What Will Happen to Developmental Editing?

My colleague Zach Schrag wrote a guest post on Mike O’Malley’s blog two weeks ago with some significant criticisms of what we are trying to do with PressForward. He expressed a general worry that we were out to destroy a proven system of scholarly review, and a particular worry that we were casting off what is often called “developmental editing,” or the sharp eye of a savvy editor making suggestions for improvement. It’s a serious and important point: few of us can produce flawless arguments and prose from scratch, and can use the help of others to sharpen our writing and ideas.

As I wrote in a quick comment on Zach’s piece, I do not disagree that good editors can be crucial to the advancement of scholarship. It’s just that I do not believe Zach’s wonderful personal experience with an editor is very representative of the experience of scholars in 2011, or presents an accurate and whole picture of the cost, labor, and landscape of scholarly communication.

Here’s Barbara Fister with a recent report on what those at university presses have to say about the state of developmental editing:

I assumed that editorial work was a massive time commitment for university press editors, but the people I talked to said manuscripts need to be very nearly ready for publication these days; most editors don’t have the time for developmental or line editing. Authors increasingly need to get that work done themselves, either through writing groups or by hiring their own editors. Authors may also have to pitch in to pay for indexing, an important feature of scholarly monographs. Publishers at our discussion were not convinced that copy editing was worth the cost; the more ready a book is to go to print, the better. Design was once a standard function, but increasingly designs are templates that can be applied to any number of books. In general, work done on books once acquired seems to play a much smaller role than identifying authors to publish and then helping an audience discover the published book.

This jibes with my view of the situation: the world of fussy, behind-the-scenes editing that Zach treasures is in decline because of its costs, which were once masked by less-lean library purchasing budgets that created surpluses for presses which could be devoted to greater fussing. (Not worth getting into here, but it’s been many years since I experienced any decent developmental editing with my books or articles at presses or journals—please agree or contradict me by adding your experiences in the comments.) Worse, with additional cost-cutting on the horizon, I suspect that Zach’s ideal form of a paid, dedicated editor is unsustainable. (The sciences seem to have already figured this out; the most successful recent publications are venues like PLoS ONE and its clones from commercial publishers, which merely check for technical competency rather than content quality, and rely on the community of scientists to determine that quality.)

But let me agree with Zach that developmental editing is useful in history and the humanities. Where will it come from in the future? Zach and others believe that the only possible system is the system we know, with a dedicated editor paid for by publication gating fees. Here is where we diverge. If we look at the total picture of peer view and scholarly communication—not just in these sad days of recession and cost-cutting, but in prior generations as well—most of the developmental editing has actually come from unpaid colleagues and peers in our discipline, who are willing to give our drafts a read, or listen to us give early versions of our ideas at conferences or over coffee. Developmental editing has always largely resided in the gift economy of the scholarly community. Indeed, Zach runs our Levine Seminar series at Mason, where faculty present drafts of articles or book chapters to each other, receiving helpful criticism.

Surfacing, supporting, and expanding that gift economy is one of the goals of PressForward. Although those in the digital humanities often point to big experiments in open review—Jack Dougherty and Kristen Nawrotzki’s Writing History in a Digital Age, for instance, recently received hundreds of high-quality comments—it’s also important to recognize the increasing frequency of more modest experiments on the web.

For instance, this summer, while working on an article on a fourteenth-century motet, the Oxford musicologist Elizabeth Eva Leach posted a draft to her blog for comment. She didn’t receive hundreds of comments, but some helpful colleagues interested in the subject matter read the draft carefully and wrote in suggestions for improvement. Those little moments happen every day on the open web, and I suppose where Zach and I disagree is in their value. I’ve seen some extraordinarily extensive comments that easily equal the comments of a dedicated editor, whereas Zach worries that without that editor’s dedication, some scholars will receive no feedback.

With PressForward, we are not only trying to aggregate and curate high-quality, vetted scholarly content; we are trying to aggregate the attention of scholars so we can point to pieces like Leach’s, which in turn will receive more in-depth commentary. My view, perhaps colored by six years of blogging, is that there are many intelligent voices out there prepared to provide criticism. And the more commenters, the wider the range of views and suggestions, as opposed to the voice of a lone editor.

