Tag Archives: style

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.

Reference

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 🙂

 

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Quaint titles and memorable lines in ecology and entomology

I am always struck when reading the old entomological and ecological literature by how much the style of our writing has changed over the last 100 years or so, and not necessarily for the better 😉 I am not advocating a return to the writing style of the Victorian 3-volume novel but do think that we might try to be a bit less dry when reporting our science in mainstream journals. With the establishment of on-line publishing perhaps there will be less emphasis on word limits from Editors and publishers, but then on the other hand, we are all busy people and the number of papers published seems to be increasing at an exponential rate.

Here for your edification is a title from the mid-Victorian period; penned by John Curtis an English entomologist

Curtis, J. (1845) Observations on the natural history and economy of various insects etc., affecting the corn-crops, including the parasitic enemies of the wheat midge, the thrips, wheat louse, wheat bug and also the little worm called Vibrio. Journal of the Royal Agricultural Society, 6, 493-518.

NPG P120(36); John Curtis by Maull & Polyblank

John Curtis  1791-1862  (Photograph from Wikipedia)

 

There are also some great sentences in this paper that give you an insight into the character of the man and the conditions under which he worked, which we do not get in modern papers.

“I had hoped, during the past summer, to make some progress in the further development of the economy of the Wheat-midge; but although the little orange larvae were abundant in some wheat-fields in August in this neighbourhood, owing to the wet and cold season I presume, I did not discover a single midge on the wing, and the larvae appear to have all died as usual”

Later on writing about aphids; I couldn’t possibly not mention aphids 😉

“The corn-crops do not escape the visitations of this extensive tribe: indeed, what crop does?”

 

And from that great entomologist A R Wallace writing in 1865 on species distribution, Wallace, A.R. (1855) On the law which has regulated the introduction of new species. Journal of Natural History, 16, 184-196.

“Fully to enter into such a subject would occupy much space, and it is only in consequence of some views having been lately promulgated, he believes in a wrong direction, that he now ventures to present his ideas to the public, with only such obvious illustrations of the arguments and results as occur to him in a place far removed from all means of reference and exact information”

Obviously a man of great probity and conviction.

 

We all know of Darwin’s story, (Darwin, 1929), about having to put a beetle into his mouth having gone collecting beetles without suitable containers but how many of us know about this side of his character, also from the same source,

A novel, according to my taste, does not come into the first class unless it contains some person whom one can thoroughly love, and if a pretty woman all the better

It is a great little book and well worth reading.

Darwin, F. (1929) Autobiography of Charles Darwin, Watts & Co., London

 

Norman McIndoo, the inventor of the insect olfactometer writes in his 1926 paper, McIndoo, N.E. (1926) An insect olfactometer. Journal of Economic Entomology, 19, 545-571

“To the writer a potato plant has a characteristic smell, although not as strong as those from some other plants. When enclosed in the plant chamber, its odors are perhaps emanated along with the water vapour, which judged from the condensed portion, was considerable.”

 

And here in a relatively modern paper, from that intrepid entomologist Philip Darlington, P.J. (1970) Carabidae on tropical islands, especially the West Indies. Biotropica, 2, 7-15

Mr Hlvac’s (1969) paper should be consulted for further details and discussion. But a very great deal still remains to be done on Scarites in Puerto Rico. Here obviously is another opportunity for exciting ecologic work, to be done under exceptional circumstances of comfort and convenience

Non-entomologists will no doubt be familiar with Darlington from his classic species-area work on Caribbean herpetofauna.

 

So dear readers, which are your favourite memorable sentences and titles from the scientific literature?  Please let me know.

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