An American Editor

June 4, 2014

Trolleyology and the Ethics of Editing

I am currently reading David Edmonds’ Would You Kill the Fat Man?: The Trolley Problem and What Your Answer Tells Us about Right and Wrong (2013). The book focuses on what has become known as the trolley problem, which goes like this (the following is a summary of Phillippa Foot’s original thought experiment from the 1960s, which subsequently morphed into the “Fat Man” variation, as well as other variations):

The trolley is coming down the track and you are standing by a switch. If the trolley remains on the current track, it will kill five people who are tied to the track and cannot escape. If you throw the switch, the trolley will veer onto a spur on which one person is tied and will kill that one person, but the five people will be saved. Do you/should you throw the switch?

This is the conundrum of right and wrong, which underlies most religious and moral beliefs.

Reading this book made me think of editing ethics. I grant that the decisions we have to make are not of life and death, but still, they can be weighty and certainly raise the specter of morally and ethically right and wrong behavior.

Is the absence of the conundrum equivalent to saying that there is no ethical or unethical behavior, there is just behavior? Is this a conundrum for philosophers to quarrel over but that has no particular value outside the philosophical debates? As with most philosophical questions, there are only philosophical answers, any of which can be correct at a given moment in time.

I think few of us would say that editing (of all stripes, including proofreading) raises such philosophical conundrums that we grind to a halt as we consider them and discuss them with colleagues. Over the past 30 years, I have had editing-related “philosophical” discussions with colleagues only on a handful of occasions, and those discussions were rarely earth moving.

I suppose our initial foray into the conundrum is whether we are competent to handle the project being offered. This is not about our competency in general as an editor, but our competency specifically for the project in question. For example, we work alone, there are 3,000 manuscript pages to be edited; they require a “heavy” edit; the subject matter is a sub-sub-subspecialty area of nuclear physics, an area with which we have no familiarity; the manuscript is heavy in math, which we know is a weakness; the schedule is six weeks and cannot be extended, which means we would have to edit 500 manuscript pages a week, yet the best we have ever done is 300. The project is for a long-time client who pays very well (more than any other client we have) and will pay double our usual rate. Finally, if we do not accept this project, we currently have nothing else to fill the time, although it is always possible for something to come along. Also, the project still will have to be done by someone — and that someone might be even less qualified.

What do we do? Some of us will immediately decline, outlining our reasons for the client. Some of us will accept and hope that we can convince the client to extend the deadline. Some of us will simply accept and hope that we do a satisfactory job. Some of us will accept and try to find colleagues to work on the manuscript with us. Regardless of which path we take, I suspect that most of us would think more about the practical problems than the philosophical problems associated with the project offer.

But should we be so focused on the practical problems, or should we have already had a philosophical discussion about such a situation and have our moral and ethical compass already set to give an answer to the offer? My thinking tends toward the latter.

The job offer raises many of ethical questions. Should an editor accept work in unfamiliar subject areas? What makes up an unfamiliar subject area? How much depth of knowledge in a subject area does an editor need to accept an offer? (For example, do we need to have studied Jewish writings regarding the Talmud for years to be able to edit a book on Jewish philosophy that arises from the Talmud? Do we need to be able to cite the German order of battle before we agree to edit a book on the German offensive in World War I? Should we have at least a nursing degree before we edit a medical text intended for nursing students?)

Should our decision be based on schedule and our past history with regard to schedule? That is, if the schedule requires 500 edited pages per week but the most we have ever done is 300, are we morally obligated to turn down the project because we have never accomplished that speed before? Or is this one of those ethical considerations that need to be given some weight, but not much weight because we can find techniques that will speed up our editing? Which raises the question of whether we would be substituting technique for skill.

Let us not forget the money part. The offer comes with more money than usual — a doubling of our normal fee. Why? Is it not the client’s recognition of the difficulty of the project and the client’s method of incentivizing us to undertake what appears to be a difficult project? How much should the fee offered govern our decision-making process? If we were to prioritize elements of the offer, where would we place fee?