In short, far from destroying what is good and true, open publication with a layer of review seems like an obvious and effective way to retain some measure of developmental editing in a changing world of scholarly communication.


Thanks for these thoughtful comments. Some quick reactions.

1. I think my post was pretty clear in its focus on journal editors, so I am unsure of the relevance of the Fister quotation about university press book editors. If anything, the unwillingness or inability of libraries to support book editors through the purchase of monographs gives us all the more reason to treasure the developmental work of journal editors.

2. I am also perplexed by your presenting PLoS as an alternative to having paid editors and editorial staff. PLoS thinks peer review requires money, paid editors, and experience. PLoS lists “peer review, journal production, and online hosting and archiving” as the justification for the publication fees, which run from $1350 to $2900 depending on the journal. PLoS Medicine happens to have a current want ad for a full-time editor whose primary responsibilities include “Oversight of research manuscript processes and policy, including initial triage of manuscripts, chairing of research manuscript meetings, and development and implementation of journal policy in the research section.” A qualification for the job is “editorial experience, ideally at a general medical journal, including in peer review processes for research manuscripts.” PLoS is also seeking a paid editorial manager and a publications assistant, jobs comparable to those paid from subscription revenues at traditional journals.

3. Saying that “most of the developmental editing has actually come from unpaid colleagues and peers in our discipline” is like saying that most of the work in a mule train is done by the mules. That’s quite true, yet the skinner earns his whiskey.

4. Even PressForward believes that editors (aggregators?) should be paid, as should be graduate assistants. The problem is that you haven’t told us how much they are being paid for how many hours, the figures which would help people understand PressForward’s editorial process and judge its replicability and sustainability. Are you at liberty to disclose these figures?

Dan Cohen says:

Thanks for the comments, Zach. Responses:

1. I’d still like other comments on the experience of developmental editing at the journal level. Sorry, haven’t experienced it myself recently. The assumption, e.g., in a recent article I’m publishing in a well-known journal is that I’ve done the heavy lifting already, perhaps with some advice from colleagues in the field. So the mule runs without the skinner. (Indeed, the skinner merely asks for tiny corrections we could probably do without, like the movement of commas.) Perhaps it would be helpful for both of us if we had an accurate survey of practices in the field. I’m happy to be proven wrong on this, but my sense is that developmental editing is declining everywhere due to cost.

2. PLoS runs several operations, including more traditional peer-reviewed journals, but even there the editing suggestions mostly come from outside (free) reviewers. “Triage” is not developmental editing. But my point in this piece is that the most successful venue at PLoS, and the one that is now being copied by Nature and others, has no developmental editing, or even much editorial input at all in-house at PLoS: PLoS ONE. And I won’t even get into the literature showing that peer-reviewed scientific papers often have results that cannot be reproduced, putting into question the value of all of those paid pre-publication evaluators at journals. Let’s just say the scientists and their publishers should be delighted that there is still fluff in grant budgets.

3. PressForward is trying to figure out if there’s a way to coordinate the mules at a lower, or zero, cost, compared to a whiskey-swilling driver.

4. We have promised in the grant for PressForward to record accurately the labor (and other costs) that go into our publications, so we can advise, say, scholarly societies on the potential costs to them for launching new outlets. We will release all of that data. Right now, DHNow is running very lean (around .25-.30 FTE), much of which could be done by gift labor (which would not be hard to find in the DH community).

[…] for this paragraph 0 Follow the healthy debate between Zachary Schrag and Dan Cohen on the “developmental editing” of scholarly work in traditional journals and online […]

The use of “developmental editor” as a blanket term for several different kinds of roles suggests Cohen does not fully understand the academic press model he is critiquing. (I don’t think Barbara Fister can be faulted; her usage merely reflects notetaking.) In university presses, at least in the United States, very few people hold the title “developmental editor.” Those who do, work on scholarly communication whose untapped market value justifies the cost of the process, which involves turning complex arguments inside out, so as to help authors effectively reach an audience of thousands rather than hundreds. See Scott Norton, Developmental Editing (Chicago, 2009) for a primer.

The editing discussed in Schrag’s and Cohen’s posts applies not to developmental editors but to three other kinds of editor that wind up on a press’s staff, at least in the world of monographs (more precisely, long-form scholarly communication; see below for short-form versions).

