Guest post: Got a professional editor?

Today we have a guest post from Richard Primack of Boston University. Last week, I did a poll asking whether readers had used a professional editor for a grant proposal or manuscript, based on a Nature News piece that quoted Richard as saying, “I hire professional editors to help me polish my articles, grant proposals and reports.” he says. “I can do this myself, but it’s more efficient for me to pay someone to help.” I was surprised by that, since it never occurred to me to use a professional editor. The poll suggests I was not alone. 62% of respondents said they’d never used a professional editor for a manuscript because it had never occurred to them; 67% said it never occurred to them for a grant proposal and 68% for their dissertation. In this guest post, Richard talks more about the process.

Richard’s post appears below the break:

“Improve every opportunity to express yourself in writing as if it were your last.”
– Thoreau in his Journal, December 17, 1851.

What are the secrets or best practices to achieving balance between work and family life, if there is such a thing? A recent news article in Nature, “Workplace habits: Full-time is full enough,” quotes several scientists describing strategies they use for themselves and their labs.

For many people, including scientists, achieving work-life balance means getting as much work done as possible in 40 hours per week, and devoting the rest of the time to family and personal life.

Primack&Editor

In this staged photo, Primack relaxes with the family dog, while a professional editor polishes a paper.

In the Nature news article, I am quoted saying that I hire professional editors to help me work more efficiently in my position as a professor, textbook writer and editor. My comment inspired a post at the Dynamic Ecology blog, in which Meghan Duffy asks, “Have you ever used a professional editor for a proposal or manuscript? 

Here, I share my experiences and try to address some of the comments that readers posted in response to the Dynamic Ecology post and the associated conversation on Twitter. (Full disclosure: this post has received the professional editing treatment.)

I was first introduced to working with professional editors about 25 years ago when, as a mid-career professor, I was invited by a government official to submit a grant proposal on a tight deadline. I expressed concern about the quick turnaround, and the official offered to pay for a freelance editorial assistant for two months to help me with the proposal. And I agreed.

The editor, a former BU grad student who was an excellent writer and an expert on Latin America, helped me to get a lot more writing done in a shorter amount of time than was normal for me. I still had to put in some extra hours, but with the editor’s help, I submitted a high-quality proposal on time and I still got sleep. And best of all, the agency funded the project I proposed.

Since that time, I have continued to hire professional editors on a part-time or freelance basis to work on important projects, or projects that I can’t devote the time to finish without help. I have employed editors to help me write scientific papers, grant proposals, chapters of my conservation biology textbooks, professional correspondence, popular articles, press releases, and oral presentations. Having an editor work with me often makes the difference between meeting or missing deadlines, or handing in sloppy work or well-written papers.

In some cases, I give editors rough drafts that need substantial work in terms of writing, logic, and organization. Other times I give editors near-final versions that just need polishing. The best editors offer opinions on how to improve the writing and may make many of the improvements to the text themselves (depending on what I ask). They can adjust wording, check facts, reorganize, and improve flow and logic. They can even add new material where needed, especially when the editors are experts on a topic.

As Thoreau says: “The writer needs the suggestion and correction that a correspondent or companion is.” Journal, August 23, 1858.

In my experience the best editors are advanced graduate students, post-docs, and early-career researchers working outside of tenure-track faculty positions. The best editors are excellent writers, but often don’t take on editing as their primary job—they may do it on the side as a way to make some extra money. I always know editors before working with them, or they come recommended by people I know. I start by offering some initial work, such as editing a short research paper or popular article, and see how effective they are at editing and meeting deadlines.

The amount of time needed to edit varies depending on the length of the document, how much work the document needs, and the speed of the editor. It can be tough to predict just how long an editing job might take, and thus, how much it might cost. To guard against this uncertainty, sometimes I specify how many hours I want an editor to work on a project. With an editor I know well, I often trust their judgment on how long to work. I typically pay a qualified editor $50 per hour, though $35 might be appropriate for someone who is just starting. I pay time and half, $75 per hour, to experienced editors for rush work, which is typical for grant proposals. Most recently, a professional editor spent 10 hours helping me with a grant proposal, 2 hours on an editorial for Biological Conservation, and 4 hours on a research article.

I have used a variety of sources to pay for editing: funds from research fellowships and grants, advances on book contracts, and funds from my university, including return on overhead. In some cases, I have paid for editing using my own personal funds, including royalties from my textbooks.

While this might seem like a lot of money, in my opinion it is money worth spending. If I spend $500 to $1,000 to increase the chances of a $300,000 grant proposal being funded, or $200 to $300 to improve a paper for a top journal, this seems like money well spent.

