January 2, 2014
Weekly Language Usage Tips: Scientific manuscripts: What if you disagree with the editor?
Tip: Scientific manuscripts: What if you disagree with the editor?
I’ve told you, more than once, that publications are the price of admittance to academia. Securing an academic appointment, obtaining promotions, and achieving tenure (if desired) all depend on having a solid publication record. And that’s why I have said that if a journal editor wants to edit your piece and the change isn’t substantive, let it go—it’s more important to get published than to win a trivial argument. I still maintain that this is the way to go. But what if the edit is substantive and changes what you are trying to say? What if the editor is wrong? Yikes! What now? That’s what happened to one of my faculty recently. This is how it went down.
A reader writes:
So, I have this sentence written in a journal article:
“In one study, 47% of women who requested but did not receive a postpartum sterilization became pregnant in the first year after delivery—twice the rate of women who did not request sterilization.”
The editor changed the sentence to “…twice the rate among women who did not request sterilization.” I changed it back to “twice the rate of women…”, and she just changed it back to “among.” To me, this does not sound correct, and I think it should be either “of” or “twice the rate of that among…” but maybe I am wrong. I want to make sure that the correct meaning is conveyed because this is an article that was accepted in [one of the two major US medical journals—edited by me]. I am trying to say that the rate of unintended pregnancy among women who requested but did not get sterilized was 47% and that this rate is double the unintended pregnancy rate of women who do not request sterilization (the rate is 22% in this group). This is irking me so would love your expert advice.
I wrote back:
You are right, and the editor is wrong. Your sentence is clearly understandable as written. Can you rewrite the sentence to avoid the wording altogether? I worry about her changing it to ‘among’ again, making the sentence incomprehensible.
I suggested rewriting the sentence to avoid prolonging the argument. People can get really attached to their positions, and the important thing is getting it published. At the same time, we want to be accurate and precise. Often rewriting the offending sentence is the easiest way to handle this type of disagreement.
Did I mention that people get really attached to their positions? Well, that’s exactly what happened when the writer, justifiably concerned about her piece, appealed to a more senior editor at the journal. The more senior editor promptly sent the appeal to the original editor who responded with this:
I think a different rewording may be necessary — “the rate of women” doesn’t mean what you want it to mean — or mean anything, really.
This from an editor of a major medical journal? Wow!
To her credit, the writer remained calm, just commenting:
On the other hand, I was really riled. Dissing one of my faculty like that? Saying it doesn’t mean anything? I wrote to the writer using words like idiocy, asinine, ridiculous, incompetence, referring, of course, to the journal’s editor. But my original recommendation still stands: rewriting can solve myriad problems.
The argument went on for a while with email going back and forth, but no-one was willing to give in. I heard from my beleaguered colleague again:
But we cannot come to agreement (there’s been about 4 more exchanges). The “among” is throwing me off. At this point, I just want the correct meaning to be conveyed. What to do here?
This is where I stepped in. Remember, the bottom line is getting published, especially in one of our preeminent journals. I went back to my original suggestion. But I decided that I would give it a try. After a while, it’s really hard for us to rewrite our own writing. And we get locked into our positions, too. It’s particularly difficult when we know we are right. So I took a stab at rewriting. I wanted to take everyone off the hook so we could get this manuscript published.
I wrote back:
The trouble I’m having is that your original ‘of” is absolutely right. The sentence below is not beautiful prose but it gets the job done.
In one study, 47% of women who requested but did not receive a postpartum sterilization became pregnant in the first year after delivery—twice the rate of pregnancies that women who did not request sterilization had.
So that’s what was submitted. And accepted. They still edited it slightly (I don’t recall how, but the meaning was still clear). But it’s done, and the manuscript is being published.
So, what is the lesson here? One, editors don’t always get it right. Two, it’s incredibly frustrating when they don’t get it right. Three, we don’t have the time to fight a long fight, especially when it is clear we aren’t going to win. Four, when it appears that we won’t be able to convince the editor, rewriting is really the easiest way to resolve the problem and still maintain the clarity and precision that we seek.