I know that some of us would say that before approaching these or any other question about the offer, they would insist on seeing a few chapters to make their own decision about the project’s difficulty. Even if chapters are chosen at random, how much can we learn from them? The two or three chapters randomly chosen could be the most difficult to edit, the longest, the shortest, the easiest to edit, or something else that would unduly influence a positive or negative reaction. Such a review could (and likely would) divert us from addressing the more important underlying ethical and moral questions.

In a sense, that is exactly the problem: We editors do not have a universal code of morality or ethics that serves as a guide to any of the editorial decisions we make, which range from whether to accept an offer to whether to bill the client for hours we didn’t actually spend on the project because we were more efficient than the client calculated we would be (in other words, the project took us 50 hours but the client expected it to take and budgeted for 75 hours. Do we bill for 50 hours or 75 hours?).

In the absence of such ethical codes, editors tend to approach the job-offer problem from the practical side rather than the philosophical side. Granted, in our instance, unlike in the trolley problem, there is no balancing of life versus death(s). And I also grant that in the trolley problem the dilemma has a cultural/religious element (substitute for the trolley problem the abortion problem and its variations) that editing will rarely face (an exception being, perhaps, the offer to edit a virulently anti-Semitic book that calls for a new genocide). Yet I think we — and our clients and profession — would gain greatly were we to have this discussion and come to a consensus on what constitutes ethical and moral behavior for an editor and what doesn’t.

What do you think?

Richard Adin, An American Editor



  1. AE wrote: “The job offer raises many ethical questions. Should an editor accept work in unfamiliar subject areas? What makes up an unfamiliar subject area? How much depth of knowledge in a subject area does an editor need to accept an offer?

    Although I can see the ethical aspect of this example, I react to it from a practical perspective. Nine times out of ten, in nonfiction, I am asked to edit material on subjects about which I know little or nothing. (Heck, the knowledge gained from editing nonfiction has comprised the bulk of my college-level education!)

    Whether I accept a job depends mainly on the client. Is it a publisher or an independent author? Has the book been previously reviewed by other editors and subject matter experts, so I’m just doing the tidy-up copy edit, or is this a budget job and I’m the only editorial type who will be touching it and thus need to be strong on content? Is the client laying the burden of content accuracy on me, or hiring me to address the coherency of the writing on a layperson level? Am I being offered a low rate appropriate for my knowledge, or a high rate because the client is desperate or foolish? What are the consequences of missing or misinterpreting something?

    If it’s too dicey, I will decline. If the project and client are appropriate for my services, I will accept. No challenging ethical issues involved, unless you consider self-preservation a factor.

    With fiction, decisions are based more on taste and subject than knowledge base, but still there are conventions to be aware of for category writing, and ignorance of them can put you in hot water. Some authors will only work with editors experienced in a particular genre. Others prefer a different focus. As with almost everything related to editorial work, each situation is unique.

    I could not afford to be an editor if I had to have deep familiarity with one or more subjects, because it would require me to go back to school for one or more degrees, and I would have a narrow selection of clientele available and be completely at the mercy of whatever slot of industry or academia they represented. So I am a generalist by default and always on the edge of not knowing enough. This is where contracts come into play. They define (or should) the expectations of both parties, thereby preventing people from working over their heads in a dangerous way, or expecting more than can be delivered. Keeping a within clear business parameters allows you to minimize ethical problems.


    Comment by Carolyn — June 4, 2014 @ 6:03 am | Reply

  2. This seems to boil down to the question: if you can’t do a great job on a project, should you accept it? I don’t know what my answer to this is, but I think (as Carolyn suggests) that ethical considerations have to be tempered with practical ones. The world of publishing isn’t perfect: there often isn’t enough money or expertise or time to make a book the best it could be. It took me quite a long time working in-house to realise this, and it was difficult to accept, but for better or worse it’s just the way things are. So although it would be nice to think you could do a perfect or near-perfect job on every project, this isn’t really working within the real-world restraints of publishing. (So actually, I think over time my moral compass has become a little looser. I think by nature I’m a perfectionist, but I can’t afford to be one within publishing. Also, publishing doesn’t actually want me to be one.)

    Another ethical question I’d be interested to know people’s thoughts about is: should you accept a project where you don’t agree with the premise/argument? (E.g. a book arguing that global warming is a myth?) And if you do accept it, should you try to ‘correct’ the argument, or use your skills to make the argument as clear as it can be?


