Editing research articles

by Judy Petersen

Because of our language skills, friends and colleagues sometimes ask us to edit their manuscripts before they submit them for consideration in journals.

The amount of editing work will depend on the author's experience and communication skills. First-time authors may require more help than authors who have published several articles.

Here are some tips that can save time and help authors get their manuscripts accepted.

Before you start ...

Ask the author to specify the job's scope. You could provide a checklist similar to the one below. Once you agree on the scope, ask the author to provide:

  • A file that is formatted for your word processor
  • Instructions to authors and a copy of one article from the targeted journal

Both you and the author save time if you edit online. For example, you can use the spelling and grammar checkers, which help locate errors—so you need not read the manuscript several times. (You also avoid a stiff neck and cramped fingers.) And the author need not try to read and then enter your markup.

Often, instructions to authors are insufficient (the journal's style guidelines), which is why you should ask for a published journal article. It will reveal a lot about style and mechanics.

A checklist for authors
Ask the author to indicate exactly what you should do with the manuscript:

  • Make the manuscript comply with the journal's instructions to authors.
  • Match these items with the journal:
    1. Wording in headings
    2. Capitalization/punctuation
    3. Font styles and sizes
    4. Reference list
  • Correct all tables and figures.
  • Ensure that all terms and abbreviations are written consistently.
  • Move sentences or paragraphs to appropriate headings.
  • Put misplaced sentences into appropriate paragraphs.
  • Rewrite long, confusing sentences.
  • Change passive sentences to active, when appropriate.
  • Correct grammar, punctuation, spelling.
  • Edit or rewrite the abstract.

Preparing for an edit

Before you start reading the manuscript:

  • Copy and rename the file. That way, if you make an error or want to check something that you changed earlier, you can quickly search the original file--rather than searching the printed manuscript. And the author cannot accidentally overwrite the original file with your edited file.
  • Check the journal's style guidelines for formatting requirements. Then set the margins and spacing to comply with the guidelines.
  • Check the country of the targeted journal and set the language option to the correct version of English. Ensure that all fields are selected and set correctly. Sometimes, certain fields remain in one language, so the spell checker skips these fields.
  • Inspect the journal article that accompanied the manuscript. Then set the manuscript's default normal font (or body text) style to match the journal article. For example, many journals use a 10-point serif font that looks like Times.
  • Set the heading and caption font styles and dispositions to match the journal. Hopefully, the author used these options when creating the manuscript. If not, then apply them when you edit. (See "Editing mechanical details.")

Systematic editing

Work through the manuscript in this order:

  1. Mechanical editing: headings, captions, tables, graphics, and references.
  2. Language editing: the body of the manuscript.
  3. Language and mechanical editing: the abstract. Most abstracts require special attention (see "Editing the abstract"). So save the abstract for last because during internal reviews, the content of the manuscript may have changed. And the author may have overlooked those changes in the abstract.

Editing mechanical details

If you attend to these items first, then you can concentrate more freely on clarity of content:

  • Assign a heading style to all headings in the manuscript--if the author did not select heading styles when creating the manuscript. (See "Preparing for an edit.") Also match the capitalization of the manuscript's headings with the journal article.
  • Match the wording in the headings. For example, if the journal uses a level-two heading: Methods, which is followed by a level-three heading: Subjects, then ensure that the manuscript uses the same wording. Sometimes authors use synonyms (Findings rather than Results) or phrases that combine several subheadings into one heading level (Subjects, methods, and analysis).
  • Match the font, capitalization, and punctuation style of figure and table captions in the manuscript with the journal article. Also match the position (above or below, centered or left justified).
  • Correct errors and inconsistencies in the tables, graphs, charts, or illustrations. (The most frequently occurring error is the accidental use of a comma for a decimal point.)
  • Correct mechanical details in the reference section: match the format, font, capitalization, and punctuation styles with the journal article. When you finish checking mechanics, you're ready to tackle the content.

Correcting errors, adding clarity

If you find sentences that are as clear as mud, copy and paste them into another file, and continue editing. You may need to discuss them with the author.

Before you start reading the body of the manuscript, turn on your word processor's revision option so that the author can easily locate your changes. Then start reading the manuscript:

  • Correct all errors and inconsistencies.
  • Change passive sentences to active whenever possible.
  • Restructure paragraphs as needed. Sometimes authors inadvertently place information that belongs in the results section into measurement and analysis sections.
  • Break extremely long sentences into smaller sentences or into lists.
  • Transform nominals into verb phrases, compare: I have the hope that you come. (I hope that you come.) Price growth was 11 percent. (Prices rose 11 percent.) If you find sentences that are as clear as mud, copy and paste them into another file and continue editing. Do the same with your questions, comments, and concerns. For example, if the manuscript contains details that aren't in the journal article, you might ask the author if certain details are necessary. Or if the journal article contains details, such as the name of the software program that was used for statistical analysis, and the manuscript does not contain this detail, then ask the author to provide the program's name. Later, you can send your questions by fax or e-mail and ask for immediate clarification. Or, you can include them in a note to the author, who must decide who will perform the final fixes.

Checking the reference section

When you finish the body of the manuscript, stop. Do not read the reference section just yet. Instead, run the grammar checker and apply suggestions when appropriate.

Then run the spell checker. Select the Ignore all option when surnames are highlighted. That way, when you come to the reference section, the spell checker will ignore names that were in the body of the manuscript and highlight names that are either misspelled or missing in the body. Include suspicious citations in a note to the author.

Editing the abstract

Most journals have strict word-count requirements. Basically, journals require that the abstract succinctly answers these questions:

  • What was done?
  • Why?
  • What was found (regarding data)?
  • What was concluded?

Ensure that these questions are answered and that all data in the abstract match data in the results section (especially in the tables).

These suggestions in italic can help to keep the word count low: The purpose of this study has been to test the hypothesis that ...
This study tested the hypothesis that ...

The methodology that was utilized in this study was also utilized in the following previous studies:
These studies used the same methods used in this study:

A number of methods have been investigated before ...
Several methods were studied before ...

With regard to the control group ...
For the control group ...

... make changes in the treatment
... change the treatment

... provide a summary of the findings
...summarize the findings

... do a study of the new measuring instrument
... study the new questionnaire

Wrap up

In a note to the author, include reminders to:

  • Respond to your questions, comments, and concerns and indicate who will handle them.
  • Save the file in the format requested by the journal--if the journal wants a file to accompany the manuscript.
  • Ensure that the required number of copies is submitted.
  • Ensure that all required graphical images are included and that they comply with the journal's guidelines for formatting and numbering.

If you have the time and inclination, you could offer to edit the cover letter.


Reprinted with permission from Saga, the newsletter of STC's Stockholm chapter. For more information, contact Judy Petersen.