What is Scientific Editing and What is a Scientific Editor?

What is a scientific editor? WorldEdits

Many scientists and scholars think of language editing as fixing up spelling and grammar (i.e., proofreading). So when they’re looking for an editor for their scientific manuscript, they think any English speaker can do the job. That can be a big mistake. Non-native English speaking researchers usually need an inner-circle native English speaking scientific editor trained in scientific editing. So then, what is scientific editing?

Scientific (or academic) editing requires a combination of skilled language editing + expertise in specific fields of science + being knowledgeable about the scholarly publication process. Language editing is a professional job; scientific editing combines language editing with STEM and HSS knowledge and publication industry knowledge. This is why scientific editing services may/should cost more than language editing or proofreading.

And what do scientific editors do?

Scientific editors, in addition to language editing, know how to structure manuscripts and all their components, such as abstracts, figures, tables, and references. They also know the steps of the manuscript submission and peer-review process. Some full-time scientific editors also pass rigorous testing to attain a qualification such as Board-Certified Editor in the Life Sciences (BELS – ELS qualification), or in the UK from the Chartered Institute of Editing and Proofreading (CIEP; formerly the Society for Editors and Proofreaders [SfEP]).

Having trained as a scientific editor and writer, as well as an editor and writer in conventional journalism, I see some distinct differences that set scientific editors apart.

Some are counterintuitive and even a bit surprising.

Scientific Editors are Not Proofreaders, but They Can Be if You Want

Asking a scientific editor to proofread a paper, to “polish” the English, is similar to asking a dentist to give you a cleaning, or a chef to make you a grilled cheese sandwich. Of course, they can do it, really well, but it’s just a small part of their skill set.

Dentists usually have their assistants do the cleaning. And a line cook can handle the grilled cheese. True scientific editors are language experts, so a proofread in any topic is no problem. It’s actually fun when the topic is interesting! I can proofread anything from chemistry to genetics, though I wouldn’t normally do intensive scientific editing in those topics because I’m not a subject-matter expert in those fields. I specialize in health sciences and social sciences. So, proofreading is totally doable for us, but it’s just part of what we can do.

PhDs and MDs Often Do Not Make Good Scientific Editors

Those who hold a PhD, MD, or another terminal (highest level) academic degree have studied their topic intensively for years upon years. They’re experts in chemistry, cell biology, internal medicine, and so on. This has no direct connection with their English language ability. Why? Because they didn’t specifically and intensively study English.

Doctors often are not good editors
Doctors are trained at treating disease. If they’re going to be good editors, they need editing training. Many don’t have that.

Scientific editors, good ones at least, must have outstanding language skills. They may not actually be PhDs or MDs, but they have high academic knowledge in a number of areas. They know how to edit and they know what journal editors themselves want to see.

PhDs and MDs will have a strong grasp of terminology and methodology, but they may know little about academic publication or ethics, may know little about presenting data and conducting literature reviews, and they may have poor spelling and grammar.

When searching for an editor, many client scholars make the mistake of demanding a PhD or medical doctor in their field. If they are lucky enough to find one who is also a qualified editor, well, they’re lucky.

Great Scientific Editors May be English Majors or Veterinarians

A common trait among those who majored in English, linguistics, journalism, etc. is their advanced ability in English. They are language technicians and artisans. They should be. It’s what they studied for. Those who had other scholarly interests often make excellent scientific editors when they commit themselves to it. Some of the best clinical, engineering, and earth sciences editors I know earned their degree in the humanities.

Veterinarians who are good with English also make superb clinical editors. They may have never done open-heart surgery on a human, but they have intimate knowledge of physiology. I’ve also generally found them to be compassionate and attentive, which are great intangible traits for an editor.

So this is where it’s counterintuitive. Some of the best editors are not PhDs in their best topics. They are, however, experts in language and in related fields. They supplement their knowledge with publication knowledge.

Scientific Editors Do This As a Job, Others Don’t

Unlike freelance proofreaders, who are picking up a few bucks fixing spelling and grammar, scientific editors edit substantively, a lot. Unlike colleagues in the lab or hospital, who do lab research and clinical medicine, scientific editors do scientific editing. And regarding English, unlike most native speakers, and certainly unlike non-native speakers, English scientific editors are trained and skilled in effective English usage.

Scientific editors are trained to edit
Editing is not a glamorous job, but I enjoy it very much.

Many freelancers, and even some scientific editors, come from non-inner-circle countries such as India and Kenya, where English is widely used, but not used at home. This introduces unnatural and mistaken English. Insist on a native English speaker from an inner-circle country such as the US, UK, or Australia.

One word of caution. Just like in any profession, some professionals are more skilled than others. There are good and not-so-good dentists, chefs, and auto mechanics. The same applies to editors. You don’t have to settle for one who makes a mess of your paper and doesn’t ask you any questions if they’re unclear on something. Don’t accept that junk. Find someone better.

Scientific editors are a combination of subject-matter experts, language experts, and publication experts. This is why, in most cases, they’re the best ones to do your scientific editing.

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