As you consider choosing an editor for your research paper or journal submission, you may encounter different types of editing services. If you’re not familiar with the differences among these levels of service, you may find yourself unsure about which one you need. Although services range from the lightest kind of editing, called “proofreading,” to a thorough rewriting, most authors probably want something that falls in between.
Most authors are looking for one of two broad types of editing: copy editing and substantive editing. Below are descriptions of each type and why you might want to choose one or the other.
Although proofreading might be considered a light version of copy-editing, the two are different. Proofreaders look for outright errors—typos, misplaced punctuation marks, or a style error (plain text for a heading where other similar headings are in boldface). Copy editors go a little deeper. They’ll review your text for sentence construction and for issues with grammar, spelling, punctuation, and usage.
For example, a proofreader might see the following sentence and make a single correction:
Example: Although they both had eaten at noun, the two of them thought they could each use a snack.
A proofreader would certainly change “noun” to “noon.”
But the sentence might look like this after a copy edit:
Example: Although they had eaten at noon, they both thought they could use a snack.
In this case, the copy editor has cleaned up the sentence a bit, going beyond the obvious typo and removing some redundancies (both, two of them, each are not all needed).
Usually, with a copy edit, you can expect sentences to get a cleanup treatment and some attention to whether or not your text is internally consistent or has areas that conflict internally. A copy editor also will catch typos and obvious errors, along with inconsistencies in style. Finally, depending on your needs, copy editors often also serve as fact-checkers, but that duty is usually part of copy editing when the writing is intended for a popular audience.
Below is a checklist of what a copy editor might do:
- Rewrite or correct sentences and paragraphs to meet style guidelines
- Edit sentences for better style, flow, or readability.
- Correct errors of grammar, usage, spelling, and punctuation.
- Note areas of the text that are in disagreement or are vague.
- Check for globally consistent style for manuscript elements such as headings, main text, figures, tables, and references.
- Check for consistency in formatting, such as line spacing, indentations, section numbering, and other elements.
- Note areas of the text where the writer seems to have left gaps or where a little more information would be useful.
- If included in the specifications for the editing work, cross referencing citations and other elements to ensure accuracy.
Copy editing operates on a spectrum, from a light copy edit to something bordering on substantive, structural changes in a manuscript. If you are planning to use an editing service, you will want to determine where the boundary is between the two and whether copy editing will meet your needs or you need to cross over into a deeper, more thorough version of editing.
Many authors need more than a line-by-line review of their manuscript draft. Because scientific information is so complex, writing about it in a way that readers can follow and understand requires expertise. Not all researchers are trained to the level of expertise in this work, and if English is not a first language, this work can be even more difficult. In these situations, a substantive editor can help.
Substantive editors will incorporate what copy editors do into the editing work. They will review sentences line by line and make changes for flow and correct style and usage. In addition, however, substantive editors will gain a global view of the manuscript and understand what the overall structure is and where it can be improved.
For example, a copy editor might correct the following sentence in the discussion section because it is written in the passive voice:
Example: Several experiments were also conducted in this study that showed no effect of the intervention on the knockout animals but did yield some reduction in tumor size in the wild-type mice.
Copy editor correction:
Example: We also conducted several experiments in this study, finding no effect of the intervention on knockout animals but some tumor reduction in wild-type mice.
The copy editor has made “We,” the subject of the sentence, the actor that is conducting the experiments. This edit and a few others make the sentence more concise and readable. But this sentence is also in the discussion section of the manuscript, and the authors have not previously mentioned conducting these experiments or described these results. In this situation, a substantive editor would go beyond the work of the copy edit and leave a comment for the authors, such as the following:
Example: “Comment from editor: You have not previously described this set of experiments and have not mentioned these results. Typically, methods and results are not introduced in the discussion section. We suggest that you describe this set of experiments in the methods section of the manuscript and then describe the related results in your results section. Then this mention of both is appropriate for the discussion and will not be the first time the reader learns about them.”
In this case, the substantive editor points to a structural problem with the text, in which the author has omitted important information that should be introduced in the manuscript well before mention of it in the discussion. The substantive editor is highlighting this issue for the author on two grounds: (1) following usual practice in the writing of scientific papers and (2) introducing the appropriate information for the reader in the right time and place so that the later mention has context.
If a substantive editor has appropriate training, as editors with doctoral degrees and research experience in the sciences will have, they also can be qualified to comment on issues related to the study itself. See the example below:
Example: “We used t-tests to compare the change in mass among the three groups.”
A well-trained substantive editor would be able to comment the following to the author:
Example: “Comment from editor: If your comparison involved three or more groups, an analysis of variance would typically be the appropriate choice, depending on the distribution of the data.”
Substantive editors with this level of experience and training also can comment to authors on gaps that they see in experimental design, such as a control group that seems to be missing, or even overlooked patterns in the data or errors in results. In this way, a substantive scientific editor trained to the doctoral level can support authors in developing a coherent, thorough manuscript for initial journal submission.