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I make mistakes too as a flawed human. Yet I always lose confidence in and doubt authors (whose native language is English) whose textbooks or journal articles contain glaring typos or orthographical errors. Is this expectation rational or warranted?

For instance, Michael Spivak's Calculus contains many such typos. But I've spotted no typos in David Benatar's books. Here are my assumptions:

  1. The author or the publisher can hire or engage multiple proofreaders (who can be university students, friends, or family members) to proofread.

  2. The publisher permits the author to read a draft of the book before it's printed, to spot any last-minute mistakes. So these typos aren't the publisher's fault.

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    A math textbook and a mass consumption book will also go through very different publishing processes because one is technical and requires very thorough proofreading; the latter can be proofread by many people. – aeismail Aug 1 '18 at 0:37
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    I'm not sure that anyone can comment on the "rationality" of your response, but I, too, lose confidence in such authors. I found quite a lot in Wayne Daniel's silver edition textbook that I collected them and wrote to him. Later editions are pretty solid. – St. Inkbug Aug 1 '18 at 0:52
  • You should not have confidence in any textbook. The purpose of science is that we don't trust, but see if we understand the argument made in an article or book, and then decide for ourselves if we find that argument convincing or not. If the argument can be clearly understood, then to say that an argument is not convincing because there are typos, does not sound very rational to me. However, if the typos makes the argument ambiguous or hard to understand, then you cannot reconstruct that argument and you cannot make up your mind whether that unknown argument is convincing or not. – Maarten Buis Aug 1 '18 at 7:31
  • I think the rational conclusion, once you've found an unpleasantly large number of typos, is that there are likely to be other typos that you didn't catch. So read the rest of the book with that in mind, but don't extrapolate to the point that you think the authors are idiots. – Andreas Blass Aug 1 '18 at 23:22
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Your assumptions are faulty. Unless a book is self published, it is the publisher only who hires reviewers, and, more importantly, editors. They are too expensive for the author to engage. A text that sells for about $90 USD returns about $5 USD to the author and sells between 0 and a few thousand copies (with a few exceptions). The cost of the textbook prep is all up-front other than reprinting.

For many (most?) people, proofreading your own work is nearly impossible. If you made an error when you first wrote it, it was because of some slip of the mindset. Thinking one thing and writing another. When you go to re-read it you actually read what you thought you wrote, not what you actually wrote. It is the publisher, and more important, the reviewers who should catch these since they read it with a fresh mind. The author isn't perfect but he/she is innocent here.

Some authors and publishers will pay bounties for errors caught by readers so that they can be corrected in future printing (and editions). Donald Knuth famously did this for The Art of Computer Programming.

Many authors an/or publishers will also put errata lists online where readers should be able to find them.

Typos are annoying, of course, and the other qualities of any given work have to be sufficient to overcome that annoyance.

But it is the publisher of the book that pays the upfront costs of editing, review, typesetting, etc. They (publishers) earn a ton of money for this and are responsible when it goes badly. While reviewers often work for free, editors don't. They are employees of the publishers.

  • It is very rare for a book of several hundred pages to have fewer than 10% of the pages not requiring changes. To get reviewers to fix typos is not realistic; it is the publisher's job to do so (unless the book is a CRC). – Allure Aug 1 '18 at 0:24
  • @Allure, yes, I should have said editors. Reviewers catch some, but it isn't their job. A textbook will have an editor skilled in the topic of the book and also in the use of language. I'll update a bit. – Buffy Aug 1 '18 at 0:26
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    You can proofread your own work—if enough time has passed that you don't remember in your head what you're trying to say. Sometimes it really helps to think you're reading someone else's manuscript at the proof stage. – aeismail Aug 1 '18 at 0:35
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    @aeismail, actually I'm living proof that you can't do it. Or, I can't do it at least. Our thought patterns are quite ingrained. It is why we can succesfully give a lecture without notes. Even months later, you will likely miss things you wrote earlier. I've caught whoppers, though. But not the subtle things. If you are missing a not in a sentence you may just gloss over it knowing what you said earlier (but didn't write). Don't make the problem seem less intractable than it is. – Buffy Aug 1 '18 at 0:47
  • In the preface of many (if not most) textbooks, authors often write: "Thanks for those who helped to proofread my manuscript …". The publishers or the copy editors generally are not subject matter experts. They cannot catch those errors that are of technical nature. For example, they do not know what "Cauchy Sequence" is. (I steal one of your answers on Math SE). They may think it is "Catchy Sequence". I think it is ultimately the author's and the reviewer's responsibility to find and catch those errors. – scaaahu Aug 1 '18 at 3:18
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The veracity of a work is independent of the author's English. Second, the writing of even native English speakers can include many typos. Have you ever seen exams for which the instructor awarded bonus marks because of a critical typo in a question? This can happen even though the exam has presumably been checked by many people. Therefore the short answer is no, it is not rational.

If there are lots of typos, then I would hold it against the publisher first before the authors. It's true that the authors get to read the final files of the book before it goes to press, but it's also true that the publisher will have staff whose job is to catch these errors before printing. No human can catch every error, but they should still catch most of them.

However, it must also be said that this is not necessarily fair, because there's no way to tell what happened during the production process from the outside. For example, if the authors signed a contract to provide a camera-ready copy (CRC), that's effectively an agreement that the publisher will save on publication costs (like performing copyediting) and, in return, they'll provide the authors a higher royalty. If the authors provide a typo-ridden CRC then the authors are more at fault than the publisher.

  • Publishers rarely have anyone competent to catch genuine content errors. – paul garrett Aug 1 '18 at 0:31
  • @paulgarrett you don't say! I know people who couldn't read calculus symbols working on engineering books for example. Even if the publisher hires engineering graduates, there's no guarantee that they will remember much from university either. Also from the PoV of the publisher, catching these genuine content errors is not likely to increase sales of the book by much, which means it's not worth paying higher salaries for these highly-skilled people. It's a tough world out there. – Allure Aug 1 '18 at 0:44
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    Actually, the editors (content editors) I've worked with have been highly skilled, though not content experts themselves. But the reviewers of a work should catch an author who doesn't know what he or she is talking about. – Buffy Aug 1 '18 at 0:50
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    @Buffy did you work with full-time employees of the publisher or with academics who are working with the publisher? – Allure Aug 1 '18 at 2:30
  • @Allure, in my case, reviewers are normally academics, but editors are always employees of the publisher. I can ask a friend to edit a manuscript, of course, but that is not the same. – Buffy Aug 1 '18 at 11:33

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