First is the commissioning editor (or acquiring editor), who is usually an author’s first contact at a press. This person does a variety of jobs, depending upon the press. It could involve shaping an author’s argument (development), negotiating contracts, anticipating marketing opportunities, being an advocate for the broadest range of readers of the piece, conducting peer review, or forging a consensus among peer reviewers, editorial board members, and press staff (especially directors and marketers). Sometimes this person isn’t even on staff, but is, say, a tenured professor who collaborates with the press as a series editor.

Second is the managing editor, who bridges the acquisition editor and the copyeditor, coordinating (or sometimes doing) several processes—cleanup, copyediting, tagging, proofreading, indexing—on numerous publications, working to ensure each project meets its budget and deadlines.

Third is the copyeditor, who edits a piece so it conforms to house style, tags spans of text, corrects grammar, queries infelicities or awkward phrasing (e.g., the phrase “accurate and whole picture” above, ¶2), and notes lapses in argumentation that might embarrass the author (no comment).

If the Schrag-Cohen discussion is really about journals, collected essays, and blogs (collectively, short-length scholarly communication), then the focus is really on the last two kinds of editor, because the acquiring editor—the journal editor or volume editor—is oftentimes not on the press’s payroll.

Academic publishers in the last century differ, and still do, as to how much they invest in these three editorial roles. In the print-only era some presses were very laissez faire; others pulled out all the stops for their authors. With apologies for oversimplification: the more prestigious or commercially successful the press, the greater the evidence of editorial care in their publications. (Which is not to deny attrition in the ranks of editors and proofreaders in fine university presses, as diirectors succumb to pressures to reduce overhead.) The books published by Harvard University Press and Peter Lang are easily distinguishable, in the editing alone.

Cohen seems to argue that the only worthwhile editors today are a scholars’ colleagues. To use Joseph Esposito’s nautilus metaphor (http://bit.ly/dfubC), only in the center of the shell may one find substantive editing of any value. Cohen’s argument rests on anecdotes. And because he focuses on peer review—the conversation in the center of the nautilus—he infers that editors outside that center have nothing to contribute. I, like Schrag, have anecdotes that support the opposite conclusion. But these are driven by a larger vision of review, one that is concerned especially with how one radiates to the rim of the nautilus the best specimens of scholarly communication.

Is Cohen claiming that those best poised to help scholars influence outer rings of the nautilus are those who dwell happily, and rather anarchically, in its center? Perhaps PressForward is his answer, since it intends to make the obscure discoverable. But these are early days. The prospectus presented on PF’s website are inchoate, and I think we should all (supportively) watch the experiment unfold. But Cohen’s one-sided, partial critique (sometimes accurate) of scholarly communication as a whole suggests that PressForward might be lacking the catholic vision it needs to be anything more than a supplement to the future of scholarly communication.

Anne McCoy says:

As managing editor of a prestigious university press for the past 20 years, I am caught between the exigencies of cost-cutting and the need to maintain the high editing standards for which we are known and praised.

Peer reviewers, valuable as their input on substance can be, are not copyeditors. Through the years I have received hundreds of manuscripts that have required months of my staff’s time just to make readable. Notes and references must be checked and cross-checked; the number of note callouts in chapters sometimes don’t agree with the number of notes in a given chapter; art is often missing or needs to be redrawn or put into a format appropriate for printing; tables need to be reviewed and often revised; grammar needs to be cleaned up (peer reviewers are not equipped to do this since they are looking at the large picture); prose must be pruned. And yet budgets must be maintained. I could go on at great length about the behind-the-scenes service we provide. Many manuscripts that arrive in my in-box–despite the strict instructions we give authors who submit them–often need immeasurable amounts of work. A copyeditor is not a development or line editor, but the lines blur, and many copyeditors find repetitions, structural flaws, and factual errors that would embarrass the author had they gone unnoticed. In fact, many of my editors are experts in certain fields, and our authors often request their services when they choose to publish with us again. In fact, some authors come back to us solely because of the excellent editing they have received, which they recognize has increased the merit of their books. This occurs in the sciences, as well as the humanities.

I realize I am talking about book editing, but the issue of open access and self-publishing is front and center in the book-publishing industry as well.

