An American Editor

December 14, 2016

On Ethics: Do Ethics Matter Anymore?

I have discussed ethics on An American Editor in a number of essays (see, e.g., “On Ethics: To Out or Not to Out Clients” [Part I and Part II]; “A Question of Ethics: The Delayed Project Further Delayed”; “A Question of Ethics: If the Editing Is Running Behind Schedule…”; “The Ethics of Distaste”; “The Ethics of Editing: Padding the Bill”; “The Ethics of Editing: The Sour Job”; “Trolleyology and the Ethics of Editing”; and “Ethics in a World of Cheap”), but I am now wondering whether ethics matter.

Editors do not live in isolation, cut off from the world around us — or we shouldn’t. We need to be engaged with our surrounding world because it is our worldly experiences, along with our education and interests, that shape our editing. It would be difficult to provide a quality edit for a book on genocide if we did not know what genocide was and how it has appeared in history. We do not need to be experts in the subject matter, but we need to have some, at least rudimentary, knowledge about the subject matter. Thus we are engaged with our world.

In addition, we are engaged because we are citizens of our world and country. We cannot shut our eyes and pretend that what is happening next door, across the street, around the corner doesn’t have an impact on our own lives. And that is what makes me wonder if I have been wrong all along when I thought that ethics matter, that following an ethical path is important, that ethics is part and parcel of being a professional editor.

What I see around me is a vast change. A pebble was dropped in the ocean and the ripples it created are becoming a tsunami as the wave approaches the other side of the ocean. We have always had unethical members of the editing profession; every profession, every trade, every job type has workers who are ethical and workers who are unethical — except, we hope, for one very specific exception: president of the United States.

It is not that our presidents haven’t been ethically challenged on occasion; they are human and have human failings. It is the striving to be ethical that matters most and I cannot recall or think of a president who I would declare as wholly unethical — until now. Which is why I am concerned.

My reward for being an ethical business person, an ethical editor, is that I have work, I earn a decent wage, I have a place among my colleagues (i.e., they do not shun me for being unethical). And just as I sought to be ethical in my business, I expected others to be ethical in theirs. If they were not ethical, I expected them to not be rewarded for being unethical. Consequently, when we discuss questions of ethics, we discuss them in terms of balancing the scales of right and wrong and how, when we strike that balance, the answer affects not only ourselves but others. That is and has always been the foundation of ethics.

Until the Donald Trump run for and election to the presidency.

Now my world of ethics is being turned upside down. I get work and earn a decent living, but I am not a millionaire, let alone a billionaire, and I have not been rewarded with the power to set editing’s future direction. I am just an everyday schmoe of little influence and relevance.

In contrast, a man who appears to have no ethical boundaries, who doesn’t separate fact from fantasy, who is divisive, who steals from others and calls it business, is rewarded with election to the presidency of the United States and monetary wealth.

Sure I go to sleep at night with a clear conscience, but, I am willing to bet, so does Donald Trump.

So I ask the question: Based on the example of Donald Trump, do ethics matter? Would editors be better served to ignore questions of ethics and do whatever it takes or they can get away with? For example, instead of checking references, should the editor just style them and not care whether the cite information is correct, even though the agreement with the client is for the editor to check references for accuracy? Think of how much time and effort could be saved — time that could be spent on other, perhaps more profitable, pursuits.

When we discuss our fee and what it includes with an author, should we justify our fee by mentioning services that we will not really perform? Had you asked me on November 1, I would have said doing so was highly unethical and no, we should not only not do so but we shouldn’t even think about doing so. But today I waver.

I do not waver for myself; I know what path I will follow — the same path I always have. I waver on the question of whether or not ethics matter today. Does anyone expect ethicality? If we are willing to elect someone who wholly lacks an ethical and moral compass to lead us, why should we expect more of those who work beside us or for us?

I recognize that matters of ethics are personal. Each of us will choose our own path, just as we did on November 1. None of that is likely to change. What is changing — or, perhaps, has already changed — is the community compulsion to be ethical, however ethicality is individually defined. We are ethical because of personal traits and because of peer pressure. It is like stopping for a red light. We stop because of peer pressure and our desire to conform to community standards. (Yes, I recognize that there are laws, but laws are simply written expressions of community standards. They are written so that all community members can know them. But no law is enforceable in the absence of our personal beliefs, peer pressure, and community acceptance of the law.)

We are entering what is being called the “posttruth age,” a time when truth is whatever someone declares it to be. I think it might be better labeled the Trumpian Fantasy Age. It is an age when ethics are mutable, when ethics flow in all directions simultaneously, when ethics and honesty take a back seat to enrichment and fantasy. While the effect may be minimal on the current generation of editors, what will the effect be on future generations? Will anyone ask, will anyone care, whether a particular action is ethical? Does the future of editing lie in an ungoverned, undisciplined editing profession?

Has the political world of 2016 so upended the community’s moral compass that anarchy looks as if it is disciplined? Do ethics matter anymore?

Richard Adin, An American Editor

April 6, 2016

On Ethics: To Out or Not to Out Clients II

Part I ended with this general rule:

Ethically it is not improper to disclose the name of a client except when the client is a nonbusiness individual who would reasonably expect confidentiality.

and the statement that there is more to the issue of disclosure. One of the big questions is whether it makes a difference if the forum for disclosure is a private one (i.e., one not accessible by the general public) or a public one (i.e., one accessible by everyone).

In the world of Google, does it matter?

One problem with the private-versus-public dichotomy is that too often there really isn’t a dichotomy. Much too often “private” forums are indexed by Google and other search engines, and so what is thought to be private really isn’t — the information appears in a search result.

