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During my studies I've read a number of published articles where spelling mistakes have somehow squeaked through the review process. For example, I have found a paper with a section entitled Turbulance Model when the title should be Turbulence Model. I would love to be able to submit an errata if I knew it was going to be a one or two line email, but I don't know of anyone else who does this. Will editors be annoyed with little corrections like this? Surely there isn't a need to bother the corresponding Author with such a matter, is there?

To be clear, I am only thinking of cases like the example I've given; a clear spelling mistake or a missing word. I wouldn't start arguing with an author/editor over wording issues or other gray areas.

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Side note: there don't appear to be tags for errata or spelling; maybe a user with superior SE powers could create one or both of those if they deem it pertinent. –  NauticalMile Jul 30 at 21:09
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I don't think we need "spelling" (we don't get many spelling questions) but "erratum" seems long overdue, thanks for the suggestion! –  ff524 Jul 30 at 21:36
    
I think that's a misuse of the term "errata", which to me is reserved for an addendum for already published works made available by the publisher or author. In your case, I think a publisher should be overjoyed to get a 2-line email showing the error if you can get it to them before publishing. –  Mark J Jul 30 at 23:24
    
@ff524 No problem, glad it was useful –  NauticalMile Jul 31 at 1:15
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@MarkJ Maybe I misunderstand your comment, but I am talking about a publication that has been public for a few years, so it does seem to fall under your definition of errata. –  NauticalMile Jul 31 at 1:20

3 Answers 3

up vote 3 down vote accepted

Let’s be utilitaristic and do a rough, optimistic calculation:

First, how much time does correcting a spelling mistake cost?

  • First of all, it costs you some time to find a way to contact somebody from the journal. I ran an experiment with a random journal and it took me three minutes to find a way to contact the chief editor and to ensure that there is no easy way to contact somebody closer to actual typesetting.
  • It costs you about one minute to write the mail.
  • It costs the chief editor (in our example) at least one minute to read the mail and redirect it to typesetting.
  • It costs the head of typesetting at least one minute to delegate the work.
  • Whoever is actually doing the work, has to find the source of the paper, correct the mistake, check whether the whole paper is still neatly arranged (even if the correction did not alter the number of lines in the paragraph, the linebreaking algorithm or the font might have slightly changed) and every sentence is still on the same page (in fields, where references to pages happen). Again, I ran an experiment on one of my own papers and it took me two minutes (as the correction had no major effects) – and I operate my computer mainly via keyboard and consider myself a fast typer and well organized, not to forget that I do not have so many papers. Additionally, let’s consider one minute for uploading or similar.

So, all in all, mankind has spent nine minutes on correcting the mistake.

Now, At the end of the day, the reason why we bother with spelling is that it speeds up reading texts, i.e., saves the reader some time. Let’s say a small spelling mistake (like turbulance) costs every reader a second. Thus to break even with our nine minutes, the respective word has to be read about 500 times. I do not have any direct numbers on this, but as papers are mainly read by the same people who write papers, this would mean that I have to read (every word of) 500 papers for every paper I write – which is very far from reality.

Thus even under the above optimistic conditions you are likely wasting more time than you are saving.


Also, from another point of view and my own experience: The involved people do not care. I can tell a story of how much trouble it was to make a typesetter change the way one of my tables was formatted such that it was any readable even if that would make it deviate from the journal guidelines – and that was a severe issue.

Finally, it’s likely that you only need to read a few papers to spot a terminus technicus with confusingly wrong hyphenation. My favorite example is »generalized onset seizure«, which denotes seizures with a generalised onset and not onset seizures, which are generalised.

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+1 Cool, I didn't know all the steps that needed to be taken to make a change like that. –  NauticalMile Jul 31 at 1:25
    
It would be cool if you could flag articles for spelling and grammatical errors, so that a typesetter could be notified directly. If that feature existed, I'm guessing it would be about 1 min to flag the post, and 2 mins for a typesetter to verify, correct, and upload. All-in-all about 3 mins of humanity's time, no? Hmm... still seems to need 180 reads to break even. Maybe not then :) –  NauticalMile Jul 31 at 1:52
    
I have the solution! Just let people edit the articles themselves! That way even conceptual and methodology mistakes could be corrected. Readers could also add their own ideas and fill in details! I'm pretty sure nobody's ever thought of this before. :) –  NauticalMile Jul 31 at 1:56
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@NauticalMile and Wrzlprmft I'm not sure why you think it would take only two minutes to make even a relatively simple correction to a published article. It's perfectly possible (as partially acknowledged in the answer) for a minor change in wording to completely change the pagination of the article. That could require substantial typesetting work and would also screw up any reference to the article that mentions a page number. If the article becomes a page longer, what are you going to do about its page numbers? The following article's? –  David Richerby Jul 31 at 7:35
    
[continued] This is why journals are very touchy about what changes you can make even to the galley proofs: a small change at that stage can have major repercussions for the rest of the articles in the same issue. That's time-consuming before publication but a nightmare after. –  David Richerby Jul 31 at 7:36

On the arxiv there exist versions of manuscripts, which are a great way to get rid of this kind of mistakes. I hope that with the onset of online-only journals and the prevalence of internet for article reading this will become more mainstream. In the meantime, I would certainly not bother the author or the journal about such obvious mistakes: almost everyone will understand turbulance is misspelled, and although annoying to read, it certainly does not add confusion to the message. It is great to read nicely-written misspell-free papers, but my opinion is that we should not overlook the scientific quality of an article because a few words were wrong or the author was not a great writer.

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It is not necessary to make an errata for simple mistakes. That said, however, you need to consider whether the simple mistake may change the meaning of what is written so the key issue here is "meaning". Anything that can create confusion of introduce an error in vital information necessary to understand the material should be corrected. Since it is generally not possible to change published (e.g. journal) material, an errata note should suffice. Otherwise, the misconception introduced by the mistake might propagate and your original work may be misunderstood. So check whether your found errors introduce any major consequences for correctly understanding the text.

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