CONCLUSION

Using a professional editor can make a big difference in the productivity of a scientist. It might strike some people as unfair, as it creates a bias that favors well-funded and personally affluent senior scientists. But I think it is worthwhile for many people. I also advocate that we make access to good editorial help easier—for example, by making it a more routine component of grants (like page charges are becoming), and through the assistance of colleagues, universities, journals, and professional societies.

Working with editors can especially help scientists for whom writing is not a strength (including those for whom English is not their first language), scientists who want to learn writing skills from professional editors, and those whose time may be better spent elsewhere on research projects.

Working with professional scientific editors is not for everyone, but I think it can help many people. Certainly, working with editors has been important in my career.

Questions for further thought:

  1. Is paying a professional editor for help with writing similar or different from paying a house cleaner or a baby sitter? Both are helping the scientist to be more efficient.
  2. If the professional editor and I each work on a short paper for 10 hours, should the editor be a co-author of the published paper? Does it depend on the intellectual contribution of the editor to the final paper?
  3. Questions added by Meghan: Is there a way to make professional editors more accessible to all scientists (but especially early career scientists and others who wouldn’t otherwise have the resources to pay for their services)? Are there resources available at societies or universities that can help? One thing I wonder is whether there can be pots of money similar to travel funds that early career folks could access for editing.

47 thoughts on “Guest post: Got a professional editor?

  1. Great post but… What about workplace posture and ergonomics of the professional editor on the picture (in almost every aspect)? That hard-earned money is gonna go straight to the physio 🙂

    • Dear Rochoahueso
      What are your suggestions to this editor? How could she improve her posture? On the advice of a physical therapist, I no longer work with my laptop in my lap or on a desk; I now put my laptop on a stack of books and use a separate keyboard and mouse; this improves my posture while working as I am holding my body and head more upright. Is this what you mean?

      Richard Primack

      • Dear Richard,
        Excuse me for my late reply, I just saw it!
        The position of the editor attracted my attention because I am myself very aware of the physical problems that can arise as a result of bad postures that are very easily fixable… It is the position of the neck and arms that most attracted my attention… What you suggest is actually pretty good advice!
        Anyhow, I wrote a comment because I see dozens of people working in this type of posture everyday and not many people seem to care… In my workplace, for example, I do not have adequate furniture (nobody does really) and the saddest part is that most people just accept it as a normal daily “sacrifice”… Some even seem to like it!
        But other than that, I hope you did not mind my comment, it was just a small appreciation that was not intended to lower the value of your post which, like I said, I really enjoyed!
        Kind regards,
        Raúl

  2. As Jeremy points out, besides being paid, editors can learn about new subject areas and acquire new skills. For example, by working with a scientist to write a grant proposal, an editor becomes more familiar with the grant-writing process. By helping a scientist to write a scientific paper, an editor improves their own ability to write papers.

  3. I haven’t hired a professional editor, but I have worked with a professional grant writer for developing site grants for institutions. That’s more about being able to craft a clear and airtight message that resonates, and having a experienced professional identify red flags that are harder to see when you’re closer to the project.

  4. Well that’s great, but who pays? With grant money in short supply, I have to be my own professional editor on papers. It would be great to have grant writing help, but our smallish research office does not offer that service.

    • Andrew

      As I mentioned in the article above, there are various options for paying for editors; see if any of them work for you. In some cases, grants offices will provide free editorial advice. As an alternative to paying an editor, what about forming an editing cooperative with a few colleague were you agree to provide each other with free editing help?

  5. I’m curious what makes someone a “professional” editor. Is there some kind of licensing or accreditation? You say that some of the best editors are grad students or post-docs and most are not editors full time. Hence, other than money changing hands, how does it differ from asking someone for a friendly review? Do you find that the money ensures that the editor invests the appropriate time and energy and keeps to a strict timeline? Do you draw up a contract?

    • Dear Richard F.

      None of the editors that I worked with were licensed in any way. They were professionals in the sense that they were paid for their work. In most cases, I have never used a contract with an editor. The only case in which I used a contract was when I employed a professional editor to help with my popular book, Walden Warming, as this was a big project.

      The reason that I have often used professional editors is that I often want lots of help within a few days or sometimes even on the same day. When I ask my colleagues for help, they typically need a few weeks to read my articles, and then sometimes their comments are brief and not that helpful. Among my colleagues, I find that my graduate students often give me the most help; and I in turn help them with their writing.

