Quality Costs: Gibberish, STEM Journals, and the Bottom Line

A 2009 study conducted by the National Humanities Alliance examined the flagship journals of eight scholarly organizations to weigh the cost of publishing humanities and social science research against the costs of publishing science, technology, engineering, and medical (STEM) research.  Mary Waltham, the consultant who authored the study, found that humanities and social science journals average $526 per page, a figure that doubles STEM journals’ average of $266.

When this study debuted five years ago, the muttering among my colleagues in “expensive” fields was that it only went to show that we do a far better job than the hastily cobbled-together, cheap productions sometimes issued by STEM fields.  Since then, we’ve been awaiting proof of our bias, and last month, we may have found it.  The journal Nature reported that the STEM-heavy publishers Springer and Institute of Electrical and Electronic Engineers (IEEE) had recently been forced to remove 120 nonsense papers from published journals.  A French computer scientist named Cyril Labbé had developed a program for detecting papers generated by software called SCIgen, much to the frustration of academic tricksters everywhere.  He has so far informed IEEE of 100 fakes and Springer of sixteen.  A least one of the papers was “authored” by scholars who had no idea their names were being used in such a way.

There are many stages in which an elementary standard of quality control could have eliminated nonsense papers from the pool—upon initial receipt, when the editors could review and desk-reject; at the peer-review stage, when a colleague could question authenticity; at the editing stage, when the copy editor could discover the gibberish.  It would appear that, in a minimum of 120 instances, at least two STEM publishers squandered repeated opportunities to provide their readership with genuine, useful research.

So You Want to Hire an Editor: A Guide to Pleasant Relations

So you want to hire an editor?  Great!  Give us all your money!

But before you do, make it a rewarding experience on both ends by carefully considering, and communicating, what you want him or her to do.  From traumas and pratfalls of various sorts, I’ve gleaned some wisdom about the process.  In early e-mails, I suggest you do the following:

1. Carefully describe what you (or your advisor, or your publisher) want done.  I can’t emphasize this enough.  The range of what clients want—from virtual ghostwriting to shallow grammar checks—would amaze you.  Delineating your expectations will save you much potential conflict and/or disappointment.

2. Explain the scope of the project.  Don’t engage an editor for a single chapter, then keep sending him surprise additions.  This will not go well for you, and it will be even worse on the editor’s end.  This includes things that might happen (as in, “I’m not sure I can finish the introduction in time, but I might send it along just before the deadline”).

3. Explain the project’s audience.  Writing for your dissertation committee differs substantially from writing for a journal (despite rumors to the contrary, judging by the number of unedited chapters sent to academic journals).  And both differ drastically from undergraduate textbooks, scholarly books, works for the general public, and so on.  The nationality of your expected audience, if you already know your venue, can also make a big difference.

4. Point out your weaknesses.  This can be hard to admit at times, but better to ‘fess up from the beginning than to surprise your editor.  She will respect you more.  And be nicer about correcting consistent problems if she knows you’re nervous.

5. Set explicit deadlines.  If you just airily say, “Whenever!”, you will be taken advantage of.  We editors are busy people, and we receive enough urgent projects that you will be put on the back burner.  Also, a clear deadline makes it far easier for the editor to plan (her work, her life, her whatever).

There’s enough confusion in the world.  We editors don’t like confusion.  That’s why we edit it away.  Help us help you!