The Case of the Intellectual Magpie. A Cautionary Tale

You hear it a lot from the open access doubters: “what if I put my work online and someone steals it?” – to which the advocate answers: “Unless you choose a CC-0 license and thus voluntarily give your work to the commons to do with as it wishes, all CC-BY licenses ensure you are credited as the author of the work. The choice is always yours.” The trouble is, Creative Commons is based on an honour system. So what happens when the covenant of the CC-license is broken and someone ignores it? The easy reply is: we fall back on copyright infringement and move on legal grounds.  But in the messy world of mushrooming open access journals, many of them with questionable peer review processes, fake impact factors, and suspect APC practices, a case of plagiarism can become tricky to unravel.

Early last week we received an email from a local editor who manages a well-established, international open access journal. One of their authors had become the victim of a brazen case of plagiarism that left all of us – author, editor and us – speechless. A former colleague of this author copied and pasted almost all of an article and published the plagiarised piece in a journal without as much as a hint of the original author’s identity.

The editor had already attempted to get in touch with the journal that published the plagiarised piece to no avail. Nor had a letter from their head of department to the magpie’s head of department helped in any way. Since none of us had any hands-on experience with a case like this, some research was required.

The first place we looked for guidance was COPE, since this case was a serious ethical breach in scholarly publishing. COPE offers a helpful flowchart which we used as a map for our next steps.

We decided on a strategy of relatively steep escalation: our editor would get in touch with the magpie. In case of no reply, the idea was to get our university leadership to directly contact their colleagues at the institution where the magpie works.

Verifying the plagiarist’s identity involved a bit of detective work because there was little information on the journal page and the name is relatively common, but with a bit of online sleuthing the culprit was tracked down. In fact, it took less than an hour to find a CV, publication record, and affiliations. Even a home address popped up.

We discussed our strategy and findings with the editor, who then unleashed their wrathful pen. Here are some of the phrases hurled at the magpie: “blatant and unacceptable breach of scholarly ethics”, “a breach of the license and therefore illicit”, not to forget the threat of exposure to the current employer as well as to the international scholarly community (which in this case is, as with most disciplines, rather small).

Lo and behold, a couple of days later the editor received a crushed and pleading reply: it was a “silly mistake”, “never before and never again” and “I promise” to organize the immediate removal of the plagiarised article from the (complicit?) journal website. The editor’s wrath was not entirely assuaged yet and another salvo was fired: “the apologies should be addressed to [the original author] personally as well, as this a very, very serious offence against [their] rights and interests as an author and scholar” and “if the journal to which you submitted your article refuses to withdraw the article from their website, we will have to react”.

It worked. On Friday we received a note that the magpie’s loot has been removed from the internet. And just in case the magpie is reading this (we may have sent a link to this blogpost their way): names are quickly inserted. So behave.

Outsourcing Editing? Part II

Last fall, I wrote about the financial challenges of quality copy editing. The post grew out of having to develop a new editing workflow and a sustainable business model for our local publications. My plan was, as I wrote in October, to pursue contracts with some of our long-time freelancers and one or two additional providers. They arranged for a series of editing samples that tackled an excerpt from one of our typical texts. The quality was good and the price seemed fair but while we were negotiating, my erstwhile strategy was overtaken by developments within the university administration, which made outsourcing a lot more complicated.

With this change of administrative goalposts came the realization that we would have to produce Issue 2/2015 of our e-journal Transcultural Studies completely in-house because we would not be able to reorganize the outsourcing workflow in time for publication. It was only the second time we had to handle everything from submission to publication without the assistance of a freelancer. However, we did well: When we went live just before Christmas it had become evident that our team, consisting of two copy-editors, one layout-specialist and two assistants (all on part-time student assistant contracts except for one copy-editor who holds a 50% editorial assistant position), had grown enough to accomplish the production (read: from copy-edit to publication) of a book-length project (130 and 289 pages respectively) in about seven weeks. This includes two rounds of changes by the authors, as well as the production of pdfs (InDesign) and an html version.

After some internal discussions with the powers that be, we decided to shelve all negotiations with freelancers and instead test our internal workflow further with a larger manuscript. The project that became our next guinea pig contains some 25 essays of varying length and uneven linguistic quality, written—like most of our submissions—in English by non-native speakers. In short, this project was several times the size of the e-journal issue we had just tackled.

The task really stretched our capacities: First, we learned that our project management needs fine-tuning. There were redundancies due to oversights and varying competencies. We format according to the Chicago Manual of Style and some team members are more familiar with it than others, which translated into repeated rounds of checking. This is no big deal for an essay or two, but when there are two dozen essays to edit, this can consume many hours. Further developing copy-editing skills is therefore high on our agenda.