      Richard Primack

    • Katie

      I do a lot of writing, and I find that paying for editing help gets me faster and more detailed help than asking for favors from busy colleagues.

      Richard Primack

      • I was talking about this with a friend last week who edits a newspaper. She pointed out that a grad student in my department who is looking to transition to science communication could make a great editor. It’s not something I considered before, but now I am!

      • Meghan

        Thanks for this comment. Your comment highlights the fact that people who train as ecologists often acquire a variety to marketable skills; for example, as editors, communication experts, project managers, statisticians, programmers, teachers, electronics designers, and grant proposal writers. Ecologists need to be creative in terms of knowing how to use those skills to create opportunities for employment, influencing society, and creating a meaningful life.

        Richard Primack

  6. Thanks Richard! We definitely need more transparency from PIs and senior ecologists on this topic. (full disclosure: I’m Richard’s grad student and until our lab meeting last week I didn’t really understand his process for hiring professional editors, or why he used them.) It’s helpful to hear about the process and to bring more awareness to resources (from writing centers available at universities to line items in grant budgets) that allow scientists to access professional editing help! Finally, I don’t know if this stems from his experience with professional editors, but Richard is an excellent advisor when it comes to providing feedback/edits on dissertation chapters and manuscripts for his students.

    • Caitlin

      Thanks for these kind words. I always try to help my students and colleagues because I remember all of the editing help that I received when I was a student. However it is also true that sometimes I get busy and it takes me several days or even a week or two before I can devote attention to requests for help with manuscripts. I have also sometimes asked by grad students to work with foreign colleagues to help get manuscripts ready for submission.

      Richard Primack

    • As a former writing teacher, and a former grad student in environmental studies, I agree… so many members of my grad cohort were terrified by the writing demands and didn’t know how to access help. As I’ve moved forward in my own education, I see a greater and greater need for writing assistance in the sciences, which is one of the reasons I decided to finish my master’s in science communication.

      • Neva

        Thanks for these comments.

        I guess that I am lucky in that I have always loved to write. I also encourage my students to write in a variety of styles and venues. Probably the most important way that I have gotten better at writing is to write often, ideally writing something every day. I also think that having something that I want to say is important in motivating me to write.

        Richard

  7. Interesting piece, thank you Richard. I’ve never paid for an editor, but now I’m considering it for a future grant or a paper on which I’m aiming very high.

    In the past, like many people, I’ve either gone it alone or relied on friendly reviews from colleagues. Which as you say, you can’t ask for too often (it’s a big ask), need to ask for well in advance, and which aren’t always very helpful.

    I do wonder how much market there is for this sort of thing. I wonder because of the failure of Axios Review. Axios Review was an independent editorial board in ecology and evolution, to which authors could pay $250 to have an ms pre-reviewed and then forwarded to a journal of the author’s choice along with the reviews. So a bit like paying someone for a few hours’ work editing your ms. I thought it was a great idea, served on the board, and used the service myself. But there just wasn’t enough demand for the service for Axios to break even.

    • Jeremy

      I think that the problem with Axios might have been that it was hard for it to demonstrate its value, and there was not enough demand for what it offered. In contrast, the improvements provided by a good author are easy to appreciate.

      Richard Primack

      • Well, I’d like to think that the reviews Axios provided led to revisions that substantially improved the mss. But yes, a large chunk of what Axios was selling wasn’t just “get feedback that improves your ms”, but also “maximize your chances of getting your ms accepted at a selective journal without further review.” And yes, there wasn’t sufficient demand for that. In part because editors at selective journals often didn’t treat Axios reviews as on par with reviews they’d arranged themselves (a stance I can understand although personally I disagree with it.)

        EDIT: and yes, with Axios Reviews, authors were paying for the hope that the reviews would help them improve the ms, but didn’t have any recourse if the reviews weren’t that helpful. If you’re paying a editor, there’s definitely more certainty about the feedback you’re getting.

    • Jeremy and Caitlin,

      During my time as Editor in Chief of Biological Conservation, I often staged photos to accompany articles about the editorial process. I staged this particular photo while on vacation; in this case, the “editor” is actually my daughter who is working on a rap-style speech that she needed for her work. Such staged photos are often an effective and fun way to illustrated concepts.

      Richard

  8. Great piece Richard, you mention utilizing editors who are experts on the topic of your papers and can contribute new materials – in these cases do the editors ever become authors on the papers or is the distinction clear from the beginning?

    • Lucy

      Generally editors do not become authors on the papers that they work on. However, I try to be generous, and if there is a paper in which an editor provides significant intellectual input, then I will invite them to become a co-author. This is more often the case with an editorial or opinion piece, rather than a data paper.

