Aaron Sloman
School of Computer Science,
University of Birmingham, UK

Dear colleagues,

Don't let publishers and copy-editors bully you into accepting their often illogical and distorting changes to your text.

Insist that you will not allow your paper to be included in their books and journals unless you have the ultimate say on what the content is, and no copy editor should be allowed to make any change without asking you first.

Unfortunately, too many of the copy-editors who are employed to work on scientific or academic texts are both ignorant of the subject matter and slavishly committed to following out of date stylistic rules that may be relevant to literary essays written a hundred years ago but have no relevance to modern scientific and academic communication, and when applied blindly to your text can seriously change the sense of what you had written. (Examples below.)

It is not easy to notice such changes, especially without electronic tools to point up differences between original and new version, and some dreadful alterations of meaning resulting from something as simple as insertion or removal of a comma have got through to the final published version because I did not spot them when reading paper proofs. Human brains did not evolve for proof-reading.

Note added 3 May 2018:
I am pleased to say that I have just received the edited proof of a paper for the MDPI journal Information, where all the main changes were clearly marked by colour changes in the PDF file, and most of the changes were acceptable. However, as often happens, multiple spurious commas had been inserted after "e.g.", blindly following an out of date style rule criticised below for confusing parenthetical and forward referring uses of "for example" or "e.g.".

But when I pointed out the error of confusing those two uses, the MDPI Editor immediately removed all the unwanted commas, and said they would pass on the information about the distinction to their copy editors. The article is online here, as evidence:

You may be afraid to resist copy-editors because too often job applications, tenure or promotion depend on numbers of publications, but if we all put our foot down, publishers will have to take note.

It's your work: don't let them spoil it and make you waste your time resisting or undoing their attempts to spoil it.

I hope more people will join an anti-copy-editing resistance army, so that in future we can suffer less from time-wasting and often also intrusive and corrosive attempts to mangle our manuscripts (driven by somebody's rule-book rather than common sense and an understanding of communication), while leaving it open for those who are not expert in the language to use their help. I have been reading, writing, and speaking English, and teaching in English for over three quarters of a century. Although I make some mistakes, I don't see why publishers should give someone with an inferior grasp of the language, and a lack of relevant technical knowledge concerning the content of what I have written, freedom to make whatever changes they like without even asking my permission or marking the proposed changes so that I can find them quickly.

This is extreme discourtesy and inconsiderateness. Unfortunately, this dictatorial procedure is what most publishers seem to think is their right.

Of course, I have no objection to people who are less experienced and less confident in their use of English willingly handing over responsibility for improving style, spelling and clarity to an expert. But that should be an explicitly agreed option, not the default procedure.

Note added: 2 Oct 2012

It has been pointed out to me more than once that there are copy-editors who agree with some or all of the views expressed below about out of date style rules, but are constrained by the publishers who employ them.

If anyone reading this is in that category, please treat this document as something to show employers, instead of regarding it as a personal criticism. See the Comments page.

Note added 3 Nov 2009:
Having received a number of email comments, I thought some future comments might as well be made public. If you would like to have a comment added here, please send it to me, and I'll consider adding it. Plain text or html only please -- no .doc files, pdf, etc.

Comments received are here (latest: 2 Oct 2012)


A style guide not to be followed: Shrunk and White
     Criticised by Geoffrey Pullum

Some battles to be won:

A style guide not to be followed: Shrunk and White
50 Years of Stupid Grammar Advice
By Geoffrey K. Pullum,
Professor of General Linguistics Edinburgh University.
Apparently Strunk & White's The Elements of Style (first edition 1918; most recent Pearson Education Company, 2000) is widely used by teachers in the USA. I think this devastating (and funny) criticism should be a warning to all who believe that something that is widely recommended must be good.

This is how Pullum's review starts:

"April 16 is the 50th anniversary of the publication of a little book that is loved and admired throughout American academe. Celebrations, readings, and toasts are being held, and a commemorative edition has been released.

I won't be celebrating. ......"

Nor I, after reading what he had to say about the book, including:
Its advice ranges from limp platitudes to inconsistent nonsense. Its enormous influence has not improved American students' grasp of English grammar; it has significantly degraded it.

Some battles to be won

Maintained by Aaron Sloman
Updated: 11 Nov 2013; 1 Sep 2016; 5 Jul 2018; 31 May 2020
4 Nov 2009; 13 Apr 2010; 28 Jul 2012; 2 Aug 2012; 1 Feb 2013;
Installed: Circa 2005?