I edited my first article for Buzzfeed recently. When we were done—about three drafts later—the article we had crafted only vaguely resembled the one that had been submitted. I had reworked the entire structure, cut out a third, added some extra research, smoothened out the kinks with some extra sentences, and has done my usual heavy line-edit.
When we were done congratulating ourselves, the commissioning editor asked if this is the kind of work I do on all my articles. He was genuinely surprised to hear that academic editing tends to go the other way entirely—you try to evince the maximum effect with minimum intervention, or as a more cynical editor friend once said, “Fix what is wrong, stet what is merely horrible.” The author’s voice is considered all important, and it is the author who holds the ultimate ownership over the work. Or, in other words, if the argument is muddled or structure remains unfixed despite gentle suggestions, on their heads be it.
“Oh,” replied the commissioning editor, “what’s the point of editing then?” If you’re not making a text the best it can be—claiming complete ownership of it, even to the extent of overriding the author—what is the point of editing? Wouldn’t you have to live with the dissatisfaction of having put out sub-par content; or worse, what if your restraint was the reason the message/research/story was not heard? As an expert in the field, is it not your job to interface between the author and the reader, repackaging the author’s ideas if need be, so that it reaches the reader and is received with credibility and attention?
This is a puzzle that has been rolling around in my head for the last year. As an editor a) how much ownership do you have over a work?; and b) to whom do you owe the greatest allegiance: the text or the author? How far do you compromise on one to satisfy the other? When I posed this question to an editors’ forum a year ago, I received a somewhat predictable answer: it’s all about the context.
But it is easy to reach for the historical context to explain why things are the way they are, but it is harder to justify whether they should be. It is a well-known fact that the academic publishing industry is rather bizarre. We’ve ended up in a place where a handful of publishers distribute an ever-increasing volume of academic content that authors are incentivised to produce. (For context: Elsevier published about 3% of the 1.2 million submissions it received in 2015.) But unlike Buzzfeed that can count on an audience of a few thousand for even its less popular content, a significant share of academic content goes entirely unrecognised, except for on the authors’ CVs. According to Elsevier, 400,000 new articles were published in its journals in 2015, which were viewed by 12 million readers; this means each article had a grand readership of 30 viewers. However, the total readership number itself—12 million—is significant, considering that Elsevier also estimates that there are only about 7.8 million active researchers in the world, as of 2015. The company’s success comes not from its ability to generate a readership for each article, but from its ability to create a broad base of knowledge—a “long tail”—that will cater to two thousand tiny readerships simultaneously. In addition, a significant share of the company’s revenue goes towards deciding what not to publish, on maintaining its quality by processing nearly a million papers every year that will never be published in its journals or generate direct revenue. So this entire system can work only if the cost per article is kept as minimal possible, so that it does not outweigh the revenue generated by the few papers (in comparison) that are actually published. Academic publishers neatly duck this problem by not paying authors and peer reviewers, outsourcing project management to India and other emerging markets, subcontracting editing, and charging universities exorbitant fees, all of which they have been criticised for.
Since the entire industry operates on volume, publishers entice vendors to take on increased volumes at a lower rate, and the same argument is used further down the chain, when project managers coax editors to do faster and lighter edits for lower pay in exchange for higher volume. (Most “packagers” to whom copy-editing is outsourced in India pay freelance editors between INR 30-60 per 250-300 words.) All of this is couched within a rhetoric of author ownership: that the author is a specialist and, therefore, it would be unwise to meddle with her content too much. This is, of course, true to an extent: copy-editors are often not subject-matter experts of the material they are editing, and with limited budgets, training is often inadequate. Also, in an effort to reduce costs, the editing process is usually divided between two or three editors, all of whom are short of time and budget, and none of whom feel any real ownership of the text. Publishers reiterate this lack of ownership either by stating that it is the peer reviewer’s burden to identify content errors and not that of the editor, or that there is no time/budget for back-and-forth with the author, so it is better to make minimal edits rather than misrepresent their meaning without permission. Therefore, for everyone’s sake, it is assumed that it is better for a copy-editor to not make any changes that cannot be justified using a rulebook and to ignore bad structuring or an inelegant sentence, rather than introduce a more grievous error by making a stupid edit. And since these publishers are so large and hire such a massive workforce across the world, they have set the pace for the rest of the industry, which follows suit (though there are notable exceptions: hello, EPW!)
