Unsung heroes of academic publishing

The text that appears in academic books and papers is never the result of one person’s labours alone, not even in single-authored pieces. The author submits their copy but the words also go through the hands and minds of those silent contributors, the copy editors, before they reach the printed page. Copy editors save us from our last-remaining typos but a good one can do more than that, sometimes providing helpful grammatical and stylistic improvements. Maybe even philosophical improvements.

I’ve written enough books and papers now to be able to tell the difference between a good and less-good copy editor. For my forthcoming book Absence and Nothing: the Philosophy of What There is Not, I had one of my best ever and wanted to insert a thank you into the script. I can’t remember ever seeing a copy editor acknowledged before. In this case, I had a sense of philosophical dialogue with the editor checking my complicated text. We had a lengthy discussion over the difference between ‘what is not’ and ‘what-is-not’. Was it merely a grammatical matter, governed by rules of consistency, or was there a substantial philosophical difference between two distinct things? We also had a bit of a joke together when he saw my example of a copy editor correcting double negations in a section considering their occasional legitimate use.

The best copy editors for my work will be those with a feel for philosophy and who treat the text not just as a collection of words but as a philosophical argument. Philosophers will prefer precision over what reads easiest and this is where I’ve had problems. One copy editor decided, for instance, that a claim I expressed with the form ‘P, only if Q’ would read better with a sentence that had the form ‘only if P, Q’. A non-philosopher might think there was no difference. In another case, I saw that a number of figures had been redrawn, presumably to look more aesthetically pleasing, but thereby negating the point they were meant to illustrate.  

I sometimes joke that English is my second language as I grew up with a number of Yorkshire colloquialisms that had to be unlearnt as I became an academic. Copy editors were some of the people who helped correct my early efforts and I’ve always tried to make full use of the grammatical lessons they give. I do admire a trained copy editor’s eye for detail. I have in the past been susceptible to confusing homophones, for instance. Should it be ‘emit’ or ‘omit’, ‘elicit’ or ‘illicit’, ‘discrete’ or ‘discreet’? It might sound right as you read it in your head but a good copy editor sees beyond the sounds.

We operate within a publishing landscape that is not always defensible. Predatory publishers are the tip of an iceberg of academic exploitation and there are many practices I would condemn. I certainly wouldn’t lay any of the blame at the feet of the hard-working copy editor, though. I imagine it is not easy work and they have to fight for pay and conditions like the rest of us. They might occasionally annoy us when they suggest things with which we disagree, but if they save me from one typo, and make the public version of my work better, I am still going to be immensely grateful.

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