    Comment by Harriet Power — June 4, 2014 @ 7:59 am | Reply

    • Harriet, you began by summarizing the issue as “This seems to boil down to the question: if you can’t do a great job on a project, should you accept it?” I do not think the issue can be summarized in that fashion, but then I have been wrong before. How can you know whether you can do a good job or not until you have tackled the job (assuming you are not being asked to verify the accuracy of say, advanced nuclear physics equations). Cannot an experienced editor assume that if the job is grammar and syntax focused that the editor can do a good job? And what constitutes a “good job” anyway?

      Does focusing on the practical at the expense of the ethical questions mean that the only pertinent question is financial: Is the pay sufficient to warrant undertaking of the project? And if you try to balance the practical and the ethical, does one begin more weighted than the other, thereby requiring more to bring it into balance?


      Comment by americaneditor — June 4, 2014 @ 9:05 am | Reply

      • Maybe I shouldn’t have tried to condense your blog post into one sentence; all I meant by being able to do a ‘good job’ was (in your terms) ‘whether we are competent to handle the project being offered’, which seems to be the main question that you’re asking. Apologies if I’ve misunderstood.

        Just to say as well that I certainly think ethical considerations are important, and I wouldn’t want to take on a project that I don’t feel competent to handle. I just find it difficult to see how you can divorce ethical considerations from practical ones, because the practical considerations of a project (the schedule, the fee, the subject) influence your ethical decision as to whether you are competent enough to take it on or not. (Or again, have I misunderstood?)


        Comment by Harriet Power — June 4, 2014 @ 9:45 am | Reply

    • Harriet asks: “Another ethical question I’d be interested to know people’s thoughts about is: should you accept a project where you don’t agree with the premise/argument? (E.g. a book arguing that global warming is a myth?) And if you do accept it, should you try to ‘correct’ the argument, or use your skills to make the argument as clear as it can be?

      This is a two-part question, actually, with the ethical piece nested in the middle.

      Whether to accept a project when you don’t agree with its premise/argument is your choice based on your personal morals, rationale, and finances. Once you have accepted the job, you have no business trying to correct the author’s argument. That’s the ethical piece. Your job is to “use your skills to make the argument as clear as it can be” — with the exception of if you come across a fact the author is using to support his/her point and that fact is inaccurate or grossly out of context, then you should tactfully query it and, if possible, point to a source that supports your position.


      Comment by Carolyn — June 4, 2014 @ 9:06 am | Reply

  3. While I agree that as editors we don’t need to have a deep knowledge about a subject, I also believe that there is a line where the lack of personal technical knowledge has to come into play. Given the AE’s scenario of a highly specialized topic, I would draw the line at editing that type of manuscript. As a generalist, I can edit a wide range of nonfiction documents, but I also know that I will not always be the right editor for every job, nor will every job be the right one for me. I wouldn’t take on a mathematics or physics MS, for example, because I have no background or affinity for those subjects and would likely not be able to give the MS the best edit. I have also turned down work because it conflicted with my faith. On the other hand, I once accepted and kept a long-term project that stretched my ability to meet deadlines. Sometimes it isn’t always clear.

    I believe ethics should be involved in my work as an editor, both practically–to develop a reputation for honesty and integrity, to give due respect to the client’s hard work, and to not botch up the job and never see work from that client again–and philosophically–to uphold my personal convictions and honor my God.

    For full transparency, I will note that I am employed as a full-time editor, so my freelancing is on the side. Thus I am not faced with the reality of needing freelance work to pay the bills. and realize that having such a need may heighten the risk and make some choices more difficult. But I think it’s a slippery slope when we start compromising.


    Comment by Patty — June 4, 2014 @ 8:07 am | Reply

  4. Re knowledge of subject:

    For nonfiction, the job of a copy editor is not to to check for accuracy. The job of the CE is to make sure the copy is comprehensible for the intended audience. Thus if it’s a popular science work, then being an expert in the field would actually be bad, because you wouldn’t understand that the average reader wouldn’t understand certain technical terms. If it’s something like nuclear physics for a journal read by other nuclear physicists, then the journal would send it out to peer reviewers to check for accuracy (although they often don’t read carefully), and the CE would be expected simply to do mechanical editing, grammar etc.