Even “private” Facebook chats aren’t very private, especially as Facebook keeps altering its terms of service in an attempt to defeat any privacy preferences.

Does the nature of the forum really change the ethics?

To my thinking, it does not matter whether the forum is private or public. Aren’t the real issues the client’s opportunity to respond, the client’s expectation of privacy, and whether the client is an individual or a business? Do either change based on your decision to reveal the client in a public forum rather than a private forum?

An argument could be made that disclosure in a public forum does give the client an opportunity to respond, but with the hundreds of thousands of forums in existence on the Internet alone, it is a false argument. And certainly it is a false argument if you go to a public editors’ group meeting and discuss the client when the client lives in Paris, France, and the meeting is a Thursday luncheon in Horsehead Falls, NY.

No matter how you construe the arguments, the type of forum — public or private — has no effect on the ethics of naming individual clients without permission. Again, naming a business is different because the purpose of a business is to make itself known, whereas individuals have an expectation of confidentiality.

What makes an individual a business?

Let’s begin with this truism: If the individual is incorporated (e.g., Jones LLC), uses a business name (e.g., Jones Enterprises), or otherwise holds himself out as a business, then the individual is a business. If the individual asks that you invoice in a company name, then the individual is a business. But if the individual does everything in his own name and clearly is not earning their living as an author (e.g., is a stock broker or marketer), then the individual is an individual. The point is less that these specific things make an individual a business but how the client presents himself.

A cautionary word: If the client has a business, that fact does not make the client a business within your relationship. The question is the client’s presentation to you within the confines of your relationship, not the within client’s general life.

Does what you want to disclose make a difference?

A lot of editors will include in their résumés or on their websites a list of books that they have edited. I do. The practice is okay if the client is the publisher rather than the individual author, unless you have permission from the individual author or the book has been published. Once the book has been published, I do not think the author can expect his book not to be listed as a book that you have edited. The book is now public.

Listing books you have edited for an individual author is more a matter of when than whether. The individual author’s expectations of privacy and confidentiality about the fact that you edited their book expires on publication. But other expectations of privacy and confidentiality do not expire, such as the client’s expectations regarding the details of your relationship.

Suppose a colleague sees on your website that you edited a book by John Jones. The colleague has been approached by Jones to edit a new book and the colleague contacts you, asking for all of the details of your relationship with Jones, such as the manuscript condition, payment, amount of handholding required, etc. Your relationship with Jones was problematic. The manuscript was in bad shape, Jones disputed every suggested change, and Jones refused to pay 100% of the final invoice, feeling that you overcharged by “fixing” problems that didn’t exist. What should you disclose to your colleague?

Is it okay to disclose relationship details to colleagues?

Our tendency is to disclose all of our miseries to our colleagues after first stating, “This is just between us and not for rebroadcast.” Alas, when an individual author is involved, I do not think starting the conversation with such a condition makes a difference. But with a business, such as a major publisher, I think the outcome is different — and it does not matter whether the conversation is preceded by the “between us” condition.

As I have said many times, the difference is expectation. Businesses may have the same expectation as the individual author, but in the absence of an express agreement to the contrary, businesses are not entitled to the same deference to that expectation, and that’s because of the difference in the relationship.

No matter how unsatisfactory our relationship was with Jones, we are not entitled to disclose the elements of the relationship even under the condition of its not being repeated. This is not to say that there is no response that we can give. We can respond succinctly and generally: “I would not agree to edit another book by Jones.” It is the details that we cannot discuss without client consent.

Why shouldn’t we discuss the details?

The primary problem with editing is that it is subjective. When we claim a client’s manuscript is poorly written, we are expressing our personal, subjective opinion — we are not expressing objective fact. It is the “tomayto”–versus–“tomahto” problem. I can’t even say that a client’s manuscript needs significant adjustment to meet Chicago style, because Chicago is not a set of rules that cannot be broken; Chicago is a collection of opinions from a group of people someone has declared have a more valuable opinion than mine.

Although editing is not objective, whether the client pays invoices in a timely manner would appear to be objective. But even that is not objective. A client can be delaying payment because the client is unhappy with our work, or believes we are charging more than was agreed, or thinks we padded the invoice by adding hours that we didn’t actually work or need to work, or for any number of other legitimate reasons.

It is client identification that rules the roost

Which brings us full circle, back to the ultimate problem: The client cannot defend himself or offer explanations; the discourse is fully one-sided. Consequently, from an ethical perspective, we should not discuss our relationship with an individual client in the absence of the client’s agreement. The client has an expectation of privacy and confidentiality that as professionals we should uphold.

Remember that the key is client identification. We can discuss a manuscript’s quality if there is no way to connect the manuscript to the client. It isn’t the manuscript that has an expectation of privacy; it is the client. Thus the rule:

Ethically it is not improper to disclose the name of a client except when the client is a nonbusiness individual who would reasonably expect confidentiality. Consequently, it is unethical to discuss any facet of our relationship with a nonbusiness individual, including compensation problems and quality or condition of their manuscript, if doing so would be connected to the nonbusiness individual, in the absence of prior consent.

Do you agree? What is your opinion?

Richard Adin, An American Editor

March 30, 2016

On Ethics: To Out or Not to Out Clients I

In response to my last essay, Editing for a Client’s Direct Competitor, a colleague asked about my thoughts regarding identifying a client to other colleagues or to the world at large. I have always considered information about my clients to be confidential, but I never gave much thought to the extent of that confidentiality or to its basis.

