Typos, typos everywhere – a call for the return of human copy editors and better proof reading

When I first started writing and publishing papers, publishers employed copy editors who checked pre-publication proofs for accuracy, style and grammar.  Authors had limited access to computer spell checkers, using print dictionaries instead and were supposed to check their proofs rigorously.   Nowadays, copy and style editors are mythical beasts, and we all suffer from the tyranny of the dreaded auto-correct.  The advent of automated copy editing and computerised spell checking has had a serious effect on the levels of exasperation in the Leather household. My wife, a former Editorial Assistant and copy editor*, and I find that we are increasingly drawing each other’s attention to glaring grammatical and typographical errors in the novels we read; baited breath when the author (I hope) meant bated, need instead of knead, dependent instead of dependant, principle instead of principal, effect when affect is meant and vice versa, etymology instead of entomology (oh heinous sin) and once to my total disbelief, dough instead of dhow!  And don’t even get me started on the greengrocer’s apostrophe!

It wouldn’t be so bad if this were confined to fiction but every now and increasingly then, I find something in a scientific paper or a grant proposal that makes me cringe and sigh despairingly (and not always quietly).

A high proportion of grant proposals and cvs that I see, use Principle Investigator instead of Principal Investigator.  I am happy that PIs are principled but just wish that they were a little bit more grammatically knowledgeable 🙂 That said, it is not just scientists who have a problem with the difference between principle and principal.

But, back to the reason I was stimulated to write this post.  I recently read a paper in Nature Communications, and was stunned by the appalling state of the references.  How these got past the copy editor (if there was one) and authors I have no idea.  Nature Communications is regarded as a high impact journal, in its own words publishing “high quality research” so one might expect and hope their production values to be equally high.

Author fatigue and Copy Editor failure!

 As a renowned senior scientist of my acquaintance (Professor Helmut van Emden if you wondered) once remarked during a PhD viva, “if you can’t be bothered to check your references for accuracy, how am I supposed to believe you collected your data and analysed it any more carefully?”  What particularly upset/disappointed me about the paper above was that two of the authors are former students of mine and have had the Van Emden adage related to them more than once!

To be fair, I too am not immune to letting the odd typo slip past my eagle eye.  Shortly after an editorial of mine was published (Leather, 2017) I received an email which I reproduce in full below.

Dear Prof. Leather

 I have just come across your recent editorial in Annals of Applied Biology.  Despite a few typographical errors (spelling of my name and a hanging reference to the “former” when the former is not clear), I could not agree more with your message, and I am honored that you chose my work on weed suppression as an example of the gap that needs to be closed.  Your description of the situation with respect to our research was right on target. I was also very impressed by the quotation from Benjamin Walsh, which is just as relevant today as it was back in 1866.

 The problem exists in both directions.  Basic researchers can be snobs who look down on applied research. But applied researchers often react to this by responding negatively to relevant basic research.  J.L. Harper often said that the distinction between basic and applied research is artificial, but there is clearly a cultural “gap”.

 With best wishes from Copenhagen

Jacob Weiner

On being reminded, very politely, that no matter how senior we are we are neither perfect nor infallible 🙂

The misspelled reference duly corrected, albeit after the fact.


Leather S.R. (2017) Mind the gap: time to make sure that scientists and practitioners are on the same page.  Annals of Applied Biology 170: 1-3

*Those of you whom had papers published in Ecological Entomology between 1996 and 2003 will have experienced her ferocious red pen 🙂




Filed under Bugbears

8 responses to “Typos, typos everywhere – a call for the return of human copy editors and better proof reading

  1. Gabor Lovei

    sorry, Simon: …”dependant instead of dependant, principle…” –
    Otherwise I fully agree.
    Gabor (Lovei)

    Liked by 1 person

  2. Great post! I’ve also noticed typos and errors are more frequent and noticeable in recent papers compared to older ones.


  3. I suspect part of this is pressure on the journal system. In part that’s increasing submissions, but I wonder if a significant role is played (ore shoed eye rite ‘plaid’) by the fact that authors seem to expect unreasonable speed and inexpense in publishing, and journals now compete to provide it. If as an author you expect your manuscript to go from acceptance to publication in a few weeks, and you expect page charges or APCs not to strain your grant, then perhaps you should expect a commensurate level of copyediting/proofing service from the journal! So: journals, please stop competing on speed; and authors, please stop enabling that competition!

    See, there is no issue I can’t turn to my favourite current hobbyhorse 🙂

    Liked by 3 people

  4. Bug

    Oh, but without spell check and global find/replace, I would have never received the EPIC student paper on “Attention Defecate Disorder.” The *whole* paper spelled that way, and didn’t really change the meaning much. “Attention Defecate can be disruptive in the classroom.”
    Indeed, student researcher. Indeed.

    Liked by 1 person

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