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Editing to house style in scholarly journals

by Geoff Hart

Previously published as: Hart, G. 2002. Editing to house style in scholarly journals. The Technical Editors’ Eyrie Newsletter, Issue 67, Nov. 15/2002. [This article is extracted (and slightly edited) from an exchange on the copyediting-l list in August 2002, in which an editor was looking for persuasive arguments to use with difficult writers.]

I've never worked at a journal, but I've been doing pre-submission editing for science journals (environmental biology, entomology, plant pathology, economics, geology, and a few others) for close to 20 years. I've probably edited to conform with the house style of something like 40 journals over that period. [A look back from 2005: That was a conservative estimate. The actual number is now in the several-hundreds.—GH] Here's my perspective.

All journals I've worked with had a house style, and employed copyeditors to apply it. There's a misconception among some authors that house style's sole goal is to ruthlessly suppress the authorial voice. Any scholarly author who thinks that's the case ought to look at glossy magazines to understand what true homogenization entails; they'll be grateful for such freedoms as they have.

In any event, this editing is usually done simultaneous with other editing chores, so it doesn't impose serious additional delays, particularly so for authors who follow the submission guidelines.

Although spelling's obviously important, I tend to agree that it's a trivial issue compared to the larger issues of comprehension and correctness. However, given that these issues are handled in a routine spell check anyway, why would anyone object to fixing the spelling? You look sloppy if the manuscript is littered with typos, and one common situation arises with journal submissions that cross the Atlantic; U.K. spelling often looks like typos to U.S. readers (and vice versa). More important would be U.S. vs. U.K. usage differences; for example, the meaning of "billion" can differ by a factor of 1000 between audiences.

Where the author's wishes don't make the text harder to understand, and where the deviation from house style is minor, why not concede this point? Editors should, as much as possible, allow authors to retain their voice. Just don't let them use that concession to throw out house style entirely. When setting house style, focus on the things that are directly meaningful to readers: consistent citation styles, consistent use of terminology, and so on.

On the other hand, if your journal strives for clear communication, ambiguity must be stamped out ruthlessly. In my experience, ambiguity represents the author's attempt to waffle rather than express a firm opinion that someone might challenge, or outright laziness and unwillingness to devote the effort required to communicate clearly. Clarifying ambiguity is a non-negotiable point. If the authors want to be ambiguous, tell them to publish on the Web and leave your journal alone.

Regarding detailed cross-reference checklists: In my experience, maybe one author in ten is able to get footnotes and citations even close to perfect. Given how important it is for researchers to be able to look up the right publication, getting the cites right isn't a job you should let authors duck.

Ditto for tables. It's amazing how many authors can't add up a column of five numbers and calculate a correct total or average. In their defence, this problem often arises from copying spreadsheet data into a word processor without remembering to check for rounding errors. But someone has to do the check, and if the authors don't, that means us.

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