In the beginning…

As with the above essay, it must be noted that editors do not have a universal code of responsibility and conduct to which we are subject. Instead, we have to govern our actions by common sense and by comparing them to an existing code that governs other professionals. However, regardless of the positions other codes may take, in the end our decision needs to be based on our individual concepts of right and wrong. That this should not be the case if we want to be perceived as professionals of the same level as, for example, doctors and lawyers does not matter; until editors are subject to a licensing system — whether it be local, regional, national, or universal — each editor must be judge, jury, and executioner of right and wrong in editing.

The blanket statement that client identities are confidential and not disclosable is wrong because it is too broad, too all-encompassing. The purpose of confidentiality in the doctor–patient, priest–penitent, and attorney–client scenarios is to encourage the patient/penitent/client to disclose information to the doctor/priest/attorney that the client would otherwise be reluctant to disclose for fear that everyone would learn the information and it would be held against the client. Imagine telling your attorney that you had committed a murder using a handgun but not a knife. This might be very important information for your attorney to know, especially if the person you are accused of murdering was knifed rather than shot. Would you confess to your attorney that you had committed an uncharged murder if you thought your attorney would need to tell the prosecutor?

In my 32 years of editing, I have never been in a position where disclosing the identity of my client, in and of itself, could be harmful to the client. If my client is Simon & Schuster, Simon & Schuster is also the client of hundreds of others. The name itself does not warrant a level of protection similar to the privilege afforded to doctor–patient, priest–penitent, and attorney–client relationships. Consequently, a blanket prohibition on disclosure is excessive.

So the first general rule is that it is not improper ethically to disclose the name of a client. But what if there is an expectation of nondisclosure?

Narrowing the rule

The general rule that it is not improper ethically to disclose the name of a client begins to break down when we separate our clients into categories of individuals and corporations (“corporations” is being used broadly to cover all business entities, including an individual who holds herself out to be a business). John James, indie author, has a different expectation of privacy than does Betsy Kong, Professional Editor, or Kong Editorial Services, or Simon & Schuster, Publishers.

An important point to note is that an expectation of privacy/confidentiality is not the same as a right of privacy/confidentiality. An expectation can become a right if there is a written agreement expressing that disclosure is forbidden, but in the absence of a written agreement that expressly says the client’s name is not to be disclosed to anyone, an expectation remains a hope, not a requirement.

Again, however, I think the requirement of nondisclosure rises higher on the required scale when the client is an individual person — the indie author — who is not presenting himself as a business and is not engaging with you in a business-to-business manner.

So my general rule changes according to the client; my revised rule is this:

Ethically it is not improper to disclose the name of a client except when the client is a nonbusiness individual who would reasonably expect confidentiality. In this instance, I would weigh the benefit to the client against the detriment of disclosure.

It’s the injury to the client…

When balancing the scales, it is always the benefit and detriment to the client — not to us editors — that is weighed. Perhaps telling our colleagues that John James is a deadbeat client will prevent a colleague from experiencing the same problem that I had should James try to hire him or her. But when I tell my colleagues that James is a deadbeat, what am I really saying? I am saying that I had a problem with James and I will relate the problem — for example, James refused to pay his invoice because he disputes its accuracy — but what I relate is solely from my perspective; James is not given a chance in the same forum to explain the problem from his perspective.

In this instance, James is likely to have expected that I would keep his name confidential. Few people want it known that they do not pay their bills. The detriment to James by my disclosing his name is far greater than the benefit to me. It may be of benefit to colleagues, but isn’t the benefit really only to the editor that James might subsequently approach? And that editor only gains a benefit if that editor happens to be a member of the forum where James’ name was disclosed.

Contrast this with disclosing a business’ name. Although the same arguments could be made, the detriment to the business is not, to my way of thinking, the same as to the individual. If Simon & Schuster doesn’t pay my invoice in a timely manner and I complain about it, hundreds of others can rise to the company’s defense because hundreds of others also work for the company. The detriment is not the same, if there is a detriment at all.

One more thing

Editors often want to boast that they are working for certain large, repeat-business clients. Many editors list them on their websites. It is not often that editors want to publicly complain about working for such a client. We know (or should know) that if we complain about Simon & Schuster, the publisher will rethink its approval of us and we could be removed from the approved list. In addition, other major, repeat-business clients are likely to take notice. Thus, when we disclose the name of a business client, we do so less to complain and more to associate ourselves with that client.

This is just the opposite of the usual individual indie-author client about whom we want to complain, and we are not overly concerned about possible repercussions with other clients. Our motivation is different, and the purpose of disclosure is different because of the client’s status.

So the rule is…

My rule is that I never disclose the name of a client who is an individual person to a general list, regardless of whether it is an open- or closed-access list. I may, if asked privately by a colleague, disclose an individual’s name to that one colleague, but I never broadcast an individual’s name. To my thinking, the detriment to the individual has the potential to far outweigh any benefit to me, so the scales of privacy/confidentiality skew in the individual’s favor.

I will disclose the name of a business if I think it necessary to do so. I must admit, however, that even in the case of a business, I am reluctant to do so because usually the problem with the business is with a single person, not the whole business. Again using Simon & Schuster as an example, I do not actually work with Simon & Schuster; I work with a project manager at the company. In fact, I am likely to work with several project managers at the company. Experience teaches that some are great to work with, some are good to work with, and some are a struggle to work with. And if payment of an invoice is late, it is likely that the problem lies with the project manager, not with the company.

On the other hand, some companies have changed policies, and the new policy adversely affects working with them in a more general sense. For example, the company may have changed its payment terms unilaterally, now paying freelancer invoices in 90 days rather than 30 days. In this type of instance, disclosure of the company name is both necessary and ethically okay when you are discussing payment terms and unilateral changes to a working relationship.

