ideas
  • challenge the ideas of others
  • support the research and findings of others
  • reach a wider audience
  • reach a more specialized audience
  • promote a cause, a policy, a theory, etc.

We must also not forget that they may also have some more practical motivations; “publish or perish” still very much persists:

  • get published in a journal
  • get a paper accepted for a conference
  • get a research grant
  • achieve tenure
  • get promoted
  • sell a book and life off the royalties
  • get invited to address prestigious audiences in  exotic parts of the world

An academic editor must also have a good handle on what the final product will look like. Fortunately, says Harrison, academic papers generally have a very predictable structure. The first time you work with a particular author or in a particular genre, look online or in a local university library for samples of the type of publication the author wants to create. Alternatively, have the author send you a sample.

Academic publishers may have very specific guidelines that they expect authors to follow—these dictate everything from article or abstract length to preferred spellings to formatting. It’s the author’s responsibility to make sure he or she adheres to these, but it’s helpful for the editor to know about them. If a particular publisher doesn’t have such a “Guide to Authors,” follow some exemplars of that publisher’s existing publications or follow an established style guide, such as Chicago or APA, but be sure to communicate your decision to the author. Keep a style sheet for each project. In fact, archive those style sheets; if you ever have repeat work with that author, the existing style sheet will save you a lot of time.

The contract, says Harrison, is very important; make sure you get the deal in writing. Share your expectations. Is the bibliography included in the cost? Is fact checking? Build in some milestones at which you can be paid. Professionalism is key. Stay within your area of competence.

Harrison could find only a handful of books relating to academic writing and editing, but he mentioned Writing for Scholarly Publication by Anne Sigismund Huff, who encourages authors to think of writing as conversation. She, in turn, suggested Making Sense of the Organization by Karl Weick, who elucidated the cycle of writing as it related to clarifying thought. If thinking is writing and writing is thinking, Harrison says, the editor’s role is to mediate that cycle.

Harrison’s presentation sparked some lively discussion about contracts—whether to charge a project rate or hourly rate; how to educate clients about the difference between an estimate and a bid; how to clearly delineate the scope of the work (e.g., specifying the number of revisions). Harrison himself quotes a project fee, saying that an hourly rate can be intimidating to clients. “Think about it from the author’s perspective,” he advised. “How would you react to someone saying, ‘I charge this much per hour but can’t tell you definitively how long it will take me?'” But what Harrison does is charge an up-front fee of commitment and then use an instalment plan for when certain milestones have been attained (e.g., first three chapters finished, halfway mark, initial edit, final revision, etc.).

The audience also asked about what to do in instances of plagiarism. Harrison doesn’t check for plagiarism as a matter of course but encourages editors to make use of the Editors’ Association of Canada’s “Guidelines for Editing Theses” as a tool to educate authors about an editor’s limitations, especially when it comes to dissertations. Jean Lawrence suggested a helpful strategy for diplomatically flagging instances of plagiarism: give the author the benefit of the doubt and assume that he or she has simply left out a citation.

I asked how polished the final product would have to be in such an author-editor relationship given that the paper or book would then go through the publisher’s own editorial process. Harrison said he’s found that less editing is happening at the level of the publisher. In fact, some publishers’ “Guide to Authors” explicitly mentions that if English isn’t your first language, you should strongly consider having your work looked at by an editor prior to submission, and he’s gotten a lot of work that way. He added that he works under the assumption that he’ll be the last person to touch the manuscript from a language point of view.