An American Editor

July 23, 2014

The Business of Editing: An Editorial Code of Professional Responsibility

Recent discussions about ethics made me realize that I have failed as an editor and writer. I meant one thing, Erin Brenner and the American Medical Writer’s Association meant something else. This became obvious in private correspondence with Erin wherein we used the same term, ethics, but meant different things. As Erin noted in our correspondence, there are two definitions of ethics: “the rules or standards governing the conduct of a person or the members of a profession” and “the study of the general nature of morals and of the specific moral choices to be made by a person; moral philosophy” (see The American Heritage Dictionary); I meant the first and she meant the second.

Why is this important? Because of the reference to the American Medical Writer’s Association’s Code of Ethics. What I see as necessary is less an abstract code of ethics than a concrete code of professional responsibility. The difference can be like that between night and day. AMWA’s is a code of ethics because it states unenforceable and undefinable ideals. To say, for example, as AMWA Principle 3 says, “Medical communicators should write, edit, or participate in the development of information that meets the highest professional standards…,” is a wonderful aspiration, but it is only an aspiration because “highest professional standards” is undefinable. Ask 25 people to spell out exactly what is meant by that aspiration and you will get many different “definitions.” In this regard, the Society for Editors and Proofreaders’ Code of Practice, is much closer to what I think is needed, although it is only closer, not quite there.

A major failing of the AMWA code, and perhaps even of the SfEP code, is the lack of interpretive, published decisions and public enforcement. In contrast to aspirational ideals, a code of professional responsibility lays out definable, graspable, and, most importantly, enforceable rules of conduct; it also usually has a body of interpretive opinions so that adherents know what is expected in defined circumstances. Enforcement means that there is a public penalty for ignoring the guidance. Think of it like a judicial opinion. A court opinion has no value if no one knows what the facts are that led to the opinion and what the parameters of the opinion are. The idea is for those bound by the code to understand their obligations and modify their behavior accordingly. It is the seeking of a behavioral consensus.

Codes of professional responsibility usually have mechanisms by which a person bound by the code can submit a scenario and receive guidance on how to behave. For example, an editor could ask: “I was told the client had a budget of $1500 and I agreed to work for $50 an hour. But the work is not complete after 30 hours. Can I just keep working and bill the client until the work is done?” and receive a guiding opinion that lays out what the correct action is under the group’s code of professional responsibility. The question and response would be published so all editors would receive the same guidance.

Assume that the response is “No, you cannot continue to bill. You knew what the budget was and by agreeing to undertake the job implied to the client that it would not take more than 30 hours to complete. It is your obligation to complete the work at your expense.” (I know there are lots of missing facts and lots of other appropriate answers. This is just for illustrative purposes) When published, other editors would see what is expected under similar circumstances and would be expected to conform their behavior in the described situation to the guidance.

More importantly, the answer would act as guidance for the client–editor interaction. If the editor ignored the decision and continued working and billed for the additional time, the client would be able to point to this decision as justification for not paying above the budget. Whether that would stand in a dispute resolution action is a different matter, but at least for widely accepted codes, such as in medicine and law, such a decision would have significant weight in the dispute resolution proceedings. The fact that there is a decision that is attuned to specific facts gives guidance to both editors and to clients. Both know what to expect and what needs to be done.

And, importantly, if properly constructed, there would be interim guidances and final guidances, with the final version not being settled until community comments were considered.

Ultimately, the question comes down to what is the advantage to having a code of professional responsibility and published guidance interpreting the code’s canons in various circumstances? The answer is that it raises the status of the profession in the minds and eyes of all interested parties. And for those who voluntarily agree to adhere to such a code and to the interpretive decisions, it gives them increased standing within the editorial and client communities. Perhaps, most importantly, it instills in clients a sense of confidence in the professionalism of the editor.

Is it difficult to create such a code? Not really. This is the type of endeavor that needs to be done by consensus. A small group of editors could easily begin by reviewing codes from various disciplines, including law and medicine. Once a basic code was created, it could be published for feedback from the editorial community. Ultimately, once adopted editors will agree to be governed by it when they see it is in their best interests. To bring such a code about is just a matter of will and interest within the editorial community. Additionally, once such a code and body of interpretations were created, it would be easy to create standardized certification courses that demonstrate ethical competency.

What do you think? Are you interested? Would you agree to be bound by such a code? (Are you ready to volunteer to start the process?) Or do you think that a code of professional responsibility is not needed for the editorial profession?

Richard Adin, An American Editor

6 Comments »

  1. I like the *idea* of a code and would strive to adhere to it — if it matched my personal ethics. No telling what a group might come up with; and no, I am not ready to volunteer to form the group and get the ball rolling. Sounds like a time-consuming invitation to argument, and I’d rather be working. I get the ethical guidance I need from editorial forums, newsletters, and direct connection with peers; who, combined, have helped me and others map out our own standards. The freedom to pick and choose is one of the benefits of being a solo enterprise. To date I have found the professional editing community to be self-regulating and willing to communicate with, and educate, each other and clients. Establishing a code will introduce a level of judgmentalism currently absent.