Broadly speaking, I think it wrong to disclose the name of an individual and okay to disclose the name of a business. But there is more to the issue than we have discussed here, and so the discussion will continue in Part II, starting from this general rule:

Ethically it is not improper to disclose the name of a client except when the client is a nonbusiness individual who would reasonably expect confidentiality.

What do you think?

Richard Adin, An American Editor

March 23, 2016

Editing for a Client’s Direct Competitor

Ethics are a set of principles that govern and define “right conduct.” They are the rules or standards that govern one’s conduct. And that is where the editing profession separates from many other professions — e.g., law, medicine, accounting, even securities sales — the editing profession does not have a set of standards or rules of conduct against which we are measured and for which we are held accountable. This is a major failing of the editing profession; it is a failing that if corrected — by which I mean not only is there a standard code of conduct with authoritative interpretations, but there is also a means of enforcement — would, I think eliminate many of the “ethical” problems we encounter and make us more professional and valuable in the eyes of our clients.

In the absence of such a code, there is only peer pressure and guidance when questions arise. Instead of addressing our questions to a recognizable authority whose decisions would bind us, we resort to posting our questions in numerous online forums, and accumulate answers from a variety of people whom we do not know.

And so I add to this confusion.

The questions

A colleague asked whether it is ethical to accept editing work from a direct competitor to the colleague’s primary client. The competitor publishes the same type of publication in the same field and on the same topics as the primary client. The questions my colleague had were these:

  1. Can I accept the proffered work from the competitor?
  2. If I accept the work, do I need to tell either the competitor or the client or both that I have accepted work from the other?
  3. If I work for a packager who has several of the same clients as I have, am I obligated to reject direct offers of work from those clients?

As is true of most questions of ethics, there are more questions that arise from these scenarios that can be asked. These questions, however, provide us with a fine start.

Can I accept the proffered
work from the competitor?

I begin with the supposition that the person asking the question is a freelancer. My answer would be different if the asker were employed by one of the parties.

The very essence of being a freelancer is that I work for multiple clients, many of whom have overlapping products. My clients recognize this and do not put obstacles in my path designed to limit with whom I can contract. (Some packagers are notorious for attempting to do precisely this — limiting whom a freelancer can contract with — by requiring noncompetition contracts. For a discussion of these contracts, see “The Business of Editing: Noncompetition Agreements.”) It is part of the “grand bargain” between freelance editor and publishing client.

There is also a practicality involved. If Jones and Davis have written a book for Publisher X on the history of penguins in the American Civil War, and Smith has also written a book for Publisher X on the same topic, and you have been asked to edit both, there is no obvious reason why you shouldn’t take both projects (assuming they meet your other criteria for project acceptance). It is unlikely, in the absence of plagiarism, that the two books will be the same below the surface of general subject matter. All else being equal, there is no ethical reason why you couldn’t edit both books.

Suppose the Jones and Davis book was being published by Publisher X and the Smith book was being published by Publisher Y and you have been asked to edit both books. The only thing that has changed is that instead of a single publisher there are two competing publishers. All else being equal, there is no ethical reason why you couldn’t edit both books.

The point is that in publishing, except in the case of plagiarism, no two products are identical; they may be similar, but they are not identical. Consequently, there is no reason why you cannot accept work from multiple publishers. In the same vein, every publisher competes with every other publisher in the sense that they are all publishers. But freelancers are expected by the publishers to work with multiple publishers; in fact they want that because to do otherwise raises the question of whether you are a freelancer or an employee — just ask the IRS.

If I accept the work, do I need to tell
either the competitor or the client or both
that I have accepted work from the other?

There is no ethical obligation to disclose to other clients who your clients are. Just as your clients would not disclose to you whom they are hiring to edit their books or the amount they are actually paying a particular freelancer, you are under no obligation to notify your clients of new clients.

The easiest way to think about this “obligation” is to think in terms of whether the IRS would consider required disclosure to be a sign of an employee. The more control a publisher exercises over your business dealings with others, the less of a freelancer you are. If you are truly an independent business, you have no obligation — legal or ethical — to disclose your clients.

Besides, what would be the value of disclosure to the client of accepting work from a competitor? Remember that your client has no obligation to send you a specific amount of work or any work at all. Consequently, today’s client may be tomorrow’s past client. Disclosure serves no purpose.

Just as you have no ethical obligation to disclose the competitor to your client, you have no ethical obligation to disclose the client to the competitor. Except as a statement to demonstrate experience in the field, disclosure serves no purpose for the competitor.

If I work for a packager who has several
of the same clients as I have, am I obligated
to reject direct offers of work from those clients?

Here the answer is a little trickier. If you have signed a noncompetition agreement, then the answer is “maybe.” If you have not signed such an agreement, the answer is no.

Few copyeditors sign noncompetition agreements and when they do, the agreement is usually limited to clients of the packager that are not already clients of the freelancer. (If the clients you are not supposed to solicit work from are not specifically named in the agreement, then you should absolutely refuse to sign the agreement. Importantly, you should make sure that none of your current or past clients are included as a named client.) Some less-scrupulous packagers refuse to name specific clients that you are not to solicit work from and insist the agreement covers any of the packager’s current, former, or future clients. If you have signed such a blanket agreement, then you need to reject offers that do not come through the packager.

In the absence of such an agreement, there is no reason why you should reject such proffered work. Nor is there a reason why you should only accept work that comes through the packager. Remember that you are an independent business. That you have overlapping clients is just part of being in business in the same field.

Deciding ethical questions

Ethics are moored in one’s view of what is honest and just, tempered by what is necessary and, in the case of the independent business, what is businesslike. Because we have no universal code of ethics and conduct, what is ethical is left up to each of us to determine. However, there is nothing wrong with asking: “What would [insert name] do under these circumstances?”