      Richard

  9. I was curious if you had ever enlisted an editor to probe for potentially devastating outcomes like plagiarism or misconduct- especially when working with co-authors with whom you might only be acquainted with in a cursory manner. Seems like a potentially important task they could perform, especially if they had formal training in science.

    • Elliot,

      The most effective way to test for plagiarism is to use to turnitin.com, and other comparable methods. You don’t really need an editor to help with this.
      I am not sure how an editor would help to detect misconduct. What did you have in mind for this?

      Richard

      • Often publications can involve multiple disciplines- ecology, geography, chemistry, for example. If I am an author specializing in one area, I might have difficulty identifying research misconduct in another area.

      • @Elliot:

        Even expert reviewers often aren’t in a position to identify many sorts of non-plagiarism misconduct. You can see this for instance skimming through entries at Retraction Watch. It’s my impression that the bulk of retractions for misconduct are for the sorts of misconduct that even expert reviewers could not reasonably be expected to catch (e.g., falsification of the raw data).

        And anecdotally, the bulk of credible accusations of misconduct on PubPeer tend to be for image manipulation, often duplication of images between papers (sometimes with some modification in an attempt to hide the duplication). I suppose that’s the sort of thing that reviewers could catch, but only if they systematically compared images both within and across all of the author’s papers. Which is really time consuming unless you use image-matching software.

        I suggest that checks for image manipulation and duplication are best left to the journals. Some journals that publish lots of papers containing images of gels or fluorescing cells now have policies of routinely checking all papers for certain forms of image manipulation. But even in those journals, only a small minority of submissions by an even smaller minority of authors ever contain duplicated or manipulated images. In ecology and evolution, few if any papers contain the sorts of images that tend to get duplicated or manipulated, so it’s hard for me to imagine routine checks for image manipulation or duplication being worthwhile for EEB journals.

      • Elliot

        Thanks for this contribution to the discussion. Based on our experience at Biological Conservation, the relatively few cases of misconduct have been pointed out to us by knowledgeable reviewers during the review process, people who have worked previously with one of the authors, or someone who has read the paper after it was published.

        One issue to be concerned about in the writing process is your editor or a co-author adding in some plagiarized sentences into a paper without your being aware of it. Your co-author or editor might not use the same standards of plagiarism that you have; but when you submit your paper, you take responsibility for everything in it. That is why it is not a bad idea to use turnitin.com to check your own multi-authored papers before submission.

        Richard

      • “One issue to be concerned about in the writing process is your editor or a co-author adding in some plagiarized sentences into a paper without your being aware of it.”

        Now there’s some sage advice! I once had a co-author who did not only that, but falsified data, botched analyses, and reported false results- all in less than 24 hours. Imagine my head spinning at warp speed… Thankfully, it involved “only” a published technical report distributed to maybe 100 or so scientists. This person simply went “haywire” and quite literally destroyed a manuscript from beginning to end, and then submitted it- without so much as saying a word to me or the other co-author. To this day, I thank God she left my name and that of my colleague off of the paper.

        But these actions created a hornet’s nest that to this day survives. So yes- ALWAYS insist upon reading a manuscript from start to finish before it is submitted by anyone.

    • Elliot:

      Following up on Richard’s reply, see my old post on text matching software as a tool to detect and deter plagiarism. There are different software tools out there that have different capabilities. The best choice depends on what exactly you want to do (e.g., compare student assignments to one another to detect students copying one another, vs. compare them to online sources from which students might have copied).

      https://dynamicecology.wordpress.com/2014/12/15/plagiarism-and-text-matching-software/

  10. If money is tight, it could be worth considering a barter, or time trade, with your colleagues for their editorial help. For example, if they are able to help polish your writing, perhaps in the future you could help brainstorm their statistical analysis with them or provide an afternoon of field work assistance. Even something more personal may be welcomed, such as a few hours of child care.

    On the flip side, I’ve found working with international colleagues to be mutually beneficial, even if money doesn’t exchange hands. Providing editorial assistance for an international colleague can help grow your network and develop into new research opportunities. For grad students and early career professionals, these aspects of collaboration can be as important as money.

    • Libby

      Thanks for this comment. My grad students and I have frequently assisted foreign colleagues to prepare their papers for publication in international journals. We regard this as part of our professional responsibilities. These foreign colleagues are most often ones with whom we already have some type of collaboration. On occasion I have also employed professional editors to assist my foreign colleagues in manuscript preparation, and paid for the expenses myself.

