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Editing science manuscripts with a humanities background

by Geoff Hart

Previously published as: Hart, G. 2015. Editing science manuscripts with a humanities background. http://stc-techedit.org/corrigo/editing-science-manuscripts-with-a-humanities-background/

I’m often asked whether someone with a humanities background can build a career editing science manuscripts. The answer, as so often in life, is yes...and no. The yes part is easy: English is English in any discipline, and if you’re a skilled editor, you can edit the basic grammar and syntax of English in just about any field without fully understanding the subject matter. The no part is more complex, and a clue to that complexity emerges from answering the inverse of this question: Can an editor with a scientific background edit humanities papers? In both cases, the problems arise from the focus on a specialized field. Success requires some expertise in the subject before you can fully grasp the author’s intent and know how to help them communicate that intent. In the sciences, most of the manuscripts you’ll be editing—particularly journal articles—contain some fairly thorny material that will make it difficult to proceed without at least a basic understanding of the subject. Without that background, you’ll waste time banging your head against the wall of incomprehension, and you won’t be able to spot and fix many common and important errors that someone with a science background would detect. You’ll also waste a lot of time inventing solutions to problems that a more experienced scientific editor already knows how to solve.

For the sake of clarity, let’s start with two key definitions:

In that context, what do you need to know before you can apply a humanities background to scientific editing?

Nature of scientific manuscripts

Journal articles, and many other scientific communications, tend to have a highly formalized rhetorical structure. I wrote my article The Scientific Method (Hart 2004) to communicate this structure and its benefits to technical communicators who work in different fields. In brief, science begins with identifying a problem, using what we already know about the problem to guide our search for solutions, collecting data on the problem, and proposing a solution based on an interpretation of that data. In many cases, the problem is not something that must be “solved”, but rather a question to be answered. I often describe science writing as akin to writing a mystery novel: in the role of detective (scientist), we observe something (a crime against humanity or nature), gather evidence that would explain the event, and then propose an answer to the mystery. However, in science, this process usually leads to more mysteries rather than a tearful confession from the perpetrator.

In science, two dominant rhetorical principles guide the structure of a manuscript: arguing from evidence and, where you have not obtained the evidence yourself, constructing an argument based on the published evidence of previous researchers. There are many other rhetorical conventions related to each section of a manuscript and specific subjects within those sections. My recent book, Writing for Science Journals (Hart 2014), provides a detailed discussion of these conventions. Scientists are the book’s audience, but as an editor, you can learn much about the conventions of science from this book.

Understanding the rhetorical structure of a scientific manuscript provides a powerful hook for understanding the manuscript, but that’s only a start. Next, you’ll need to speak the language.

Genre-specific jargon

As in any other specialized genre of editing, scientists have developed an extensive vocabulary that you’ll need to learn. This is (mostly) the good kind of jargon: standardized, subject-specific vocabulary designed to communicate clearly and efficiently. (Scientists also have the bad kind of jargon; learning the difference between the two types is crucial if you hope to work as a science editor.) Science has particularly difficult jargon compared with most other genres because, if you’re not already a scientist, most of what the authors describe will have few points of reference in your daily life or past education. That’s a significant difference from most subjects in the humanities, since most of us have at least some experience maintaining relations with other humans (e.g., literary editing, sociology), understanding where we’ve come from and where we find ourselves (e.g., history, cultural studies), or appreciating the arts. Scientists are more likely to share these areas of expertise with non-scientists than non-scientists are to share the scientific experience with scientists. (One of my favorite authors is both a theoretical economist and a classically trained concert violinist.)

Style conventions

Like any other genre, science has developed a large body of style conventions. Fortunately, many of these conventions will already be familiar to you from working with style guides such as The Chicago Manual of Style (CMS). Unfortunately, science has another whole set of conventions layered atop these familiar conventions; some logically extend what you already know, whereas others depart in wildly different directions that may lead to some head-scratching. But there’s more “fortunately”: most fields of science have dozens of journals that specialize in those fields, and offer their style guidelines (and often some sample articles) on their Web site. These guidelines and articles provide a great crash course in what you need to know. If you want to embark upon a longer educational journey, the standard reference (science’s CMS-equivalent) is Scientific Style and Format (CSE 2014).

Sadly, there’s also more “unfortunately”: Scientific Style and Format makes a valiant effort to provide an overview of scientific editing, but fails to adequately cover the details of any given field of science. To learn what isn’t covered, you’ll need to develop some expertise in the subjects you hope to edit.

