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

July 10, 2013

The Ethics of Editing

Most professions have a code of ethics that governs what members can and cannot (or should and should not) do. Editing, unlike many professions, lacks a standard code of conduct or ethics. Whatever code governs editing, it is unwritten and unique to the individual.

Consider this issue regarding billing. The editor and the client agree that the editor will be paid on an hourly basis but that the client has a budget. In the course of the negotiations, the editor asks the client what the budget is, and the client tells her. Let us assume that the budget is 100 hours at the agreed upon hourly rate.

The project goes much more smoothly than either the editor or the client expected, taking the editor 50 hours to complete. The question is: Should the editor bill for 50 hours or 100 hours?

I would have thought the answer was obvious, but in discussions with colleagues, I find that opinion is split. Some editors believe that the agreement was for an hourly fee and thus only 50 hours should be billed; others believe that although the fee was based on an hourly rate, the client expects to pay for 100 hours and the project was completed in less than the budget number because of the skill of the editor, consequently, the editor should bill for 100 hours — the client should not be rewarded for the editor’s extraordinary skill.

My follow-up to the latter argument is to ask what would happen if under these circumstances the editing took 125 hours: Should the editor bill for and the client pay for those additional 25 hours? In this case, there is yet a further split among the editors, this time among those who would charge for the 100 hours. Some say no, the client is not responsible because the editor knew there was an outside limit; others say yes, the client is responsible because the agreement was for an hourly rate, not a project rate.

Setting aside for the moment whether I agree or disagree with any of my colleagues, the bottom-line issue is one of ethics, and editors have no ethical code, outside of their own moral code, to guide them as to which decision is the correct decision. This is a failure of the editing profession and does harm to our clients.

A client really has no recourse against an editor except to not pay the invoice, not hire the editor again, not recommend the editor, and to sue the editor. The last option, to sue, is really a weak remedy except in the case of billing disputes. A number either adds up or it doesn’t, but word choice and quality of editing are matters of opinion.

In the example at hand, I think the only ethical editor is the one who bills for the 50 hours. When the editor bid her price, she did so knowing her skill level. The editor was in the best position to determine the likelihood of finishing within budget. That the client is getting an unexpected “bargain” as a result of the editor’s skills doesn’t really play into the equation. After all, doesn’t the editor include her skill level in determining her fee rate? Isn’t that one of the arguments editors make to justify why they charge more than another editor?

I think the other editors are wrong because the client doesn’t expect to pay the budgeted amount; the client expects to pay only for the actual hours the editing took with the budget amount acting as a maximum. In the instance where the editor went over the budgeted time, the editor’s underestimating the amount of work involved is not the client’s fault or problem; the editor is supposed to be the expert when it comes to editing and have the experience to estimate the time more accurately. Neither charging the client the budget amount nor for additional hours strikes me as justifiable.

That is the problem: They do not strike me as justifiable, but I cannot point to an ethical rule that governs the situation.

The scope of the problem is readily seen when it is understood that there are no guidelines for what constitutes a proper edit; no uniform rule that governs how a page is calculated; no clear outline of what copyediting, for example, includes or excludes; no universally accepted guidelines that have to be met to call oneself a professional editor. In terms of professions, editing is a Wild West.

What it means is that each editor should make these things clear to clients, preferably in writing. Doing so serves both the editor and the client because it clarifies the duties and responsibilities of each party and the remedies in case of violation. What is really needed is a code of ethics and conduct to which editors can subscribe and to which they can point clients. With such a code, a body of guiding principles, explanations, and opinions can be created. Essentially I am talking of the creation of a “style guide” for editor ethics.

Until that happens, however, we are stuck with personal ethics. It is not that personal ethics are necessarily or inherently bad, it is just that no one has an idea what action will be taken until the problem arises and the editor has to apply her personal code of ethics to the problem at hand. By that time, it may be too late; the problem may have gotten out of hand.

I do not know how one finds an editor whose personal code of ethics matches a client’s expectations. There are so many possible ethical disagreements that it is impossible to ask about them in advance. In the end, it comes down to trust. Trust can be a very shaky foundation for a business relationship in which the end product is but a collection of opinions, especially as loss of trust can be the result of misunderstanding.

What suggestions do you have?

July 16, 2010

Ethics in a World of Cheap

Filed under: Miscellaneous Opinion,Politics — Rich Adin @ 8:04 am
Tags: , , , , , , ,

In response to my article earlier this week, Striking Workers and American Editors, one commenter raised the question of the ethics of buying iPads and iPods when we know that the devices are manufactured in far from ideal working conditions — essentially under slave labor conditions — and specifically asked for my views.

