Spelling, Grammar, and Scientific Publishing


Recently I corresponded with a friend, an established scientist, who had served as a special-issue editor for a prominent, for-profit, online journal. He and an editing partner were responsible for setting the special issue’s scope, soliciting manuscripts, substantive editing, and so on—the usual editorial tasks. They didn’t get to see the final versions of the articles until they had been assembled into an electronic book. By then the articles had been published online already, so it was too late to make changes. They had become a part of the scientific literature.

When he saw what had been published, my friend wasn’t happy. He and his coeditor found more than 100 small errors: misspellings, incorrect grammar, and so on. His coeditor’s name was misspelled on the title page. (They were able to fix that mistake.) Apparently, copyeditors introduced some of the errors.

Preserved in perpetuity, such errors cast doubt on the reliability of a paper’s scientific content. They make a bad impression on hiring, promotion, and grant-reviewing committees. Literature riddled with trivial errors could even undermine public confidence in science.

One could argue, as my friend did, that publishers have a responsibility to their authors and to science to uphold a certain standard. But, though it depends on where they publish, scientists cannot assume these days that an editor will catch their misspellings and casual grammar. Scientists themselves must take responsibility for ensuring that the papers they publish are clean. That’s yet another specialized skill that today’s scientists need to master.

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