curtis unisig web

On Friday 12 April, 14 SENSE members gathered at Park Plaza Utrecht to receive an answer to the question: ‘Do online editing services have a place in your client portfolio?’

After a short introduction round, Curtis Barrett took the floor to share his past experience working for one of the largest international online science editing agencies. A scientist originally from New York, Curtis emigrated to the Netherlands nearly 12 years ago to work as a senior researcher at Leiden University Medical Center (LUMC). As a native English-speaking scientist, he realized that his PhD and postdoc years had given him a wealth of scientific expertise as well as sound academic writing skills, and he discovered an affinity for science editing. After leaving LUMC and accepting a freelance contract position at the editing agency, he learned the ins and outs of editing and discovered his full value as a science editor. During his presentation, Curtis explained how he progressed from being a junior editor to a senior editor at the agency, identifying the potential pros and cons of working with an online agency, and enlightened us with some excellent take-home messages.

Curtis identified the following advantages and disadvantages of working for online editing agencies:

Pros:

  • On-the-job training: working for an agency proved a valuable learning experience. They had guidelines and a glossary available, which included explanations about the split infinitive, the serial comma, why the first person is preferable to the third person, ‘which’ vs. ‘that’, etc.;
  • Work acquisition: the agency was saturating the internet, thereby guaranteeing a high volume of editing jobs;
  • Variety/diversity: editing jobs were offered for a wide range of topics varying from biology to genetics;
  • Anonymity (also a con);
  • Assurance of payment.

 Cons:

  • Relatively low pay (but editors could often negotiate);
  • Tight deadlines;
  • Anonymity: at this agency, editors only have contact with the managing editor, not the author.
  • Editors often receive little or no feedback from either the client or the agency. There is usually no opportunity to discuss anything with the author, for instance if important pieces of text seem to be missing.
  • Low-cost, short-turnaround editing;
  • Quality can suffer in order to maintain quantity;
  • The agency’s house style may be pushed on you.

Take-home messages:
To answer the key question: yes, online editing services can have a place in your client portfolio, provided you do some research in advance. If you are considering an offer to work with an agency but are in doubt, enquire on the members-only SENSE forum. And don’t shy away if the agency wants you to take a test, even if it's not a paid test.

train3So there I was on Friday evening sitting in the train back to Zwolle after the recent UniSIG meeting in Utrecht. I’d had time for a quick drink with other attendees before heading to the station and was feeling fired up from the stimulating discussions with both new and more established SENSE members, both during and after the meeting.

And then I suddenly remembered what had happened in the train that afternoon just as we were approaching Utrecht station. Oh. My. Word. Did it really happen?

I’d been totally absorbed on my laptop, giving feedback in Word on a student paper. These particular students are novice writers so my edits and comments should not go too far. It’s an educational exercise to help them practise scientific writing and get feedback from a scientific editor. So the text doesn’t have to be perfect and I must be careful not to make unnecessary edits, or perhaps edits I’d make for a client whose text is going to be published.

So there I am, deep in concentration, when the lady sitting next to me reaches over and points to a word on my screen: influences. ‘Why don’t you make that the subject of the sentence?’ she says in Dutch. ‘It’s such a Dutch construction otherwise.’

I was speechless. What a nerve! She admitted she shouldn’t have been looking but couldn’t help herself. I already knew she was a teacher because she’d been reading the teachers’ union (AOb) magazine but never in my wildest dreams had I imagined she’d chip in and help with my onscreen efforts.

I stammered something about it being a student text and hastily packed my laptop away. Thank goodness it was time to leave the train. I was mortified. Partly because I didn’t have a snappy response (I couldn’t work out whether or not she was right, argghh) and of course mainly because she’d been prying.

So if any of you ever find yourself sitting next to a stranger doing some editing on their laptop, and feel tempted to make some suggestions, just don’t. Restrain yourself!

uniSIGJan2019

UniSIG launched its 2019 programme with a presentation by SENSE member and academic editor and lecturer Maria Sherwood-Smith on ‘Outreach and research communication in English: Opportunities for language professionals’. This was an opportunity for members who had missed her SENSE 2018 conference session in June to attend a reprise. The chord she and her subject-matter struck with the 19 participants (including three newcomers to UniSIG) made for a lively, interactive session from which all left seriously thought-provoked. SENSE members John Linnegar and Theresa Truax-Gischler report back.

Communicating one’s research is a challenge at the best of times, but doing so in a second language to a variety of audiences, some of them multidisciplinary, some lay, is often beyond the capabilities of many a researcher. With the increasing emphasis in research funding on communication with non-specialists, policy-makers and the public, this new genre of speaking and writing has become a core academic competency, a reality many universities have been slow to embrace. Enter the language professionals – either as copywriters, editors or translators, or as teachers of writing and communication – to help researchers ‘sell’ their work to funding agencies, industry, government and the general public.

In a master’s course at Leiden University, Maria and two subject specialists work with the students at honing the content and structure of a brief research talk. Maria shared the ‘Daisy model’ applied in this course as a way of effectively organizing and presenting complex research. The model alerts authors to the genres and registers that best suit their target audience. In doing so, it points writers and speakers towards identifying their core message, expressing it in everyday, non-technical language and indicating its relevance to broader societal issues.