    Need for a code seems to be driven by the wildcard editors who have joined the fray in recent years following upheaval of the publishing industry and the economy in general. Also by the decline in formal education. Perhaps, too, by the increase in international dealings. What I’m wondering is would a code be a cornerstone of a future licensing-type program, or just a standard to rally around? Would, indeed, the individualists who comprise editors be able to rally around anything, or would establishing a code be divisive?

    Absent a licensing process, which is (in theory) based on measurable skills, a code on its own would just be another -ism. I think it would complicate what otherwise is simple, such as the Copyeditor’s Typographic Oath and Eight Tips for Maintaining Editorial Ethics recently presented in the Copyediting newsletter.

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    Comment by Carolyn — July 23, 2014 @ 6:05 am | Reply

  2. I am stumbling over the very broad and complex idea of imposing a code of ethics on a group of solo business owners. From your example, which is revenue and business service based, I would have to say “no” I would not be interested nor support a code regarding how to ethically practice my business.

    A licensing process for various levels of editing would be a huge step towards standardization of editing services.

    I am an editor and writer. I own my business. I determine my own rates and associated services based on international freelance industry standards for performing editing services.

    I can emphatically state that I have many more disputes and difficulties in establishing and determining fees for my writing services – mostly because ‘everyone can write’.

    Forgive that offshoot – your post concerns editors and ethics. I view that as being an issue that falls into the realm of ethical practices by medical and legal professionals where we hold these practitioners to an established, high standard. Is this actually what you propose? And somehow there would be a ‘governing’ body that shaped these standards?

    Not meaning to sound short-sighted, but this sounds like trying to round up horses with buffalo, while riding rabbits. I’ll be interested to see what shakes out though.

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    Comment by TigerXGlobal (@TigerXGlobal) — July 23, 2014 @ 10:22 am | Reply

  3. I also like the idea of a code, but I think the project may become very unwieldy.

    It’s not possible to cover every single ethical question that might come up, and if you try to get too specific in the rules, you’ll end up inadvertently excluding various situations (which is why laws tend to be more generalized). Additionally, professionals are much less likely to agree on establishing such a code if the provisions are not vague enough to allow some professional interpretation. I’m not talking about cheating clients here; the reality is that every single set of facts is different and trying to cover all instances and please everyone is going to create a very big headache.

    And how would interpretation and enforcement of the code be conducted? For example, lawyers learn the basics of professional responsibility and ethical requirements, and there is a code, but there is also constant stream of changing court cases and administrative decisions to interpret how the rules apply to various situations. Who would bear the administrative burden? Violating the professional legal ethics codes may result in disbarment or a fine, but how would you implement something similar here? You could sue the editor for violation of contract terms (assuming this would be done contractually), but if the editor in question didn’t get something specific in return when s/he signed the code, you might have a lot of trouble collecting against him/her in court.

    I’m not trying to shoot down the idea–I think that it’s a good one, in theory. But I’m playing devil’s advocate because I think that in practice it might be hard to pull off. At the same time, I’m interested in the concept and would be happy to discuss it further.

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    Comment by Christina M. Frey (@turntopage2) — July 23, 2014 @ 12:46 pm | Reply

  4. I see the workings of a new commandment for editors. Off to work on it!

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    Comment by Ruth E. Thaler-Carter — July 23, 2014 @ 2:14 pm | Reply

  5. Kudos to Adin for addressing some of the many misconceptions about ethics, beginning with the important distinction between personal ethics (morality) and professional ethics. It’s also important to distinguish between a code of ethics and a code of conduct. AMWA’s code of ethics is intentionally nonspecific so that it will be durable over time (with only minor changes since adoption in 1973) and generalizable to the more than 5000 AMWA members who provide a diversity of services in many different settings. In contrast, a code of conduct would be more specific and possibly closer to the code proposed by Adin.

    Adin is correct that AMWA’s code of ethics is aspirational, but that is intentional (NOT a failing) and consistent with AMWA’s mission statement. Founded in 1940, AMWA aims to promote excellence in medical communication through education, awards, research, and its code of ethics. AMWA does not enforce its code because it is not a regulatory organization. Unlike the board of pharmacy that issued my license and unlike many other professional groups, AMWA cannot revoke a license because AMWA doesn’t issue licenses. Instead, AMWA offers a wide variety of educational programs, including a certificate program that requires successful completion of an ethics workshop. These workshops are one of the many appropriate opportunities to discuss the nuances of the AMWA code of ethics as well as a multistep process for recognizing specific ethical issues and how best to handle them. For more information, please go to http://www.amwa.org or htt;://www.amwa.org/amwa_ethics_faqs.

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    Comment by Cindy Hamilton, former AMWA president — July 24, 2014 @ 1:19 pm | Reply

  6. […] editing business, it helps to understand two definitions of ethics. As Rich Adin has noted (see The Business of Editing: An Editorial Code of Professional Responsibility), one is “the rules or standards governing the conduct of a person or the members of a […]

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    Pingback by On the Basics: Thou Shall Behave Ethically — A 4th Commandment for Editors | An American Editor — September 1, 2014 @ 4:04 am | Reply


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