Outsourcing Editing? Part I

I recently tweeted a question:

The question came to me after resurfacing from several intense months in the editorial office, where my team and I had been working at a fever pitch to complete an array of challenging publishing tasks: We produced two very demanding issues of our flagship publication Transcultural Studies, developed the content for Heidelberg University’s first MOOC, built the workflows and much of the website for heiUP, the university’s open access publishing house, which will be launched this fall. There were workshops and courses, conferences, one book series to be set up and another to be maintained, manuscripts to be edited, layouts to be created, reviews to be written, funding to be considered, not to forget business models to be tested.

Particularly the latter brings up the issue of whether editing academic manuscripts is necessary and affordable. While I firmly believe that good editing is at the core of good publishing (as I have argued elsewhere), the fact that most publishers, open access or for-profit, offer little of it, is irrefutable. (See for example the recent article by Lorenz M. Hilty “What do academic publishers still offer?”). But if publishers do not engage with the content they publish, how can they produce quality?

Hence my tweet. However, as I lifted my head above the parapet to survey the academic publishing landscape, I noticed that something was slightly different. It seems there has been a recent increase in the number of editing companies offering to plug the hole in the publishing workflow where in-house editing once took place.

This development is interesting insofar as it suggests that the need to secure quality control remains undiminished, while the financial responsibility for ensuring it is being thrown around like a hot potato. Many publishers let their authors pay for editing, either to maximise their profit or because they cannot stem the costs. The rationale is often peculiar: they may be shouting “we are the biggest,” or “most ethical,” or “most prestigious” publisher, but do not wish to pay what it costs to ensure those claims amount to more than posturing. So the solution is to saddle the authors with the bill. Some funding bodies may help cover some of the costs, if that kind of quality control is part of an APC for an open access publication for example, but if an author needs their manuscript edited, even after it was accepted for publication, chances are they have to pay for it out of pocket.

There are some exceptions: initiatives like Language Science Press or The International Journal of Dream Research recruit the community of a discipline into the production of their output. Then there are models where some editing is done on campus by students who are schooled and employed as assistants by the institution’s publishing branch, like Athabasca University Press. Heidelberg University is investigating this latter possibility, too. Last, but by no means least, it will be very interesting to see how The Open Library of the Humanities will fare with their new model. Most manuscripts, however, are edited during countless unpaid hours invested by journal editors, researchers, colleagues, and students.

Enter the editing companies. They make big promises, such as “quick turnaround,” “editors with university degrees,” “seasoned editors,” “guaranteed quality,” and feature countless exuberant, 5-star reviews along with impressive lists of customer names. That sounds amazing, not just to the lone author who is trying to get her book or article into the best possible state, but also to those managing journals, book series, or small publishing ventures, who consider outsourcing this aspect of quality control.

Editing, particularly copy-editing, is hard, time-consuming, at times soul-destroying work, so for those of us, who have some budgetary wiggling room, the often reasonably priced offers promised by these companies are a welcome option in a world where publishers no longer assume, or even give a damn about, the responsibility of editorial quality. It so happens that developing a sustainable business model falls within my remit as managing editor, which means I will find out more.

Starting this week in Hall 4.2 at the 2015 Frankfurt Bookfair, I am contacting some of these companies to see what kind of offers I receive. My sample will be a projected turnaround of several books and 4-6 journal issues that need editing work of various depth: from thorough copy-edits (including non-Latin script materials, bibliographies, and the like) to quick proof-reading.

I will analyse editing samples, engage in price negotiations, and discuss delivery times to form an opinion about whether editing companies can be trusted with some of our workload in the future.

I also hope to get input from colleagues and you about experiences with outsourcing editing, so I can place my results in a wider context. Once I have numbers, samples and feedback, I will write Part Two. Should be informative. Stay tuned!