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A journal which accepted a paper of mine has made some alterations to the text of the paper as part of their editing process. They sent me the edited version for approval, and I discovered that at least some of these changes are erroneous (for instance, one of the changes included a typo, and another was changing the spelling of a technical term incorrectly). I asked for a list of all the changes made, and was told that this was "too messy" (I assume because the alterations to the text are mixed in with the changes to the formatting of the paper, which is a more standard part of the editing process).

At this time the journal is waiting for me to approve/make changes to the final proof before publication.

My question is how I should deal with this situation. I feel like I have an obligation to be responsible for the contents of a paper published in my name. (Though, if I'm mistaken about this, that would be a helpful answer.)

I can think of a few solutions, ranging from the tedious (compare the PDF files line by line to identify the changes myself), to the demanding (insist on a list of changes anyway), to the passive-aggressive (either withdraw the paper or add a sulky footnote disavowing responsibility for the unknown changes to the paper). These all have problems, so I'd appreciate more constructive ways to approach the situation.

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    Sadly, this is normal. Do the tedious and move on with your life. – JeffE Nov 26 '13 at 19:38
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    Various programs exist to make the manual proofreading less tedious — most notably, versions of diff adapted for PDF, which can take two similar-but-not-identical PDF’s and highlight the specific differences. I personally like DiffPDF, and find it takes a great deal of the labour out of this kind of re-proofreading. – PLL Nov 26 '13 at 21:49
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    @PLL: I wasn't aware of DiffPDF. That looks like it may be a big help – Henry Nov 26 '13 at 21:57
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    Failing that, so long as the paper isn't too mathematical, you could copy/paste to text files and use diff :-) – Flyto Nov 27 '13 at 9:58
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I've run into bad editing situations like this. In these cases, I've gone through the paper line by line, with a fine tooth comb. Yes, it is painful, but it is a good idea even if the journal editors aren't obviously screwing up. (This can get doubly horrible if you have complicated formatting in your paper.) You should bear in mind whoever is doing this is unlikely to actually understand what you are writing, and my experience of people doing this sort of thing is that they can be well-meaning and not too bright, so they can take it upon themselves to "correct" your manuscript, while not understanding what they are doing. Additionally, if you give them last minute changes to the paper, make sure to check they have applied them correctly. Are you the sole author? Can you get anyone else to help with this? It would make it less awful.

Your other ideas sound less viable. Asking for a list of changes assumes that there is someone there who actually knows what those changes are. My experience is that journal staff are often amazingly technically incompetent, and probably have never thought of using version control for example. though I'd love to hear about the exceptions. But you can certainly try to insist.

Your passive-aggressive ideas just sound bad. You don't want to withdraw your paper over an issue like that. And if there are errors in the paper, they will reflect badly on you, and nobody else will care.

At times I've thought someone should start a site like ratethisjournal.org where people could discuss their experiences dealing with different journals.

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    I've run into bad editing situations like this. — I don't think I've ever had a journal paper where the copy-editor didn't introduce at least one (usually minor) error. So I go through every copy-edited paper line by line with a fine-tooth comb. – JeffE Nov 26 '13 at 19:37
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    PLL's practical solution (use DiffPDF to make it easier to find the changes) is probably the best answer to the practical question, but it's helpful to get a little background on how the paper got into this mess in the first place. – Henry Nov 26 '13 at 22:12
4

Copy-editing is a normal part of the publication process, and a few errors can be introduced that way. A good proof-reading is in order, of course, but if you miss a typo or two it's not the end of the world. Moreover, if you later come to realize that a critical error has been introduced, which was not present in your initial copy and which you did not find in the your proof-reading, you can always ask for a correction at that point.

However, many publishers give you more information to help review the copy-edited proofs. For example, many publishers will gladly give you (automatically, or upon asking) the list of changes made (“edit track” or something like that). Something a bit like a latexdiff output, in most cases. It's a crowded document, and hard to read through because there are many formatting and copy-editing changes, but it can be helpful with some details.

4

A Copy Editor speaking. I have couple comments:

  1. It is true that it is impossible to seperate the changes in the text and changes in the formatting, even in good systems like LaTeX.

  2. Good Copy Editor never changes any scientific terms as is. Sometimes we have to change a formula (split in two lines, etc.), or we are dubious about a comma, preposition, hyphen or whatever. Even though the Language Editor corrects these, I sometimes don't make the changes if I feel it is against the intention of the author. Honestly, this is a complicated process, even inside the Editors' Office, not speaking about communication with the authors. As well, we put some notices in the Proofreading version if we're unsure about something, so that the author can be aware of it. Unfortunately, it seems to me that not many journals do quite a great job in Copy Editing.

What can you do:

  1. Read your manuscript really carefully during the proofreading. No matter what happens, you can get as angry as possible at the Editor's, but if there was a mistake in the proofreading version and you did not point it out, it's your mistake, not the journal's.

  2. Prepare the manuscript as perfectly as possible. Use the correct template (esp. in LaTeX), follow the (typo)graphic manual of the journal etc. This way, you minimise the changes the Copy Editor/Typesetter has to make, thus minimising the chance of something going wrong. My experience is that the amount of mistakes that appear is highly dependent of the quality of the manuscript when you send it. (Example: We work in LaTeX, and when I receive an article in Word, I have to re-write/revise all the math formulas. Imagine how many mistakes I make during this very stupid process.)

  3. There are tools that allow a document to be "linearised". Then you can linearise the accepted version and the proofreading version and compare them. However, I don't have any how-to for this.

  4. If you find a serious mistake after the publication, see what errata policy the journal has. In our case, the online version (we're open access) can be corrected, and additionally, Errata are printed in the next suitable issue.

2

Some background. Many copy-editors (I would say most) are not experts in any field but are experts on the house style of the publisher. I have experienced how copy-editors new to the journal make lots of mistakes, they sometimes edit several journals with different styles. They should not make such mistakes but sometimes the communication between the publisher and the copy-editor does not work well for one reason or another. Note that the journal and its editors may not be involved in this part of the process; I cannot say what applies in your case.

I would suggest you contact the editors of the journal, or the contact to which you are supposed to return the comments. State that your manuscript has been corrupted by the copy-editing and ask how they suggest you should proceed (considering that the state of the paper is completely unsatisfactory). What you can also do is to try to summarize the systematic errors you have observed so that the journal/publisher can provide these comments to the copy-editor. Unfortunately, the copy-editor will not likely be able to make any better judgements on the corrections without input from others, so I think it is safe to say at least some will most likely fall back to you to correct in the end.

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What the journal is doing is perfectly normal, and is in fact a sign that they're being conscientious and professional about their work. Editors edit. That's their job. This is the way it is any time you have a piece of writing published professionally. It would be this way if you were publishing a novel or a car maintenance manual. Your indignation is misplaced and inappropriate. If a journal didn't have anyone editing your work, that could be a bad sign; it might indicate that the journal was a low-quality, low-budget operation.

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    Copy-editing is a normal part of the publication process, but if it introduces several errors and/or the copy-editors are not willing to provide helpful information, there is nothing wrong in wondering how to handle it best. Downvoting for “Your indignation is misplaced and inappropriate” – F'x Nov 26 '13 at 20:42

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