While the why is clear, the should is a lot more fuzzy. What is lost when an editor feels no ownership over a text? Have we become complicit in the growth of jargon-ese, in making knowledge less accessible, though our explicit role is to do the exact opposite? This is a line of thought that really worries me, and not just in a broad “what is our role in society” way, but because I believe the more rule-bound we make our work and the more we purge it of creativity, the more we’re paving the way for automation to replace us and participating in our own extinction.
But perhaps the best response to the question came from a writer friend who posed a counter-question: “What’s the point of writing, otherwise?” This was a perspective that I had not considered before. Why write if someone is going to change it entirely and make the work their own? The trouble is, I believe, the worlds of academia and literature see this is in entirely different ways. Particularly in STEM, I’m increasingly hearing the argument that in an industry where everything is changing so fast, it’s more important to get the information out as fast as possible, even if it’s grammatically incorrect. Indeed, if it can be understood by other readers, is the punctuation important at all?
Meaning is increasingly being seen as separable from language, especially in fields that rely heavily on data and visuals. But when the volume of content generated is so high, where does one draw the line? When does an article pass from “good enough” to “not credible”, or worse, “unintelligible”? We’re seeing more and more research from India and other countries where English is not spoken as a first language; very often, good language does not necessarily go hand-in-hand with good research. In this case, the author’s inability to explain her ideas in English is not a sign of her incompetence or laziness, but the work of centuries of colonialism that gave one language an unfair advantage over the others. In this situation, what point is there in doing a “light edit” and saying the responsibility lies with the author? Does the author truly “own” the language of the paper in that sense? And what sense does this system make, that simultaneously says that language is not important, but also penalises authors for it? Perhaps this is why the “author ownership” argument seems a bit bogus me—too often it is used to shift blame to the author, someone whose work a publisher profits from, while simultaneously refusing to take responsibility for the work.
But cynicism and a frustration with academic publishing aside, I’ve seen some truly skilled editors fix the most horrendously written texts by merely rearranging the author’s words. It’s as though they know exactly what word the author was reaching for—or the sentence structure they had misremembered and had reproduced in garbled form—and produce that in the edit. Minimum intervention for a truly maximum effect, but not out of laziness, a lack of knowledge, or budget constraints, but true magic-bordering skill. But if they were to do more than that—rewrite a paragraph, let alone rejig the structure or add a section on their own—that wouldn’t really be called editing. It would be considered “rewriting” or “doctoring”, an entirely different playing field in itself, with its own rules.
Perhaps this is where the trick lies: to claim ownership of a work, but to also remember that this is a shared ownership. It is not one’s own to do what one will, but a collaboration. In an interview, a famous trade editor admitted ruefully that the hardest thing for an editor to learn is that the author has limitations. One cannot make an author write a particular book if she does not have the capacity to do so. So too with academic editing. If the author lacks the knowledge or inclination to rework the structure, add extra research, or demystify the jargon, is it really the editor’s responsibility to do so on their behalf? Because, really, isn’t that their part of the bargain? The researcher brings her knowledge of the subject to the table, the editor brings her expertise on language, structure, and academic conventions. (Of course, there’s also another kind of gifted editor who will point out that a particular technology was invented in 1983 and the story is set in 1979, or that roads are the wrong colour for that part of the country, but that’s an even rarer breed, I think.) Can one replace the other?
It is only when there is a genuine collaboration between author and editor that the real magic happens, when two experts in different fields can come together to create good work. But if it is not an equal collaboration—if one of the two parties is lacking in skill or commitment—the other cannot be held accountable. The author cannot be held responsible for a shoddy editing job, nor can the editor replace the author.
As the old saying goes: it’s all about the context, really.