One of the always-frustrating aspects of being a copy editor is that it requires an obsessive nature as well as a willingness to accept that perfection isn’t possible; no matter how many times you check the proofs, there’ll always be something that makes it into the final version. Obviously enough, such obsessiveness and knowing when to let go aren’t traits often found to co-exist in one mere human. And in correcting others’ mistakes—and in writing posts such as this—Muphry’s law looms large. All in all, you’re asking for trouble. But despite opening the door to public ridicule, we thought we’d add to our ‘how to’ series with something on copy-editing.
The Oxford Style Manual; or, The Style Guide Formally Known as Hart’s Rules
The BJPS presents particular difficulties for copy editors. On the one hand, philosophers tend to demand a higher standard of writing than is perhaps common in (at least some) science journals. On the other hand, there is often a good deal of very technical content, including logical and mathematical notation. Needless to say, the average copy editor and typesetter employed by the big publishing houses is unlikely to be able to deal well with both. As a result, the editors here do a detailed copy-edit in-house too, and this in part explains why our production queue is on the slow side. This is a very conscious choice: we thought it was much more important for authors to get a quick decision on their papers, whatever that decision might be. (Average time to a decision in 2015 was approximately thirty days. Once the paper has been accepted, that’s usually enough for the job market, tenure applications, grant applications, and so on—though do get in touch with us if you need a formal acknowledgement of acceptance—so getting a decision is prioritized over getting papers online.) The usual process is that the publisher’s copy editors and typesetters work on your paper, send the paper to you, and then send your corrected proof to us. If all goes well, the paper is published; if not, the production team generate a new set of proofs and the checking process begins again.
In terms of emails being sent to the Editorial Office, copy-editing might well generate more shouty emails than rejection letters. And it’s not like we don’t understand; editors are authors too! (If you paper-cut us, do we not bleed?!) Your paper is the culmination of years of research, weeks or months of writing, and who knows how many hours of fretting. It’s your baby, it’s precious, and no one better even think about messing with it.
Except, of course, they will. Even after you’ve done everything the referees ask of you, the meddling does not end. And worse still, the reasons for this meddling has very little to do with you, the author. Instead, the focus moves to the reader.
It has been well documented elsewhere that we are in a weird, in-between place with academic publishing. One aspect of this is that, on the one hand, the BJPS still has a large number of print subscribers (Hi guys! Keep the faith!). On the other hand, the trends suggest that this won’t last and we’ll read everything via some electronic medium before long. I don’t know if at some point in some glorious past, everyone sat down and read an issue of their favourite journal cover-to-cover. Probably not everyone; equally, probably some did. If the full issue landed on your desk and things like the REF didn’t exist, why not? But I’d wager that there are fewer people than ever do this and the more common pattern is to pick an article here, an article there, a chapter from this book, a section from that book. It’s hard enough to keep up with all the material you have to read, reading anything else just isn’t feasible. (Anyone remember reading fiction? Fiction, anyone? No?) All of this is just to say that we have two very different kinds of readers to satisfy: those who may read all, or at least substantial portions of, the journal; and the electronic readers. These groups have different requirements and this creates certain tensions for a copy editor.
There are two principles that govern this last stage of meddling with your paper, each one primarily concerned with satisfying one of these two types of reader. The first concerns consistency. House style exists primarily so that everything in the journal looks the same, and everything looking the same means that style fades into the background, without disrupting the reader. Very few house-style rules have anything other than convention undergirding them. But it doesn’t really matter that they are arbitrary, they only need to ensure standardization. Most house-style guidelines concern matters so minor that it can be baffling why anyone would care (or, more likely, care to change it from your favoured way of doing things). Inconsistent formatting, even if subtle, at best makes for an amateur looking publication and, at worst, takes the reader’s focus from the content to the style.
One might nonetheless suggest that this or that arbitrary convention ought to be changed to match some standard usage. There are boring reasons for why this is quite difficult to implement. More to the point, though, there isn’t a standard, agreed format. Sometimes, people are just wrong about what’s standard (confirmation bias—it’s everywhere!). More often, what’s standard in one sub-discipline within the philosophy of science isn’t everywhere else. As a journal that publishes across the range of sub-disciplines, this is important.
Another common objection from authors is that they have employed their preferred style consistently within the paper, even if it doesn’t match the style adopted elsewhere in the journal. This brings me back to these two different groups of readers. In time, it may be that print issues and even journals no longer exist, and papers exist in some online-only archive. But while people buy and read full print issues, journal-level consistency remains important. (That said, professional website adopt their own style guidelines, so perhaps house style isn’t going anywhere yet.) And, of course, there are occasions where we can avoid ambiguity by taking a position on some matter of convention and sticking to it throughout the journal.
The second guideline concerns the new ways of reading the BJPS. Being a newer problem, it’s not much of a surprise that this is also a trickier problem. Reading PDFs electronically or printing them out is unproblematic, of course, as they replicate the print version. But if, like me, you use the html version of papers and send them to your kindle (other e-readers are available!), you’ll know that the translation is often far from perfect. Things that rarely survive are italic and bold typefaces. To deal with this, we keep these formats where they are expected (book titles and certain non-English terms are set in italics, for example), but remove them where they are not (for definitions and for emphasis).
BJPS house style is non-negotiable, though reassuringly non-violent
The golden rule for copy-editing is that style should facilitate comprehension, not compete with it. Using italics in an attempt to convey meaning will often fail to convey that meaning to the significant proportion of your readers whose copy loses this formatting in translation. In the case of definitions and technical terms, numerous disciplines use quotation marks in such circumstances and this is how we handle it too. In cases where attention needs to be called to something you feel is rather subtle, this falls into two camps: either it’s not important enough or it’s too important for italics for emphasis. In the former case, the BJPS audience are a sophisticated lot and often don’t need the signposting provided by italics, thus little is lost without them. In the latter case, where such signposting is crucial, then a significant proportion of your readers will lose this crucial information and so it would be better to find another way to express the same idea.
There’s also the more long-term but incredibly important matter of future-proofing the BJPS archive. There’s a lot of information out there that exists only on CD-ROMS, floppy disks, data cartridges… The file formats we use now will become increasingly difficult to access. Given the problems that currently exist with translation between html and e-reader formats, there’s no reason to suppose similar problems—or worse!—might exist in the future. The more neutral the copy, the better it will adapt to future technological requirements.
Finally, What Is to Be Done? If it hasn’t happened to you, it’s happened to someone you know: your beautiful paper has been horrifically mangled in the copy-editing and typesetting process. Prevention is better than cure here. The more others need to intervene with your paper, the more likely errors will be introduced. Ensuring as best you can that your paper is formatted in line with the journal’s style means that fewer changes will need to be made by the various editors, copy editors, and typesetters who will be handling your paper. LaTeX, counter-intuitively perhaps, is not always a solution here. Indeed, unless the typesetters use special software for .TeX files—and many don’t—things usually get moved around in unpleasant ways. But if you do get sent what looks like a mangled proof, do first make sure the changes made weren’t just the application of house style. You’ll save yourself a whole lot of time by checking this before beginning a painful line-by-line check.
All the same, and despite the best efforts of all involved, sometimes bad things happen to good papers. Just try to focus on the good news that the paper will (eventually, after rounds of proofs) be published!
And to answer one of the most common questions we get, our spelling style isn’t a weird hybrid of UK and US styles; we use Oxford spelling, which pre-dates both of these.
I’ll leave you with the thoughts of the spirit guide of every copy editor, Mary Norris.