Annual Meeting Reports

Copyediting in the 21st Century: Addressing Changing Conventions and Technology

This session emulated the theme of the 2013 CSE meeting (“Communicating Science Effectively”) by offering different perspectives of a well-rounded panel regarding the challenges of providing clear, consistent, and concisely presented information to the scientific community in a changing technological landscape.

Jessica LaPointe, managing copyeditor of the American Meteorological Society, led off with an overview of the purpose and value of copyediting, noting that although the methods of communicating science continue to evolve, the copyeditor’s role at its core has not changed. LaPointe presented several humorous examples that demonstrated how a lack of clarity can lead to confusion and can even be dangerous, depending on the message. She noted that the copyeditor is often charged with salvaging the credibility and integrity of a manuscript to prevent readers from asking themselves, If the writing is sloppy, is the science sloppy? and Why would I publish in this error-prone journal? Yet copyeditors must also perform a delicate balancing act: they must avoid altering the author’s intent while enforcing house style and improving the grammar and clarity of a poorly written manuscript.

LaPointe noted that although the copyeditor’s role remains constant, it is not immune to progress. The advent of HTML, embedded links in online content, and mobile apps have had a trickle-down effect, requiring copyeditors to become familiar with the technical requirements for these new methods of scientific publishing.

Yvonne Blanco, senior scientific illustrator and designer at Cell, demonstrated that the work of a scientific illustrator is in many ways a form of editing scientific content for clarity. Using several examples of her own illustrations for Cell Press, she highlighted the importance of refining figures to communicate science clearly and explained how challenging this task can be, depending on the quality of the original artwork.

Blanco said that although most authors follow their publishers’ imaging guidelines, the occasional author will not follow basic stylistic principles, design principles, or laws of simplicity in his or her original artwork; in such cases, the result is unclear science. She presented a comprehensive array of principles that she applies when modifying unclear illustrations, ranging from concepts as simple as font choice, line weight, and use of arrowheads to more complex considerations, such as color emphasis, typographical hierarchy, and Gestalt grouping theories (which involve, for example, proximity, similarity, and enclosure). In the end, however, Blanco stressed that scientific illustrators must consult the journal editors to ensure that their modifications have preserved the author’s intent.

Ingrid Philibert, executive managing editor of the Journal of Graduate Medical Education (JGME), rounded out the session by discussing the challenges that journal editors face in disseminating information to scientists in a fast-paced technological world. Such a task is especially difficult for journals like JGME, which, in stark contrast with Cell, is a text-heavy medical education journal with a dearth of eye-catching illustrations, graphic models, and other visual ways of communicating information.

Philibert noted that it is increasingly difficult for scientists to stay ahead of the literature, largely because of the combination of an overabundance of information and time deficiency. Readers have less time to assess the relevance, pertinence, and integrity of a study, and it has been shown that most scientists read only the article title and the abstract connected with a study. Consequently, journals must find ways to attract the eyes of their audiences and entice them to read full articles. Philibert cited various means of projecting and highlighting the key points of an article to draw readers in, including brief synopses and article sidebars that state the known and the new aspects of a study. She followed by stating that editors must be diligent in trimming the fat of an article, taking care to eliminate redundancy, such as tables whose results are given in the text, and details regarding study populations that are not relevant to study objectives or outcomes.

Philibert concluded the session by addressing the following questions to the attendees: What are your challenges in presenting information for publication? How have you overcome them? What are you still working on? These questions are more relevant now than ever before as we continue into the 21st century.