A recent “Tip of the Week” at Copyediting Newsletter, “Citing Work: What Do Editors Really Need to Do?” by Erin Brenner, discussed the problem of editing citations. As the article pointed out, “what you do to citations and how long that takes can greatly affect your bottom line.” Unfortunately, the article repeated and reinforced the shibboleth that editing citations is not (and perhaps cannot be) profitable.
As I am sure you have already guessed, I disagree.
The problem with references is that too many authors put them together in a slapdash manner, ignoring any instructions that the publisher may have given about formatting. And Ms. Brenner is right that straightening out the author’s mess can be both a nightmare and unprofitable.
Let me step back for a moment. I want to remind you of what I consider a fundamental rule about profitability in editing: the Rule of Three, which I discussed 3 years ago in “The Business of Editing: The Rule of Three.” Basically, the rule is that profitability cannot be judged by a single project; profitability needs to be judged after you have done three projects for a client. Yes, I know that most freelancers look at a single project and declare profitability or unprofitability, but that doesn’t make it the correct measure. Anyway, the reason I raise this here is that it is true that for a particular project, having to edit and format citations can make a project unprofitable. But then so can editing the main text.
I have edited many projects over my 31 years where I wished there were more references and less text because the text was badly written but the references were pristine. References are not the automatic key to unprofitability.
Also part of the problem is not being clear what is your role as editor when it comes to the references. Copyeditors, for example, do not (should not) “fact check” references. When I have been asked to do so, I have clarified what the client really means, because I have no way of knowing if a cite actually supports the proposition to which it is attached. If the client really does mean “fact check,” which has yet to be the case, then I decline the project; I am simply not able to devote the time needed to read the cite and determine if it supports the author’s proposition and the client is not prepared to pay me to do so.
The copyeditor’s role is to conform the format of the cites to the designated style and to ensure the cite is complete. Whether the editor is supposed to complete the cite is a matter of negotiation. In my case, I limit that responsibility to a quick look at PubMed. If the cite isn’t readily found there, a quick author query is inserted and it becomes the author’s responsibility. I use EditTools’ Insert Query macro (see “The Business of Editing: The Art of the Query“) and selecting a prewritten query to insert so that a comprehensive query can be inserted within a couple of seconds. One example query is this:
AQ: (1) Please confirm that cite is correct. Unable to locate these authors with this article title on PubMed. In addition, PubMed/NLM Catalog doesn’t list a journal by this name. (2) Also, please provide the following missing information: coauthor name(s), year of publication.
It is much quicker to select a prewritten query than to write it anew each time.
Cite work can be very profitable. As with most of editing, whether it is profitable or not often comes down to using the right tool for the job at hand.
I just finished working on a chapter (yes, a single chapter in a 130-chapter book) that is 450+ manuscript pages of which about 230 pages are citations. In fact, there are 1,827 cites for the chapter, and all the journal cites (roughly 1,800 of the references) were similar to this:
6. Jackson, S.P., W.S. Nesbitt, and E. Westein, Dynamics of platelet thrombus formation. J Thromb Haemost, 2009. 7 Suppl 1: p. 17-20.
7. Roth, G.J., Developing relationships: arterial platelet adhesion, glycoprotein Ib, and leucine-rich glycoproteins. Blood, 1991. 77(1): p. 5-19.
8. Ruggeri, Z.M., Structure and function of von Willebrand factor. Thromb Haemost, 1999. 82(2): p. 576-84.
when they needed to be like this:
6. Jackson SP, Nesbitt WS, Westein E: Dynamics of platelet thrombus formation. J Thromb Haemost 7 Suppl 1:17–20, 2009.
7. Roth GJ: Developing relationships: Arterial platelet adhesion, glycoprotein Ib, and leucine-rich glycoproteins. Blood 77(1):5–19, 1991.
8. Ruggeri ZM: Structure and function of von Willebrand factor. Thromb Haemost 82(2):576–584, 1999.
As you can see by comparing what the authors provided and what the book style was, a lot of work needed to be done to go from the before to the after. Conforming 1,800 references the standard/usual way editors do this type of work — that is, manually, period by period — could take many hours and thus be a losing proposition — or by using the right tools for the job, it could take a few hours and be a money-making proposition. I was able to conform the references in less than 4 hours and for 3.5 of those 4 hours, I was able to do other editing work while the references were being conformed.
How? By using the right tools for the job, which, in this case, was EditTools’ Wildcard Find & Replace and Journals macros, which were topics of recent essays (see “The Business of Editing: Wildcarding for Dollars” and “The Business of Editing: Journals, References, & Dollars,” respectively).
[There is an important caveat to the above: I was able to conform the references in less than 4 hours because I already had my datasets built. Over the course of time, I have encountered these problems and I have added, for example, scripts to my Wildcard dataset and journal names to my Journals dataset (which now has 78,000 entries). If I didn’t already have the scripts, or if I had fewer scripts that would address fewer problems, it would have taken me longer. But a professional editor tries to plan for the future and the key to successful use of a tool is the tool’s ability to handle current-type problems in the future.]
To clean up the author names and the cite portion (i.e., 1991. 77(1): p. 5-19) I used EditTools’ Wildcard Find & Replace Macro. Because it lets me write and save a find-and-replace string and put multiple strings together in a single “script,” with the click of a button I was able to run several dozen macros that cleaned up those items. In addition, EditTools’ Page Number Format macro let me change partial page ranges (e.g., 110-19) to full page ranges (e.g., 110-119) automatically. It took less than 15 minutes for the full reference list to be conformed and should I face a similar task next week, I already have the necessary scripts; I just need to load and run them.
What took the most time was fixing the journals. My journals dataset is currently 78,000+ entries and the Journals macro has to run through 1,827 references 78,000+ times. But what it does is fix those incorrect entries it finds in the dataset and highlights them; it also highlights (in a different color) those journal names that are correct. What that means is that I can see at a glance which cites I need to check (in this case, just a handful). And while the EditTools Journals macro is running in the background, I can continue editing other files – which means I am getting paid twice (because I charge by the page, not the hour).
Is it Profitable?
Do I earn money on this? Yes, I do. Consider this example (the numbers have no relevance to what I actually charge; they are an example only): If I charge $3 per manuscript page and the references constitute 230 pages, it means the cost to the client is $690 regardless of whether the references take me 1 hour or 50 hours. In this case, to conform the references took about 4 hours. For those 4 hours, I earned $172.50 an hour as an effective hourly rate. The reality, of course, is that I still had to look over the references and lookup a few, and I actually spent 7 hours on the references altogether, which means my effective hourly rate would be $98.57 at $3 per page. (Had I charged $25 an hour, I would have earned just $25 an hour, approximately one-quarter of the per-page rate earnings, which is why I prefer a per-page rate.) As you can calculate, at a different per-page rate, the earnings would have been higher or lower.
And that doesn’t count what I earned while continuing to edit as the Journals macro ran in the background.
My point is that using the right tools and the right resources can make a difference. I do agree that if I had to fact check each reference, I would not have made any money at a per-page rate (nor at an hourly rate because no client would pay for the time it would take to fact check 1,827 references — especially when this is only one of 130 chapters), but then I wouldn’t have done the work at such a rate (or at all). Whether a task is profitable depends on many factors.
The notion that editing references cannot be profitable is no more true than is the notion that editing text is always profitable. Editing references may not be stimulating work, but with the right tools it can be profitable. The key to profitable editing, is to use the right tool for the job.
Richard Adin, An American Editor
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