Academic copyediting is a fascinating area to work in. You learn about cutting-edge research while helping researchers get their work published. As well as ticking all the obvious boxes – like correcting spelling and grammar errors, or ensuring a timely delivery – there are specific considerations for editors to bear in mind.
We’ve worked with many researchers over the last decade, so we thought we’d share some of our wisdom with fellow academic editors.
Make sure you know the destination of the text
Most academic papers are being prepared for publication – submission to a journal or a conference, for example. Before you begin, take a moment to check whether there is a style guide.
Most academic journals have author guidelines, which will cover linguistic, structural and formatting requirements. Often they’re pretty extensive and call for a keen eye for detail. Make sure that the manuscript fits these guidelines before you start working through the text more closely.
Academic papers will need to use the right format, spelling, punctuation and referencing style. The quality of the language can play a vital part in whether academic journal articles are accepted. A comprehensive edit can make the difference between a yes and a no. An editor’s role is therefore key.
The abstract in academic writing is special!
The abstract normally appears on the first page of the document, underneath the title. It’s an important section. Readers will use the abstract to decide whether they want to read the entire document – so it’s vital that it reads well and summarises the paper accurately.
We’d recommend reading it at least three times during the editing process: at the start, after you’ve done your first read-through and just before you submit the file to the authors.
Academic editors can’t know it all
Chances are that you will not be an expert in the topic of the paper. You may be an academic editor with subject matter expertise, or you might be reading a paper for a colleague, in which case you’ll have a strong foundation of knowledge to draw upon as you’re editing. But even specialist editors will have to learn about the topic as they are working.
Therefore, we recommend a cautious approach to editing academic papers. Authors have entrusted their precious, hard-fought work to you and, while it’s important to remove language errors and improve their writing, it’s also key to know when to hold back.
Expect to ‘skim edit’ the manuscript on the first pass. I post comments marked ‘CBT’ (‘come back to’) at this stage to flag up things I’m not sure about, but that will hopefully become clear by the time I’ve finished the paper.
If I’ve reached the end of the paper and the meaning is still in doubt, I add a comment with suggested replacement text for the author to copy and paste, but asking them to make the call about whether it’s the right change to make. Some of these comments rightly lead to dialogue with the authors once the paper’s been returned.
Also, remember that a little desk research work can go a long way. If you think something sounds odd and are about to change it, take two minutes to do a search online to make sure it’s not a common term in the field.
Overall, remember that in many cases, the authors are the subject experts; academic editors are the language experts. Together, we can make the paper as strong as it can be.
Resist the temptation to replace terms with synonyms
For academic editors, the urge to weed out repetition is strong. We like to show off our vocabulary (and thesaurus skills), and make sure that readers enjoy interesting, varied text.
However, this approach isn’t always appropriate when copyediting an academic paper. Specialist terms often have a precise meaning that can’t be replaced with another word or phrase. So, before whipping out the thesaurus, consider whether your suggested edit will change the meaning of the text. If there’s a chance that it will, contact the author or add your suggestion in a comment for them to apply if they agree it’s suitable.
Scrutinise the statistics
Academic editors are usually word experts rather than number experts, but it’s really important to check both in research papers. This could just involve a process of cross-referencing the figures and the text, to make sure they match. However, you may need to dig a bit deeper to ensure that everything is accurate.
One key issue that often crops up: one per cent is not the same as one percentage point. (Who knew?! See this page for an accessible explanation of the difference between them.)
Use fresh eyes to cross-reference everything
As well cross-referencing the numbers, it’s important to take the time to check whether all the elements of the manuscript match up. For example, is the table numbering correct? When the text refers to ‘Table 1’ is it referencing the right table? Are the appendices correctly labelled? Are all the figures there? It can help to check these elements separately. For example, I like to use Word’s Find function to search for ‘table’ and ‘figure’ to ensure that everything is in order.
You want to make sure that everything is as easy as possible for the reader, so that no one is left scratching their head, wondering where to find a particular piece of information.
Check your references separately
Most academic papers include in-text citations and a references list or bibliography. The rules for creating these references can be complicated, and the requirements vary from journal to journal. Also, spotting any missing references can be tricky when you’re in the midst of an edit. So, we recommend checking the references as a separate step from copyediting. It doesn’t matter if you do it before or after the copyedit, but it is much faster and simpler to do it independently.