It is also okay to ask colleagues you know and trust, especially those who you believe exercise good ethics. I do not think that ethics is a matter of voting, which is often what asking a question on a public forum amounts to. Being ethical is doing right. It is as simple as that.

What do you think?

Richard Adin, An American Editor

October 5, 2015

A Question of Ethics: If the Editing Is Running Behind Schedule…

The Background

A project I recently completed was originally scheduled to be done by August 31 — a 4-week schedule; it ended, instead, 3 weeks later. The price I quoted was based on the short schedule that the August 31 must-meet date represented. (For this particular project, a 4-week schedule was quite tight.)

The delay in completing the project was caused by delays in the client delivering the manuscript to me. The delays were such that it seemed as if nothing was going right with the project. For example, references were called out in the text using the author-date system, with all of the references appearing in a bibliography at the end of the manuscript, not in each chapter. Although I requested the references early in the process, I didn’t receive them until a few days before the absolute final extended due date. Consequently, the editor had no opportunity to check whether the bibliography actually contained all of the cites called out in the text or if there were references cited in the bibliography that were not called out in the text.

A fundamental part of editing is to check the references to make sure that all that are called out are cited in the bibliography/reference list and to identify any that are cited in the bibliography/reference list but not called out in the text. When the client insisted that I return the edited references on a particular date, I pointed out that to do so meant the editor could not check callouts against cites; all the editor could do was look for missing information in the cites, try to locate that missing information, and style the cites.

Because callout–cite checking is fundamental to editing, I required the client to explicitly direct us to not do the checking, which the client did. As the client noted, it was not our fault that there was no time left to do the job. I replied to the client, “It is not a problem from our end. We do the job you want as best we can within the limits you impose.”

The Questions

At least three questions arise out of these circumstances, each raising ethical issues:

  1. In the case where the client instructs you to not perform a service that is normally included because the client is late delivering the files, should the fee be reduced by the value of the service not provided?
  2. In the case where the client instructs you to not perform a service that is normally included because the you misjudged the time needed to edit the manuscript and so are now late in delivering the manuscript to the client, should the fee be reduced by the value of the service not provided at the client’s instruction?
  3. Does the answer to either of the previous questions depend on whether the editor is charging by the page, by the project, or by the hour?

The client delivers late

In the first scenario (client is late deliverer), I think the editor has no ethical duty to reduce the fee. The editor is willing to perform the service if given the necessary time to do so. That the client has schedule constraints that do not permit the editor to perform the service is outside the control of the editor. The decision for the editor to not cross-check the cites was made by the same party that was late in providing the material, which is outside the editor’s control.

However, the basis for the billing does affect the amount to be charged. If the editor is billing by the page or the project, the invoiced amount should be the same regardless of whether or not the cite cross-checking was performed. But if the editor is charging by the hour, the invoice should not include a sum for time that would have been spent doing the cross-checking but for the client stopping the cross-checking. It would be unethical for the editor to bill for time that was not actually spent because the basis of the hourly charge is that the editor gets paid for hours worked.

Some commentators would argue that the billing method is irrelevant because all billing methods are based on time; that when an editor sets a per-page rate or a project-fee rate, part of the editor’s calculation is based on an estimate of the time it is expected the work will require. This is one of the elements of creating a quote (see The Business of Editing: Keys to a Project Quote).

I agree that every price calculation method contains a time-expected-to-spend-editing component, but there is a significant difference between hourly-based and per-page– and project-fee–based projects. With per-page– and project-fee–based projects, the expectation of the amount the editor is to be paid is set based on a factor other than time; that is, it does not matter whether the editor completes the project in 20 hours but took 50 hours nor does it matter what the editor’s or client’s time expectation was — the fee is not time dependent, it changes only if there is a change in some other factor other than time (e.g., if the page count changes). In contrast, with an hourly-based fee the amount to be paid rises and falls based solely on the number of hours the editor spends editing; that is, unlike with per-page and project-based fees, the final hourly-based fee is not calculable until the project is complete.

The editor miscalculated the time needed

In the case of the second scenario (the editor is taking longer than expected to edit), I think the client is entitled to a reduction in the fee, even though it is the client who instructs the editor to not perform the service. In this instance, the editor knows the schedule that binds the client and that must be met. It is the editor who is late as a result of matters that are within the editor’s control. It is the editor who miscalculated and now jeopardizes the client’s schedule.

The reason for the fee reduction is that the agreed-upon price included the service that is now not to be performed and the reason it is not to be performed is because of the editor’s miscalculation, not because of anything the client has done. It is, in my view, unethical for an editor to be paid for work not performed at the fault of the editor. If there were no reduction in fee, the editor would be rewarded for not adhering to the bargain the editor’s made.

Here, also, the manner of calculating the fee affects the reduction. If the editor is charging by the hour, then no specific fee reduction is required because the client will not be billed for work not performed (i.e., hours spent editing). Only when the billing is per-page or project-fee based does there need to be a reduction in the set fee. How much of a reduction depends on the value of the service and whether the client will need to secure the service elsewhere. This is a matter of negotiation. But it is the to the editor’s advantage to initiate the reduction rather than wait for the client to raise the question or, perhaps more troublesome for the editor, for the client to not say anything but decide not to use the editor in the future.

A Question of Ethics

It is not unusual for an editor to ask on a forum whether a fee should be reduced or partially refunded. I do not consider the sense of ethics that governs my business to be a question of group ethics or group decision making; rather, I see it as a sense of my personal moral code, a sense of what I view as right and wrong. What does it matter whether 99 out of 100 editors would not issue a refund if I think one is warranted? That I would even ask the question is, to me, an indication that I think the client is entitled to some refund.

