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Does Your Language Editor Need To Know Your Subject?

Finding the best editor for your manuscript

In academia, the pressure to get your research published is relentless. If you struggle to write in English, a language editor can help you to meet this challenge. Scientific and medical editors have diverse backgrounds. Some have a long career in editing and publishing, while others join the profession after working as a scientist or medical professional. But who is the right editor for your manuscript?

In this post, I explain why subject-specific knowledge is sometimes – but not always – helpful when it comes to getting your research paper ready for publication. It all depends on what you need.

It takes more than a PhD

Some academics seem to think that publishing high-impact research papers is enough to start working as a language editor. This is not true. Your language editor should have some training and/or experience in editing before you entrust them with your manuscript.

In the interest of full disclosure, I have a PhD and 10 years of lab-based research experience. I investigated the underlying genetic mechanisms of neurodevelopmental disorders. Now I edit biomedical research papers for non-native English-speaking scientists and work as a copy editor for a biomedical journal.

The specialist knowledge, research and publishing experience, and critical appraisal skills that I gained from my time as a researcher are extremely useful in my role as a language editor. But a PhD is not all it takes – my transition from scientist to editor was not easy. Editing demands a knowledge and feel for words, sentences, and paragraphs that I did not have as a scientist. I had to learn a completely new set of skills.

Editors need to be well trained in grammar, word choice, usage, punctuation, and spelling. But editing is not just about correcting what is wrong. It requires the confidence to break these rules when necessary to communicate the author’s message more effectively. And it demands the humility to respect the author’s voice and realise when the text should be left alone.

These essential editing skills come with time – like any profession, an editor needs many hours of editing experience to master their craft. No level of subject-specific knowledge will hand over these skills for free.

The right kind of help

Back to the importance of subject-specific knowledge. Whether or not your language editor should have specialist knowledge in your particular field really depends on what kind of help you need. There are different levels of language editing, and each has a different focus.

 

Developmental editing broadly considers the content and overall structure of your manuscript. Copy editing has a sharper focus. It looks at sentences and paragraphs to correct language errors and inconsistencies, as well as awkward phrases and repetition that disrupt the flow of your writing.

Content is crucial

Scientific content is the core of your manuscript. To make sure your message is communicated effectively, this important content must be well presented. If you are struggling to write a first draft, a developmental editor can focus on your scientific content and make sure it is properly structured.

For this type of editing, specialist knowledge may be required to understand the core message and the supporting arguments. For example, someone with research experience will comment if your experiments do not properly address your research question, or if you have not provided enough methodological information to allow your reader to repeat your experiments. An editor can also draw on their expert knowledge to make sure that your argumentation is sound and that your results support the conclusions you have made. They will also pick up on discrepancies in your scientific content.

What constitutes an 'expert'?

To be honest, you will be hard pushed to find a qualified editor with expertise in your specific field. Many language editors with higher degrees are comfortable editing papers that are outside of their own research field. For example, one of my regular clients is a visceral surgeon. My research field was neuroscience and I have never performed surgery in my life, but I have no problem understanding his work and helping him to get his papers published.

Keep in mind that a language editor does not necessarily need to have a PhD or equivalent degree to have subject-specific knowledge. There are many excellent editors who do not have a scientific or medical background but do have many years of experience editing biomedical papers. These editors are very capable of dealing with scientific content.

So do not assume your editor lacks the required knowledge to edit your paper because they do not have a higher degree or their PhD is in a different field. Talk to them about your needs. A good editor will always be honest about whether they are a good fit for the job or not.

An outsider's view

There are times when not having subject-specific knowledge can be an advantage.

If your paper is structurally sound but requires modifications to improve readability, then subject-specific knowledge is not essential for the editing process. Your manuscript probably needs improvements to word choice and sentence structure to make it clearer.

In this case, an outsider may be the best person to edit your manuscript. Remember that you are writing for your reader, and your readers will probably not all be experts in your field. A non-expert will notice if you imply something rather than stating it explicitly, whereas someone who really knows your subject is more likely to read between the lines and follow your thoughts when you miss important transitions.

The right person for the job

Subject-specific knowledge and research experience are useful assets for academic editing. Experience and training in editing are essential.

 

Whether or not your language editor should have specialist knowledge in your subject area depends on the kind of help you are looking for. If you are having trouble during the early stages of manuscript preparation, you may be better off seeking help from a language editor with a scientific background. If your paper is structurally sound but difficult to read, an experienced copyeditor who is not an expert in your field may be better able to help.

Get the help you need

Claire Bacon is a former research scientist with professional qualifications in copy editing and medical editing. She edits manuscripts for non-native English-speaking scientists and works as a copy editor for a biomedical journal.

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