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

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