Ethics is a matter of taking the moral high road, of trying to seek a fairness balance, a balance of right and wrong.

What do you think?

Richard Adin, An American Editor

March 4, 2015

The Business of Editing: Correcting “Errors”

In my previous two essays, “The Business of Editing: Wildcarding for Dollars” and “The Business of Editing: Journals, References, & Dollars“, I discussed two ways to improve efficiency and increase profitability by using macros. Today’s essay digresses and discusses correcting earlier-made errors.

I need to put errors between quote marks — “errors” — because I am using the term to encompass not only true errors but changes in editorial decisions, decisions that are not necessarily erroneous but that after reflection may not have been the best decision.

Once again, however, I am also talking about a tool available in EditTools: the Multifile Find in the Find & Replace Master macro. The F&R Master macro has two parts, as shown below: the Sequential F&R Active Doc and Multifile Find (to see an image in greater detail, click on the image to enlarge it):

Sequential F&R Manager

Sequential F&R Manager

 

Multifile Find Manager

Multifile Find Manager

Today’s discussion is focused on the Multifile Find macro, but the Sequential is worth a few words.

The Sequential F&R works on the active document. It is intended for those times when you know that you want to run a series of finds and replaces. If you are working on a book and it is evident that the author does certain things consistently that need changing, you can use this macro to put together several items that are to be changed sequentially and you can save the criteria so that you can reuse them again in the next document. I often find that, for example, authors use an underlined angle bracket rather than the symbol ≤ or ≥. I created a F&R for these items that I can run before editing a document to replace the underlined versions with the correct symbols.

For editorial “errors” I have made, however, it is the Multifile Find macro that is important.

As I have said many times, I tend to work on large documents. The documents tend to be multiauthored and each chapter is its own file. Sometimes I am able to work on chapters sequentially, but more often they come to me in haphazard order. Consequently, I have to make editorial decisions as I edit a chapter that may well affect earlier chapters that have yet to arrive. And it may be that if I had had the ability to edit the earlier-in-sequence chapter first, I would have made a different editorial decision.

For a recent example, consider “mixed lineage kinase.” My original decision was to leave it unhyphenated, but as I edited additional chapters my thoughts changed and I decided it really should be “mixed-lineage kinase.” But as is usual with these kinds of things, I had already edited another half dozen chapters when I changed my decision. In addition, by that time, I also had edited close to 40 chapters and I couldn’t remember in which chapters “mixed lineage” appeared.

The Ethical Questions First

The first questions to be dealt with are the ethical questions: First, is “mixed lineage kinase” so wrong that it can’t simply be left and future instances of “mixed-lineage” changed to the unhyphenated form? Second, if it needs to be changed to the hyphenated form, do I need to go back and change the incorrect versions or can I just notify the client and hope the proofreader will fix the problem? Third, if the future versions are to be hyphenated, can I just leave the unhyphenated versions and hope no one notices?

We each run our business differently, but number one on my list of good business practices is good ethics. In this case, the third option, to me, is wholly unacceptable. It is not even something I would contemplate except for purposes of this essay. A professional, ethical editor does not fail to accept responsibility for decisions she makes; he does not attempt to hide them. The decisions are faced squarely and honestly and dealt with, even if it means a future loss of business from the client.

The first and second options are less clear. In the first instance, I need to make an editorial decision and abide by it. Whether to hyphenate or not isn’t really an ethical question except to the extent that it forces me to decide whether to overtly or covertly make a change. The world will not crumble over the hyphenation issue. Hyphenation does make the phrase clearer (especially in context), so ultimately, I think the editorial decision has to fall on the side of hyphenation being “essential”; I cannot skirt my obligation to do the best editing job I can by omitting future hyphenation, which means I need to go back and fix my “errors.”

The crux of the ethical question is really the second option. This depends on circumstances. If, for example, I know that the earlier edited material has already been set in pages, it makes no sense to resend corrected files. A note to the client is needed. If they have yet to be set, then new files are the order of business plus advising the client. The key is the advising of the client and identifying where the errors occur. I think that is the ethical obligation: for the editor to identify to the client exactly where the errors are to be found so that they can easily be corrected and to provide new files at the client’s request.

Multifile Find and “Errors”

This is where Multifile Find (MFF) comes into play. MFF will search all the files in a folder for phrases and words. You can have it search for and find up to 10 items at a time and you can have it do one of two things: either it can find the wanted phrase and generate a report telling you where it is found and how many times it is found or it can find the phrase, pause to let you correct the phrase, and then find the next instance. I generally generate the report first. An example of a report for “mixed lineage” is shown here:

Mixed Lineage Report

Mixed Lineage Report

The report tells you name of the document in which the phrase is found, the page it is found on, and how many times it occurs on that page. With this report, you can manually open the named files, go to the appropriate page, and decide whether a particular occurrence needs to be corrected. If I am not sure whether the client can use corrected files, I send the client a copy of this report along with my mea culpa.

If I think the client might be able to use corrected files, I correct them and send the files, the report, and my mea culpa.

Multifile Find Update Files Option

If I know the client can use the corrected files because, for example, pages have not yet been set, I send the corrected files and an explanation of why I am sending revised files. But in this instance I use the MFF update option rather than generate report option:

Multifile Find Replace Option

Multifile Find Replace Option

The update option requires a few different steps than the generate report option. The biggest difference is that you need to save the find criteria for the update option; you do not need to do so for the generate report option.