    It is a bonus for the publisher when the CE does find errors of fact. But that’s not part of the job.

    Re schedule:

    If I were offered a job I knew I couldn’t finish on deadline, I would discuss the schedule with the publisher, saying I thought the schedule was unreasonable if they wanted thorough editing. If they then insisted on their schedule, I would either turn it down or edit very quickly, not as thoroughly as I normally do. They get what they pay for.

    This once happened to me. I was doing my usual thorough job, and they said I was going too slowly, as the total budget for editing was X. I calculated that in order to come in under budget, I’d have to work at 30 pages an hour, and this was an article about magnetic resonance imaging. So I raced through it, picking up only glaring errors, and they were quite happy with the job.


    Comment by Gretchen — June 4, 2014 @ 9:53 am | Reply

  5. To me, the ethical consideration would be whether or not the client understands your limitations in such a scenario, not just whether or not you should accept the work. True, it would be unethical to accept it with the implication that you’ll provide your usual quality of work. So I’d discuss my concerns and abilities with the client and then let them decide whether they still want to hire me or someone else (assuming I haven’t decided to decline it for my own reasons). Hopefully, they’ll value quality editing enough to choose someone better suited, but as long as there’s full disclosure, they know what they’re paying for, so I don’t think there’s a dilemma.

    I’ve had similar situations in my own job, at least in relation to timelines. Some of the writers assigned to me would rather have a poor edit done today than a quality edit done tomorrow. I strongly disagree, but it’s their choice. (And since I’m an employee, I couldn’t decline anyway.)


    Comment by Daniel — June 4, 2014 @ 10:53 am | Reply

  6. I have no problem with taking on projects on topics that aren’t familiar, but I might warn the client if the topic is new to me. I’ve turned down a few projects where I thought the topic might be too technical for me, but only a very, very few over many years. Based on experience, I seem to be competent to handle just about anything.

    I wouldn’t accept a project where I disagree with the thesis, or with other aspects of the material. When I was a newspaper reporter, I had to cover a few events that went against my interests, but one reason to be a freelancer is to be able to turn down anything that feels uncomfortable or offensive.

    If I’m asked to take on a project with an unrealistic deadline, I would speak up. I try not to make any commitments I can’t fulfill. In Rich’s example of a 3,000-page manuscript on a topic requiring almost twice my usual speed on a topic that is a weakness, I’d probably decline, even with the carrot of double my usual fee – I don’t want that kind of pressure. But I’m not desperate for work. If I did accept a project like that, it would only be by telling the client that I’ll do my best but can’t guarantee making the deadline under those conditions.

    Maybe there isn’t a universal code of ethics for editing, or maybe the example is a little too extreme to fit easily into such a code. My ethical code is that I’ll accept any project that I think I can do well, will inform clients of any qualms I might have before starting a project and will do what I promise to do. If the topic is new to me and I think that might be a concern, I’ll let the client know ahead of time. If the deadline seems unrealistic, I’ll say so. If I finish a project that is paid by the hour in fewer hours than expected, I won’t bill for the unused time. I won’t accept projects that are racist, sexist, obscene (to me), stupid, inaccurate or so badly written that I’d have to become a co-author to make them even halfway readable.


    Comment by Ruth E. Thaler-Carter — June 4, 2014 @ 10:31 pm | Reply

  7. […] We’ve asked and discussed questions of ethics many times on An American Editor in essays like “Trolleyology and the Ethics of Editing”, “The Ethics of Editing“, “The Business of Editing: The Ethics […]


    Pingback by Business of Editing: Certification & Ethics | An American Editor — July 9, 2014 @ 4:03 am | Reply

  8. […] The more complications there are, the harder it is to decide what the right course is. Editor Rich Adin has mastered the art of creating ethical conundrums. Here’s one he published on An American Editor: […]


    Pingback by Do Editors Need a Code of Ethics? - Right Touch Editing — March 23, 2023 @ 12:03 am | Reply

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