Editor or scientist-editor? There is a difference—and it matters.

Updated: Apr 30

The new year has begun and I imagine a lot of scientists out there have plans to submit papers for publication in 2020.

I have worked with authors in the past who had papers undergo peer-review—papers that were accepted pending requested revisions. Along with content critiques, the reviewers advised the authors to have their paper checked by an editor before resubmission. The catch is that they had already had professional editing done before the initial submission!

The problem was not in spelling or grammar, but use of language and specific terminology in the appropriate scientific context.

Had the authors requested a re-edit from the same editor or editing company, the results would likely have been the same. An editor without the right experience may not even recognize technical aspects that need correction or improvement.

If you are in the market for an editor, the tips below may help you find the right person for the job …the first time!

What to look for in a scientific manuscript editor

1. Someone who writes and edits well (in the language you have used for your manuscript)

This is pretty basic and should be a no-brainer, but you could run into problems if you find a scientist who claims to be an editor and think you have found the best of both worlds …only to realize later that they are certainly a scientist, but not one who can write.

If your editor is a brilliant scientist but cannot write well, this is a losing proposition—full stop.

2. Someone who listens to you

If you have special instructions (e.g., very specific terminology, details to keep in mind while editing), tell your editor and make sure they listen.

You can tell the difference between someone who is hearing you but merely humoring you with a string of “uh huh, uh huh, yes, ok, uh huhs” from the thoughtful editor who hears you and also shows they have listened by asking clarifying questions or (in cases of very straightforward instructions) by repeating your request back to you.

If you find an editor who meets the first two criteria, you are actually in pretty good shape.

You will likely receive a well-edited manuscript within the agreed-upon time frame, with:

-- Correct spelling and grammar

-- Good structure and flow at the full manuscript, section and paragraph levels

-- Elimination of redundant content (hopefully, although non-scientists may be hesitant to trim content)

-- Tracked changes and author queries if review is needed to clarify content or accuracy of editing

But it’s #3 below that separates great scientific editing from great general editing.

3. Someone who understands your field

This does not mean you must find an editor who has background in your very specific research niche (e.g., the role of AKT signaling in endocrine therapy resistance in breast cancer), but rather look for someone with background in an area under the same broader umbrella (e.g., molecular biology, biomedical science, endocrinology, or clinical oncology).

Like other editors, a scientist-editor must write and edit well. And they must listen to you.

Yet what really differentiates the scientist-editor from the more general editor is familiarity with how science is communicated to an academic audience (assuming the goal is submission to a peer-reviewed journal). Scientist-editors will understand the context, and use language and niche-specific terminology correctly within that context.

They will also have a sense for what they don’t know (e.g., something very specific to your niche) and that it may be important enough to require clarifying research (could be as simple as a google search for term definition or examples of usage) or asking you some questions to learn what is necessary to ensure accurate editing.

Scientist-editors also have experience preparing and publishing peer-reviewed articles.

Presentation matters. They know what a fully-edited, ready-to-submit (and even accepted and ready-to-publish) manuscript looks like. This comes through in the way they edit your paper.

In addition to the basics of spelling and grammar, structure and flow, these editors look at your paper with a well-trained eye to ensure:

-- Proper use of language in scientific context

-- Definition of acronyms at first use and used consistently throughout

-- Consistent use of hyphenated or non-hyphenated words (e.g. non-tumor or nontumor)

-- Use of simplified language to improve clarity

-- Brevity and clarity in figure legends and descriptions

-- Text to table and figure/figure legend consistency (e.g., description of part B in figure legend matches figure as well as description in Results or Discussion; confirming that all footnotes are defined or that footnotes listed are actually used in the figure or table)

-- Journal-specific formatting of references (why do they all have to be different?!)

-- A customized, collaborative approach to identify and address editing concerns specific to your paper—openness to author questions, input and feedback throughout the editing process and ongoing improvement of services

Bonus: Someone who cares

Academic scientists love research and discovery, but know that their ability to continue to do the work they love depends on peer-reviewed publication. Publication demonstrates productivity and supports funding, tenure and promotion.

An experienced scientist-editor understands this process and the importance of publication to their clients. The best editors are dedicated to helping you publish your research and continue doing the work you love.

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