Proofing problems in academic publishing




This is, in the grand scheme of things, a rather minor problem (assuming that it is one). Still, I want to discuss it because I think it is a problem, and–in part because I am an author that it has happened to–I am curious what, if anything, can be done about it. What’s the problem, exactly? A decline in the quality of proofing in academic publishing.

As an example of what I have in mind, I came across this paper via social media today, which was published last week in Earth-Science Reviews:

Seriously! This journal published an article on its website without recognizing that the ‘title’ is a nonsensical snippet of an editorial comment relating to the paper’s formatting.

Obviously, there’s a sense in which this is pretty funny. But there’s another sense in which it’s not. The paper is someone’s hard work, and this isn’t just any out of the way journal: it’s published by Elsevier, a major publishing company with a revenue of $2.6 billion that is home to many well-respected journals, including Cognition.

Now, if this were just a one-off, occasional issue with Elsevier, then that would be one thing. But, as an author, I’ve encountered similar problems elsewhere. In 2021, I published an article, ‘The Normative Stance‘, over at The Philosophical Forum. Much to my dismay, when the article was published, I found that two long block quotes were omitted from the final version, leading particular portions of the paper surrounding those missing block quotes to be confusing/make little sense. Fortunately, I was able to get the journal’s editor to correct the online HTML version, but to this day, the PDF version (the one with actual page numbers, that readers of the paper might read, save, or cite) still lacks those passages. And, from what I’ve read on social media, this sort of thing (or worse) seems to be happening increasingly often.

How do these sorts of things happen? I’m not 100% sure what happened in my case, but I vaguely recall when using the journal’s online proofing program (more on this in a moment) that neither block quote was offset from the main body-text, instead reading in the body-text as if I had written it, without quotation marks. So, to the best of my recollection, what happened was that I put a comment into the proofing program to the effect of, “This is a block quote, and it should be offset/indented from the body text” to guide the typesetter to correct it. What happened in the end, then, is that for one reason or another this led to the quotes to being deleted altogether!

Now, you might think that a good publishing process would have safeguards to prevent this sort of thing (or the even more embarrassing case in the snapshot above) from happening. And indeed, until fairly recently, I recall that most journals did have such safeguards in place. Not too long ago, the way things used to work in proofing was like this: the journal would send authors an initial PDF of their article, typeset by the journal. One would then correct errors and make comments in the PDF itself…and then the journal would send you corrected pages (that is, a second PDF) to make sure the typesetter got things right.

No more. Nowadays, as most of us probably know, when you publish a paper you normally have to utilize this bizarre online proofing portal the functionality of which is inflexible and unintuitive. Then, once you submit your corrections, that’s it. You never get to see if the typesetters got the corrections right before your paper goes live. And, if there’s a huge error? You might just have to live with it.

Again, in the grand scheme of things, this is pretty small beans, as it were. There are far worse things in the world today to get upset about. But still, as someone else elsewhere on social media implied, there is something especially galling about massive publishing companies that use our free labor as authors and reviewers–restricting our access to the very articles we publish to boot–screwing up what we do publish as a result of what are obviously cost-cutting shortcuts. Is it really too much to ask to view a PDF copy of our papers a second time after an initial round of proofing so that this kind of stuff doesn’t happen?

Originally appeared on The Philosophers’ Cocoon Read More