I enter the find term in the first field (#1 in image above). I also need to check the Inc? (for Include?) box (#2). Only those terms listed that also are checked will be searched for. If I do not want the current active file also searched (assuming it is in the selected search directory), I check the box at #3, which is also where I select the search directory. Because I want to update the files, not generate a report, I check Update files (#4). I then Save my find criteria (#5).

The way the macro works, is that it will first search the files for the first listed find term. When that is done, it will proceed to the next listed term. As you can see, you can list up to 10 terms to sequentially find.

Finally,, I click Run (#6) and the macro will begin searching files in the selected directory until it comes to the first instance of the find term. When it finds a match it displays the following message:

Find Message

Find Message

In the file, it highlights the found term as shown here:

Highlighted Find Text

Highlighted Find Text

I can either insert my hyphen or click OK in the Find Message dialog to find the next instance. If I insert the hyphen in our example, I then need to click OK in the Find Message dialog to go to the next instance. When there are no more instances to be found in the particular file, a message asking if you want to save the changed file:

Save Changes?

Save Changes?

The macro then proceeds to the next file in which it finds the term and the process continues until the term is no longer found or you cancel the process.

Saving Time and Making Profit

Again, I think it is clear how the right macro can save an editor time and make editing more profitable. In my experience, it is the rare editor who doesn’t have a change of mind the further along she is in editing a project. I think it is a sign of a professional editor. But editing is a business and as a business it needs to make a profit. One way to do so is to minimize the time and effort needed to correct “errors” and to do so in a professional and ethical manner.

Over the years, I have found that using Multifile Find has not only enhanced my profitability, but it has enhanced my reputation as professional editor because my clients know that I am not only willing to recognize that I have made a mistake, but I am willing to correct it. One reason I am willing to correct a mistake is that it doesn’t take me hours to do so; I can do it efficiently with EditTools’ Multifile Find.

Richard Adin, An American Editor

Related An American Editor essays are:

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January 5, 2015

The Ethics of Editing: Padding the Bill

It has been a while since the last discussion on ethics (see “The Ethics of Editing: The Sour Job“) and I thought it is time to return to the topic of ethics in editing. Today’s first question, as asked by Teresa Barensfeld, is:

Is it ever okay to pad your hours if billing hourly?

The quick, concise, and precise answer is: In my view, no, it is never okay to pad one’s bill.

Analysis begins from this perspective: (a) If I were the client, would I expect a vendor to pad its bill? (b) Would I be happy with the vendor if the vendor padded its bill? (c) Is this how I want to be treated in every-day transactions — be told one price yet being charged a higher price than quoted? No matter how I twist and turn, I find that my answer is consistently “no.”

In the scenario at hand, the editor and the client have agreed upon an hourly rate which is supposed to represent actual hours worked. (This is why many editors do not work on an hourly basis; it is too limiting.) The client has certain expectations that presumably were discussed beforehand, such as how many hours the project is expected to take.

And that is where the problem lies. The editor assumed that the project would require a certain amount of hours only to discover that, for example, it took half the expected time. Now is when the question of padding arises. Does the editor bill for the expected number of hours or for the actual hours worked? Or does the editor bill for some number of additional hours, a number between actual hours spent and expected hours, or for actual hours?

If you hire a plumber to do some work and the plumber tells you the price is $100 an hour and that the job is expected to take 10 hours, but the job goes faster and only takes 5 hours, do you want to pay $500 or $1,000? I know that as the client I want to pay what was agreed: $100 an hour for the actual number of hours.

If that is my expectation in my personal transactions, on what basis would I assume or expect my client to willingly pay me for more than what was bargained: my actual time? In fact, we tend to separate our positions. When we are the consumer we expect vendors, which are typically companies, to behave in a manner that benefits us. And when we are the vendor, we want our clients to behave in a manner that benefits us, which means being willing to pay for expected time rather than actual time.

I view this question as being a fraction of the entire contract between myself and my client. My contract includes the scope of the work to be performed, the schedule for my performance, and the expected payment time frame, among other things. Consequently, if I expect my client to pay me timely as per our agreement, should not my client expect me to bill per our agreement?

The not-discussed questions, which arise from the original question, are these:

  1. What if the expectation is that the project will take no more than 100 hours but the editor is 75% done and has already reached the 100-hour mark?
  2. Does the expectation act as a billing ceiling?
  3. What are the editor’s obligations?
  4. The client’s obligations?
  5. What effect do the answers to these questions have on the answer to padding?

These questions need to be addressed but another day. Today, the focus is on padding. I see no justification for padding one’s bill. Yet the question appears to become more involved and the answer more complex when we consider the following variances (which Teresa Barensfeld raised as part of her padding question):

What if the client tells you that although it accepts your flat-fee price, because of the company’s accounts payable policy, you still have to bill by the hour, with the knowledge that the number of hours on your invoice is not the actual number of hours, but the number that will make the final amount equal your flat fee? What if the client told you this after you started the job?

In this situation, there has been a major/significant change in the project terms. We have gone from an agreed hourly rate to an agreed project fee (“flat fee”). This is a very major/significant change. The client’s expectation is that the project will cost $x, regardless of whether the project takes 5 hours or 50 hours to complete. (Worth noting is that there is no difference between a project fee and a per-page fee assuming that there is agreement upfront on what constitutes a page. In both instances, a project’s total cost is determinable in advance by a client and the client’s predetermined cost should match the editor’s predetermined fee.)

The quibble, and it is a quibble, is whether how a project needs to be invoiced (in this case in hours) makes a difference. My answer is “no, it makes no difference.” Some accounting systems need certain data to work correctly; it is simply a method for getting to the correct result. In the suggested scenario, preparing the invoices to reflect hours even if the editor didn’t actually work those hours, is just an accommodation to the client’s mechanical process. I would also add that the request is being made by the client, not the editor.