Subject matter expertise

Science is complex, and grows increasingly complex over time. Though I studied genetics both in high school and in university, I decided that I needed a refresher course to bring me up to speed when I began receiving more genetics manuscripts from clients. As I relearned modern genetics, 20-some years after my last genetics course, I remarked to anyone who would listen: “Goodness! They sure learned a lot since Gregor Mendel and I were in college.” (If you don’t get that joke, perhaps you shouldn’t edit genetics papers.) Unlike most other fields, scientific knowledge evolves continuously and at a ferocious rate, and you’ll need to make an effort to stay up to date.

This is important, because editing a manuscript without introducing errors or creating other problems the author must fix requires an understanding of what the author is trying to say. The more your work resembles substantive editing, the more important this will be. Although many of the sentences you’ll encounter resemble English sufficiently closely that you can identify the various parts of speech and draw inferences about how they fit together to establish meaning, that isn’t always the case. Many of the sentences I work with require significant amounts of subject knowledge before I can even identify the key parts of speech. (Of course, I’ve specialized in authors for whom English is a second or third language. YMMV.) In some cases, I wouldn’t have the faintest idea of what the author is trying to say without a significant background in the science.

That’s particularly true for two areas in which most non-scientists have inadequate or no training: mathematics (including statistics) and data graphics.

Warning: contains mathematics!

The real deal breaker for most aspiring science editors who lack a scientific background is that you’ll need a good grasp of mathematics and statistics, two of the touchstones of science. By mathematics, I don’t just mean basic arithmetic; I mean algebraic equations, calculus, matrix mathematics, vectors, stoichiometry, and the even more abstruse types of mathematics that crop up in some areas of research. One of the more abstruse areas is statistics. You don’t have to be a statistician to be a good scientist or science editor, but you do need to understand the basic concepts that underlie statistics (probability and its meaning), the standards of statistical proof that scientists rely on, and how these factors affect interpretation of the data scientists collect.

A related issue is the concept of “data graphics”. Most readers of this article will have at least basic proficiency understanding USA Today–style pie charts, bar graphs, and line graphs. But communicating the meaning of data relies heavily on data graphics, and this is a whole new visual language that has its own rhetoric, conventions, and booby traps for the unwary. Though I talk about this at some length in Writing for Science Journals, there’s no better starting point for this subject than Edward Tufte’s works, two of which I’ve included in the bibliography. Although you may be able to edit scientific material without understanding the complexities of data graphics, you’ll only understand half of the story—and you won’t spot problems with how the authors are interpreting their own data. (These problems arise surprisingly often.)

Ready to try?

You can learn many of the abovementioned basics of science editing from Writing for Science Journals (Hart 2014). But for other things, such as mathematics and the basic conceptual foundation of a given field of science, you’re going to need to do some studying. When I decided that I needed to relearn modern genetics, I purchased a recent textbook and spent the next few months studying it. I’ve done the same for other areas of science where my knowledge was rusty. I also read Scientific American each month to ensure that I have some inputs from areas of science I’m not already familiar with. If you’re a fan of lifelong learning, this won’t dismay you; if you are dismayed, then perhaps science editing won’t be the right career for you.

While you’re learning, it would be ethical to warn your clients that you’re not yet a science editor; that is, don’t oversell your expertise. You’ll come up to speed over time, but the learning curve can be steep, and scientist clients may have little patience for your learning curve if you don’t warn them what to expect.

With all these barriers, does this mean you should look elsewhere for editing work? No. I’ve known several successful scientific editors who initially had little or no scientific background. But they worked hard to acquire the knowledge they needed. If you’re willing to put in the same effort, you’ll discover why I’ve loved this job for nearly 30 years, and even now, have not grown bored with the work.

Bibliography

CSE. 2014. Scientific Style and Format: The CSE Manual for Authors, Editors, and Publishers. Council of Science Editors.

Hart, G.J. 2004. The scientific method: technical communicators learning from scientists. Intercom November:12–13.

Hart, G. 2014. Writing for Science Journals: Tips, Tricks, and a Learning Plan. Diaskeuasis Publishing, Pointe-Claire, Quebec.

Tufte, E. 1990. Envisioning information. Graphics Press.

Tufte, E. 2001. The visual display of quantitative information. 2nd ed. Graphics Press.


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