Although the article noted the labor problems in Foxconn’s Chinese factories, the factories where Apple’s iPads, among other devices, are manufactured, the problem is much more widespread. And there is no easy finger of shame to point. But to address the commenter’s request, it is necessary to backtrack a bit and ask the fundamental questions: What is moral? What is ethical?

These are questions with no easy answers. Is it more moral/ethical to give a donation to your local church’s building fund or to the local foodbank’s food-buying program? Is it more moral/ethical to cut school aid or defense spending? Is it more moral/ethical to impose a higher sales tax that disproportionately affects the poor or to raise taxes on estate transfers valued at more than $5 million? Is it more moral/ethical to abort a fetus or to bring into the world a child who it is expected will be abused? Any one of these and myriad other such dilemmas can keep us occupied debating morals and ethics for centuries to come.

The Foxconn-type situation is being played out daily here in the United States and elsewhere. We deplore the conditions under which people have to work yet simultaneously want lower prices for the commodities we want to purchase. The question as posed by the commenter really is nearly impossible to answer because even if we were to agree on what is moral/ethical, that agreement would soon fall apart as we tried to apply it to an actual commodity — because we all value commodities differently. I see no value in an iPhone, but clearly millions of users do.

It is easy for me to say that the ethical consumer would shun every Apple product because Apple is an immoral, unethical company. Why is it so easy for me to say and do? Because I happen to think Apple is an unethical company and so I don’t buy any Apple products. But the kicker to that is position is that I have no need for any Apple product. But suppose tomorrow a major client came to me and told me that I had to either buy an Apple computer or lose all their business and that I had no way to readily make up that lost income, which would lead to a cascade of misfortune for my family. Perhaps ethics is a rich person’s luxury and not a poor man’s possibility.

The situation is similar with books. As a matter of principle, I do not buy books from Amazon. I consider Amazon to be the Apple of the publishing world. Amazon is constantly putting pressure on book prices, which is good for the book buyer but is bad for those of us in the book publishing food chain. If a publisher charges less for a book because of Amazon’s pressure, the publisher will strive to make up that “loss” by squeezing the supply chain — the Wal-Mart approach — which means less money for editors and other publishing suppliers. Editors have been seeing this trend in the United States for years with the offshoring of skilled, professional editorial work. Yet, although I and many of my colleagues recognize this problem, if you ask a book-buying editor where they buy their books, the answer is likely to be Amazon; after all, they would say, “How smart is it to pay $25 to your local indie bookstore when you can buy the same book for $10 at Amazon?” No thought is given to the entics or the morality of the purchase because ethics and morality are for someone else’s purchase, not theirs.

This is the problem with the question asked: Essentially, it is impossible to answer because the angle of approach is so skewed. I think people shouldn’t buy Apple products for lots of reasons and the Foxconn situation is simply one among many reasons. But I no sooner say that than I realize that for a product I do want or need, I price shop and so I create a Foxconn-Apple-type moral/ethical dilemma, just in another place.

In the ideal world, every product would be fairly valued, every service would be fairly valued, every person would be highly valued — but that’s in the ideal world. All I can do is strike a small blow for what I think is right based on my needs and values; I cannot honestly condemn the iPad buyer for encouraging the Foxconn labor situation without condemning myself for the BP oil spill as a gasoline buyer and for the poor working conditions on farms for migrant laborers? (Shouldn’t I bicycle only? But what about the low-wage factory worker who built the low-priced bicycle, which is all I can afford to buy because of the low pay I receive from publishers to edit books that Amazon insists not have a retail price higher than $10 because consumers now expect that as the top price?  Shouldn’t I be willing to buy strawberries at 3 times the current price to assure farmers a good return in hopes the farmer would better the laborer’s working conditions and pay?)

I have yet to meet a moral/ethical question that is either laser focused or capable of being addressed in a laser-like fashion. Simplifying either the complex moral/ethical dilemma or the complex response/solution to a 5-second media byte does a disservice to everyone and does nothing to address the underlying causes and dilemmas. Until consumers are willing to give up cheap, until corporations are willing to accept smaller profit margins, until politicians are willing to forsake graft, until churches and their members are willing to practice what they preach, I’m not certain that I — or anyone — can adequately respond to the commenter’s concerns about the ethics of buying an iPad or an iPod or any Apple product based on the Foxconn cesspool alone. What we really need and should be addressing is a wholesale makeover of our approach to material things and how we prioritize our values. Only then, perhaps, can we truly apply a laser-like focus on the Foxconn-Apple-type moral/ethical conflicts and arrive at a universally supportable and implementable resolution.

In the mean time, I will continue to avoid buying Apple products, Foxconn simply being one more good reason to do so.

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