      Richard Primack

  11. The two main things I want to outsource as a prof at a R1:

    (1) All travel admin, reimbursements, etc.–my department’s administrators aren’t supposed to provide service at this level for faculty, so I’m thinking of hiring a remote assistant who would have access to my email and everything. Anyone have experience with this?

    (2) Code development and/or testing. I feel like we academics have low standards for validation and verification, and I’m tired of nagging trainees about good habits and also teaching them the rudiments of code hygiene. (I like to spend more time thinking about real bugs than code bugs!) It’d be nice also for someone to completely reproduce complex software to ensure it’s correct. But I’ve had a very hard time finding good programmers to do contract work. It seems to be all word of mouth. Anyone have tips?

    • 2 is relatively standard in my field, and while I haven’t had funds for full time support, I’ve dipped my toes in and found two good options for part time code support. One is soft-money technicians from other groups who might have some programming experience – if they have helped automate things in the lab for example. In my experience, they are more concerned with doing it right than doing it quickly (opposite of me, students). And sharing staff can be a good way to make it affordable. The other is recent CS grads who don’t really want to go into industry jobs and want somewhere interesting to apply their skills. I’ve directly contacted CS profs at our university for recommendations to good results.

  12. This is a great topic, and one a few grad school colleagues and I have often talked about. I am not in a research field, but I do have a degree in Environmental Communication, as well as one in Creative Non-Fiction and was an English teacher for 20 years. I also run The Ecotone Exchange here on WordPress and do all of the editing for it. I’d love to find work as a freelance science editor.

    • Neva

      You bring up an interesting topic. I have a clear idea of how to find and work with professional editors. But how do editors (or people who would like to be editors) find editorial work? I am guessing that a lot of interaction happens by word of mouth; I sometimes direct ecological colleagues to editors whom I have worked with already. But how does an aspiring editor find work? Are there websites or services that match scientists and editors? Does anyone know about this?

      Richard Primack

      • If there are, I would love to find out. This could help many grad students such as myself improve their own writing skills, as well as become more integrated into the scientific community!

  13. Richard and Cory,
    I, too, would love to find out… but that wasn’t my aim in commenting. This is a great discussion about a hidden issue, as are so many on Dynamic Ecology. I’m going to do some digging and will post another comment if I find anything useful.

    Thanks, Meghan, Jeremy, and Richard for such a rich topic

  14. So, my google search, first for “science editing services” yielded several big firms that sell packages aimed at publication–in fact, Nature offers one itself, as does Wiley (the textbook publisher). I modified the search to “environmental science editing services” and found one non-corporate service http://www.ecosciedit.com/ run by two PhDs, though still seemed aimed at publication. In both searches, much of what I found is also aimed at English skills/translation. All of these combined seem to serve big projects. The only freelance-level source I found is fivver.com, which seems to be all manner of editing/marketing/design help for emerging businesses. So there is a hole in the middle here that can be filled by competent science-knowledgeable writing experts.

  15. Many thanks for the very informative post! Kinda encouraging – I enjoy writing on occasion, but perhaps not as much as is “common” (as a grad student, would love to know what that is and how much it varies across people) in academia.

    Something that got me curious with this: is there an ethics/equality question here, a la the high publishing costs in big-name journals? Specifically, here scientists with more initial funding successes or who are in better-paying positions get a self-reinforcing advantage by using such services? Obviously would only be a real issue if this was widespread; so I’m just curious at the personal level, especially since presentation counts for quite a lot in grants/papers.

  16. As an editor who focuses on science communication, I enjoyed this post! It’s so important to communicate research and ideas clearly, so others can understand, appreciate, and build on them.

    For those considering hiring an editor, it might be helpful to think about what you need. If you’re hoping for help filling in holes in a rough draft, you might be best off with a subject matter expert, like a grad student in your field. If you’re polishing up a paper or dissertation, you may have better luck with a professional copy editor, a fiend for the details who’ll make sure every comma and capitalization meets the journal or committee’s style requirements.

    To find a good editor, ask colleagues if they can recommend anyone they’ve worked with, or you can check directories like:
    + Editors Canada (http://www.editors.ca/ode/search)
    + Editorial Freelancers Association (http://www.the-efa.org/dir/search.php)
    + ACES: The Society for Editors (https://aceseditors.org/resources/for-hire)
    (Full disclosure: I’m a member of ACES.)

    Thanks again for a great post!

  17. Pingback: Friday links: what is the (dissertation) matrix, bidding for preprints, and more | Dynamic Ecology

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