The distinction is not subtle — dare I use the word? The distinction is between fraud and no fraud. In the original circumstance where the agreement was $x per hour, the expectation was that editor would charge for actual hours worked. In such circumstance, padding amounts to fraud (deceit, if you prefer). In the current circumstance, the client is being asked to pay the exact amount agreed upon, thus no fraud/deceit. There is no padding.

And in this instance the agreed-upon flat fee acts as a ceiling. It does not matter whether it takes the editor 5 hours, 50 hours, or 150 hours to complete the project — the total cost to the client remains the same. Of course, we run into the same questions should the editor determine that the project is taking longer than expected and the editor wants to add to the agreed-upon fee for those additional hours.

The ending question (“What if the client told you this after you started the job?”) makes no difference in my estimation. This is simply an accounting procedure because that is how the client’s system is set up. There is no dispute regarding the fee to be paid/charged. Ultimately, that is the issue: Is a dispute about the amount to be paid created by the editor’s actions? If yes, then there may be an ethical question; if no, then there is no ethical question (assuming the method for calculating the fee is itself legal and ethical).

So, my answer is that padding is always unethical (and tantamount to fraud) but accommodating a client’s request to bill for the agreed-upon sum in a certain way because the client’s accounting system requires it is not unethical in the situation presented.

Do you agree?

Richard Adin, An American Editor

(Do you have questions about ethics that you would like to see discussed? You can either ask them in comments to this essay or drop me an email with the question[s].)

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

July 9, 2014

The Business of Editing: Certification & Ethics

In a recent essay, “The Practical Editor: What Does Professional Certification Look Like?,” Erin Brenner discussed certification of American editors. The essay also provoked a number of comments. Yet, I found the essay lacking in one respect: There was no mention of requiring taking a course in ethics and passing an ethics exam as part of the certification process.

To my way of thinking, certification implies that the person certified is not only skill competent but also not ethically challenged. Yet the certification programs pay little to no attention to ethics issues. Many certificated professions require the taking and passing of ethics courses and exams. I remember having to take such a course in law school and then having to pass a special ethics exam administered by the State of California in the early 1970s. If I failed the ethics exam, I could not be admitted to the practice of law even if I earned a perfect score on the bar exam itself.

Over the years and on many different editor forums there have been discussions about ethics. Colleagues would ask a question, seeking advice from others about how to handle a particular situation. 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 of Billing“, “Ethics in a World of Cheap“, “The Business of Editing: Expectations“, and “The Business of Editing: Walking the Line”, to cite a few examples.

Ethics are always on an editor’s mind, as ethics should be. But we lack a uniform standard of ethics that can act as a guide to our decision making and against which we can be judged.

Even though we constantly ask questions about ethics (“What would you do in these circumstances?”), there seems to be a dearth of focus on ethics in conferences or in certification courses. Conferences and courses all focus on the mechanics of editing — the things that we can do to improve our earnings or to improve our editing skills and make us more desirable to clients and prospective clients. Consider, for example, the certification program offered by the University of Chicago Graham School. Not one of the required classes focuses on ethics. The same is true at the University of Washington, the MediaBistro Online Editing Course, and the University of California at San Diego Copyediting Program, to name a few of the available certification programs. Even the Editor’s Association of Canada offers tests of your editing skills, but not of your editorial and business ethics.

From this (admittedly) incomplete survey of certification courses, one could surmise that editorial and business ethics are not particularly important in the editing profession. I have always thought that ethics was important in all business dealings. The purpose of certification is to broadcast to clients and prospective clients that we are qualified to perform the services we offer. It is a way to distinguish professional from nonprofessional editors.

Similarly, meeting ethical standards is a way to separate professional from nonprofessional editors. Of course, simply passing an ethics exam is insufficient. The certifying agencies need to also be enforcers of the ethics standards. Thus our problem.

First, we have no single agency that sets standards that editors must meet to gain certification. The agency that sets the standards does not need to provide the courses to educate editors to those standards; other institutions can do that, just as is done with lawyers, doctors, and accountants — the key is to have a standards-creating organization whose standards form the educational core around which other organizations form their programs.

Second, we have no standard set of ethics. Each editor establishes and interprets his or her own ethical standards. As a profession we need an ethics-setting agency that also has the authority to resolve ethical questions and disputes, especially disputes between clients and editors.

Third, and perhaps in today’s environment most important, those programs that offer certificates should create an ethics course and require that students take the course and pass an ethics exam as a condition of certification. This would (a) make the courses more valuable, (b) would put ethics on par with editing skills, and (c) would help reassure clients and prospective clients.

Fourth, I would like to see conferences include seminars on editorial business ethics. We need to begin exposing editors to the types of situations that can hurt an editor–client relationship because of misunderstanding and teach editors how to avoid those situations and how to resolve ethical conflicts that might arise.

Regardless of what path, in terms of nationwide standards setting, is taken, I believe that certification programs need to take the lead and incorporate an ethics component into the requirements. This would be good for the editor, for the certification program, and for clients. It is not enough that an editor be master of editing skills; an editor who is ethically challenged and who angers a client as a result threatens the livelihood of all editors.

We need to remember all those author comments on forums like LinkedIn expressing the author’s unsatisfactory experiences with editors and who tell everyone who will listen that it is better to self-edit or have trustworthy friends do the editing. If you look at their complaints carefully, many of them are ethical complaints.

We also need to remember that ethics is part and parcel of doing business, especially a service business such as editing. The more we discuss and educate ourselves about ethics issues, the better our business will be.

What do you think?

Richard Adin, 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

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