Second, there are divergent approaches to editing within the team. Some edit with a more pedagogical bent because they usually deal with student papers. Others come from a publishing background and approach problem solving in a more fait accompli way. The former may tell the author the nature of their mistakes, while the latter offer a take-it-or-leave-it alternative formulation instead. Both approaches have their merits and we will have to find an editing style that combines the best of both without prolonging the overall publication process.

Last but not least, we grappled with the question of how perfect a manuscript can get before it goes into layout. It is part of a good editor’s skill set to know when to let go and come to terms with the fact that no manuscript will ever be flawless. All editors have to weigh between production costs and perfect formulation and formatting. In all my years on the job, I have never been in a win-win situation when it comes to this. Something always has to give. How much that is or when the right time has come to let go is something that as a team we have to agree on.

In the end we took too many hours for the copy-edit. It would have been undoubtedly cheaper to outsource the task to a freelancer for a fixed price. But I consider the difference as an investment. As we hone our skills, we will get better and faster and thus more cost-effective. Since the next excellence initiative is around the corner and the tremendous challenges of publishing competitive English-language output in the humanities and social sciences by non-native authors is unlikely to go away, an experienced resident editing team will be able to offer indispensable support not only to in-house  publication projects, but also to resident scholars who wish to place their work with high-profile international publishing houses.

We received the next book manuscript a couple of weeks ago for copy-edit. Let’s see how much we have improved. Part three on this topic will follow.


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!

In Defense of the Edited Book

In his post “3 simple distinctions your government should eliminate from its research financing system“, Curt Rice recently wrote about the merits of publishing essays in anthologies and called for their equal recognition by funding instruments vis-a-vis those published in journals. He writes:

I still think it’s a lot harder to get published in a good journal than in a good book. But I’m far less certain that it’s just as hard to get published in a bad journal as in a good book, even if the weighting system the government has adopted would make you think so.

The gist of the post lies, as the title suggests, not in the nature of the anthology or edited volume, but in the counting policies for research output that funding bodies devise. However, it is uncommon to find such clear support for a genre that has become somewhat of a step-child in the family of academic writings.

The situation of the edited volume is grim: As Rice shows, funding bodies, in their recently found penchant for accountability, don’t treat the academic input into making such books very favourably. Furthermore, the submission policies of many traditional trade publishers and prestigious UPs clearly signal: we don’t even look at edited volumes. Harvard is the first example that comes to mind. Even academics themselves who frequently publish in such collections or edit them are often dismissive of these products. As one high-profile professor once put it to me as I showed him a couple of newly printed examples: “no one reads these things anyway.”

Over time, such negative attitudes will inevitably be reflected in the quality of the books themselves.That is a great shame because a well-edited volume is ideally suited to thoroughly investigate a subject from a variety of viewpoints, be they disciplinary, methodological or theoretical. This can be a great enrichment to any field or a discussion across academic disciplines. But, as Rice rightly points out, if funding bodies and other instruments of academic score-keeping do not appreciate the work that is needed to make such a book “good”, why should anybody bother?

Take, for example, introductions. Rice writes:

Contributions to anthologies earn points. Unless they’re entitled “Introduction.”

It is common for editors to write introductory chapters to their volumes. These introductions position the subsequent chapters and argue for a conceptual perspective motivating the book. Introductions are works of scholarship and they convey research results.

As the system currently stands, an introduction that is actually entitled “Introduction” does not get points. By now, most of us have learned to give our introductions different titles, and we thereby collect points.

How could it come to this?  How can it be that the collection of “points” determines the direction of academic work? Moreover, how can it be that in this “game” that allots “points” the writing of “introductions” is not deemed score-worthy? The heart and soul of any “good” edited volume is the introduction: it provides the conceptual framework, the methodological parameters, and demonstrates the congruence of the contributions. An introduction is to the edited volume what a conductor is to an orchestra – it unifies the contributors and shapes the output of the ensemble.

Academic communication is often likened to an ongoing conversation. The edited volume is an excellent forum where scholars can conduct such a conversation on a specific topic. The question is how it can be rehabilitated?

As an unwanted step-child of the publishing industry, it is relatively unencumbered by the ubiquitous and persistent craving for some prestigious UP stamp on the front cover. That makes it a perfect genre to explore the possibilities of open access book-publishing. And since it is not a monological but inherently dialogical form, it would lend it self readily to new forms of open review and composition. We already know that much of the needed yet often neglected exchange among contributors and editors can happen online – Kathleen Fitzpatrick and Gary Hall are boldly showing the way. What needs to happen now is – as usual – the necessary persuading  a wider editor- and authorship to invest their time and writing in Open Access edited volumes . Oh and we must remind the score-keeping purse-holders that this genre is not just worth their “points” but a crucial part of the communicative landscape in the academy.