The vexed matter of formulating and wording grant applications took up much of the session, with a range of stimulating views being expressed around the room; but the drafting of brochures, blogs, websites, tweets, pubcasts and similar communications has also become necessary nowadays. For these media, experts other than the researcher are often needed. But how will they be accommodated and funded by institutions of higher education? Perhaps in combination with teaching academic writing and presentation skills or via the creation of university writing centres?

These and other issues were echoed in the animated Q&A exchanges with which the event ended – continuing into the drinks session that ensued. The takeaway message? There is a great need for language practitioners with the expertise to convert (or to teach how to convert) texts so that they communicate effectively to diverse audiences; but will the universities be able to deliver?

SENSE has a number of special interest groups (SIGs) which meet regularly throughout the country. They are open to all members, and guests are welcome to attend one or two meetings before deciding whether they would like to join SENSE. See the events calendar for more details.

UniSIGnov2018

The UniSIG meeting on 9 November was billed as the first meeting of the academic year, but that wasn’t enough to set warning bells ringing. Even when the introductory round started I was none the wiser: our convener asked me to go first as one of two newcomers in the group of 12. Very nice to get away from my laptop and meet some others in the same line of work, I said.

But were they in the same line of work? It finally dawned on me, as the others introduced themselves, that it was no coincidence that everyone seemed to be doing academic editing. This meeting was aimed at academic editors – whereas I mainly do commercial work. But any feeling of being in the wrong place very soon passed.

Anything and everything

We met in the breakfast room of the Utrecht Park Plaza Hotel, just off the lobby, as the upstairs meeting rooms were still being renovated. It was a busy afternoon at the hotel, but a flip chart was soon trundled over to us so that our convenor could write down the day’s agenda. Officially billed as ‘Anything and everything’, we would discuss agencies offering thesis editing services, whether or not thesis editors should be acknowledged, editing tools and how to manage – and offer – comments.

Writing skills needed

The first topic, commercial agencies helping students with their theses, was prompted by a recent article in the Groene Amsterdammer. Some of these flourishing agencies are apparently now also offering undergraduates help on the writing side, and the article grumbled that their services are a form of plagiarism. Those present agreed that students and scientists at all levels, especially non-native English speakers, have poor writing skills in English. They need help – particularly PhD students who won’t be published if their writing isn’t weighty enough – and few universities offer enough support. A possible niche opening for academic editors, our convener concluded.

To thank or not to thank

This led to the second topic – acknowledgement. With rare exceptions, editors are not acknowledged in academic papers. Ethically, it might seem the right thing to do, but most respondents in the recent SENSE survey on the topic said they didn’t mind if their contributions weren’t acknowledged. One member pointed out that they may not want to be associated with mediocre writing – most authors can’t resist making changes before publication to the version delivered by their editor. Another said simply that he doesn’t need the advertising, while another still leaves it up to the client to decide whether to acknowledge him.

Taking criticism…

This led to a side discussion on what to do about billing to make sure you don’t lose out if editing takes longer because the writing is especially bad. But our convenor managed to turn the focus to topic 3 – how to deal with vague criticism from peer reviewers who don’t accept a version of a paper. The person who had proposed this topic said, ‘They say the English isn’t good enough but don’t go into detail, leaving me guessing what the problem is.’

Asking the journal’s peer reviewers for more information is not an option as they work anonymously, so someone else suggested discussing the situation with the client, which helps build your relationship with them. An alternative suggestion was to arrange for someone else to read the paper and modify it based on their suggestions.

One member said he wasn’t sure if he could charge the client for the time it takes to make such extra amendments, but this was met by a vociferous ‘yes, you can!’ by several people. After all, we cannot guarantee publication. In fact, criticizing the English could be a way for journals to avoid publishing a paper without disclosing the real reason for their decision.

…and giving it

Going off topic only slightly, we discussed what to do with criticism from non-natives along the lines of ‘that’s not English’. These remarks can be hurtful, but it may simply be a case of rephrasing an idiomatic expression or complex construction. One member then handed out copies of some feedback of her own that she had sent to a well-known publisher regarding a poorly translated book. She had agreed to edit it for a certain amount before realizing how much work was involved. Others shared similar experiences. I was reminded to watch out when asked to prepare an estimate based on a short extract. And warned that publishers may seem glamorous but are so cash-strapped they are not good payers.

Editing tools again

The last topic of the afternoon was editing tools. The member who proposed the topic was curious about the PerfectIt workshop on 19 October that a couple of attendees had been to and could report back on. He mentioned liking the subscription version of Grammarly for long texts as it ‘takes out the drab’ and reduces the time needed by the reviewers he contracts for editing services. As well as checking for spelling and grammar, Grammarly looks at consistency, suitability within a certain genre, paragraph length and active verbs. Grammarly flags each item and it is up to the user to decide whether or not to accept the suggested change: luckily, we haven’t been made completely redundant yet.

Right at the beginning of the afternoon, our convenor had asked for questions from the newcomers, but we ran out of time. However, she herself answered one of the questions I had about what might motivate an academic editor: ‘I want to give biomedical students a credible voice so they can go and find the cure for something.’

Marijn Moltzer is a freelance writer, editor and translator for clients including Rabobank, Aidsfonds and Cargill.

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