[…] quick side note to this weeks post: I was wondering if anyone had caught the debate between Dan and Zach Schragg on Press Forward?  The debate touches on a number of issues that have been at the core of several […]

Mary Ribesky says:

I must echo the comments given above about the value of copyeditors in the publishing process. Perhaps a platform in which numerous scholars connect and offer commentary to each other would prove beneficial to an author in the early phases of composition. My experience as a managing editor of scholarly books, however, has shown again and again that peer review provides virtually none of the essential benefits that a skilled copyeditor brings to a publication. Even the most promising manuscripts require substantive work, and often hundreds of combined editorial hours go into making a manuscript coherent, sensible, and accessible to a broad range of readers.

Although we have a process in place wherein manuscripts are reviewed in house by the managing editor and then returned to the author for general formatting before copyediting commences, this barely scratches the surface in manuscript preparation. The copyeditor reads for consistency, sense, repetition, and style, as well as for factual and grammatical errors. It is laborious, sometimes tedious, highly skilled work.

The quality of our manuscripts varies greatly, but it is a rare manuscript that requires virtually no editorial changes. Curiously, those authors with manuscripts requiring the least work are often the most likely to actively solicit the contributions of a skilled copyeditor. In any case, any book that originates at our press must be copyedited by a professional.

Although there may be many practical factors that distinguish journal editing from book editing, our collections of essays still require copyediting, even in cases where an essay has been previously published in a journal. Finally, bear in mind that the editorial processes described above occur well before a manuscript is submitted for design and production. The quality of a book’s content is paramount in publishing, and thus I believe that developmental, managing, and copy editing will always be necessary in scholarly publishing regardless of the evolution of digital and print publishing platforms.

Thanks for your answers to my queries, Dan. I agree that this discussion could benefit from an “accurate survey of practices in the field.”

In the meantime, good luck and happy trails.

It is unfortunate that Dan Cohen hangs so much of his argument on a passage from Barbara Fister. Fister is a natural-born writer, whose felicity (enviable, in my opinion) with words sometimes creates the appearance of more substance than is really there, as follow-on research often reveals. For example, citing the fact that authors have to pay to create an index is not news to anyone; authors have been paying for indexes for at least 50 years: they are responsible in most contracts for everything that goes between the covers of the book. The term “developmental editor” (my wife is one) is used mostly in college and professional publishing, not in academic monographs or trade books. For academic titles, the key people in shaping a manuscript are the outside reviewers commissioned by the publisher. If you have ever read some of these reports, you would never say that there is no assistance provided to the author. Of course, when you get to trade books, at least in the U.S., the amount of editorial involvement is staggering and expensive. An editor might handle 10 books a year and get paid over $100,000. Everyone can fault a system for what it does not do perfectly. For example, would we want Dan Cohen to stop blogging or to put his PressForward project on hold because he cited an unreliable source? I don’t think so. And, by the way, I personally continue to read everything Fister writes.

Dan Cohen says:

@Joseph: Perhaps it was not obvious in the post, but as I say about Fister’s quote, this jibes with my experience. It’s really that, and the experiences of many others who find very little help in any part of the contemporary editorial process (from developmental suggestions through copyediting), that I was basing this post on. And it’s my argument (as well as the argument of fellow travelers) that the developmental piece, when it exists (outside the trade publishers) is gift labor and could be reallocated in many ways that are different than the traditional system.

[…] PR added by a press increases the price of the book $50 (I have no idea how much really, but the comments from several editors on Dan Cohen’s Digital Humanities blog assure us the labor is very […]

Mary Ribesky says:

Everyone in publishing, from the acquisitions editor to the printer, applauds a well-prepared and carefully constructed manuscript. If the expense of copyediting could be confidently abandoned, what a boon that would represent to a publisher’s vanishing accounts! Sadly, the idea that copyediting consists of fussy afterthoughts inflicted upon manuscripts by incompetent obsessive-compulsives is largely a myth.

As scholarly publishers, we provide copyediting as a matter of course. Perhaps that is why our authors (and readers) appreciate it. If we asked authors to pay for editing, they would certainly balk at the expense. Nevertheless, perhaps exceptional writers could offer a significant cost savings to those publishers willing to scrap editing in favor of the bottom line.

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