A note from Louise: This article was written back in 2012 by my colleague Anna Sharman. For those of you looking for other avenues to explore in a bid to build up your work flows and client portfolios, especially if you have a scientific background, this is a must-read. Anna now runs her own dedicated scientific editorial consultancy, Cofactor, but back in 2012 she worked for a number of editing agencies.
Over to Anna ...
What do I do?
I am a copyeditor and proofreader specializing in biomedical journal articles. As well as working for journals on articles that have been accepted, I also work with scientists to get their articles ready for submission to journals. Some of this work comes through editing agencies.
I got into this field through doing a PhD and postdoctoral research in developmental/evolutionary biology and then working as an in-house editor on three biology journals. I went freelance in 2005.
What are editing agencies?
Academic editing agencies act as a bridge between freelance editors and authors. Authors who want to have a paper edited can find it hard to know which of the many editors out there are any good. For freelance editors, working directly for authors can be hard because each author will only have a small number of papers a year. So agencies have sprung up to help authors find editors and vice versa.
Generally, these agencies offer editing of the language. Some also offer developmental editing: a report on the content of the manuscript, with suggestions on any obvious gaps in the logic or areas that are unclear.
Academic editing agencies have probably been around for a long time, but I think they have increased in number in recent years. They have arisen in response to pressure from journals for well written manuscripts. Journals are generally happy to consider manuscripts that have minor errors or that don't read as if they were written by a native English speaker. However, if a manuscript is so badly written that peer reviewers cannot work out what experiments are being described, the journal cannot reasonably send it for peer review without further work.
In addition, journals are always trying to cut costs, and freelance editors (unfortunately) are seen as expensive. Manuscripts that do get through peer review generally still need copyediting, to ensure that they make sense, use consistent terminology and symbols and are in good English. To cut down on copyediting costs, some publishers are asking authors to get their articles edited at their own expense.
The expansion of editing agencies is also the result of an enormous expansion of science in China and other Asian countries. Although many non-native-speaking researchers ask native-English-speaking colleagues to check their work, in most Asian institutes there are not enough native speakers to check all the papers being produced. In addition, Chinese academics are often rewarded financially for publications in English-language journals, which means that it can make sense to pay for editing to make this more likely.
Some publishers have now entered into partnerships with editing agencies. This means that if a manuscript is rejected because of language problems, or if revision is invited after peer review but language problems have been mentioned by the reviewers, the journal suggests that the authors get their manuscript checked by a native speaker, and sometimes recommends a particular editing agency. Sometimes authors from that journal publisher receive a discount on the agency's fees. Other publishers list a selection of agencies, without recommending one in particular, in their instructions for authors (see, for example, this list from Public Library of Science and this list from Wiley). And some publishers have set up their own editing services (such as Elsevier and Nature Publishing Group).
What's distinctive about working for editing agencies?
I enjoy working for editing agencies for several reasons. In general, this kind of work has a lot of the advantages of working directly for authors but without many of the disadvantages.
I prefer working on pre-submission research papers because I am seeing the research soon after it happens, rather than months or years later. I like helping people get their science published despite language barriers, contributing in a small way to levelling the playing field caused by the predominance of English in academic publishing.
I also enjoy the challenge of working on a piece of writing at an early stage, because it means I can concentrate more on the meaning and less on fine points of formatting. When copyediting for journals, I spend a large proportion of my time applying house style, adjusting spacing, fonts, capitalization and other such minor style points. With pre-submission editing, I can ignore most of that and concentrate on working out what the author is trying to say and how to make the meaning clearer. Developmental editing gets even closer to the science and further from the stylistic details.
Like working for publishers, however, working for an agency has the advantage that if the author disagrees with you on any change, the agency can arbitrate. And, as I mentioned above, agencies can channel a steady stream of papers your way, from many authors, saving the time and effort needed for marketing your services to a lot of different universities and institutes.
When you work for researchers, whether directly or through an agency, bear in mind that they often work weekends and through holidays, and that weekends and holidays differ between countries. The agencies I work for all give deadlines in calendar days not working days, and if I want to have weekends off I have to specify this. Generally you can specify which days of the week you normally work and inform them when you will be on holiday, and they send work only when you are available. You have to remember to tell the agency about public holidays in your country – they won't necessarily know about them automatically.
What are clients looking for?
Academic agencies generally want editors who have experience in academia in the right field, which generally means a PhD and some published research. Some of them also want qualifications, training and/or experience in editing, though others do not – some even recruit active scientists who want to earn a little on the side. The agencies I work for, however, want experienced editors.
There is nearly always an editing test, at least for big agencies, to check whether you can cope with the kind of editing required. This will test not only what changes you make but also how you word your queries to the author (of which there will be a lot).
How to access the field
If you search online you will find lots of academic editing agencies, and many of them are looking out for qualified editors with PhDs all the time. I have heard, however, that some of them pay pretty badly, and of course it is always important to check out a potential client with whom you hope to have an ongoing working relationship. So how do you find reliable ones to start working for?
The best way is to go via the publishers, particularly any publishers you are already working for. Check in their online instructions to authors for agencies that they recommend. Then send a speculative email to an agency, giving a brief summary of your qualifications and experience. The chances are that you will be given an editing test (which will probably be unpaid). Then, if you are accepted as one of their editors, there may be a period of training when your editing will be checked carefully and the rate of pay may be lower. If you fail the test, consider any feedback carefully but don't worry too much about not being good enough. It could be that your style of editing simply doesn't fit what the agency is looking for. Try another and don't give up unless you have taken several tests. Alternatively, this kind of editing might not be for you (see below).
What’s the pay like?
Agencies generally pay by number of words rather than by the hour. This means that it is difficult to work out how much you will get per hour, and that the hourly rate can sometimes work out low and sometimes high. I prefer working for a fixed fee as I tend to be quite a fast worker and enjoy finding ways to work more efficiently.
Because they are acting as intermediaries, agencies always take a cut of the fee that the author pays them. Working directly for the author would therefore pay more, in theory – but only if you can do enough marketing to get as much work as you would get through an agency.
When trying out a new agency, check the pay rate per thousand words (this will either be supplied when you enquire or be published on the agency's website). Then try to work out the speed at which you can edit this kind of material. If you are more used to editing accepted papers, assume this kind of work will be considerably slower. I suggest giving an agency a try for a few months to see whether the rates work out OK for you.
Some agencies pay very quickly after each job is completed; others pay two months or more later. Watch out for international bank charges, too – charges can be levied by intermediate banks that aren't in the control of either the sender's or the recipient's bank. Bear this in mind when working out whether the fees are worthwhile.
Is this kind of editing for you?
Editing material by authors whose English is limited isn't for everyone. You may prefer to work on manuscripts at a later stage, when they have already been approved by a publisher. You may not know whether you enjoy this kind of work until you try it. But if you have a research background and some editing experience, I'd recommend it for the challenge. And if you want to work with pre-submission papers, going through an agency has definite advantages.
Copyright 2012 Anna Sharman
[Note from the Proofreader's Parlour: A fuller list of publishers that include language editing services on their websites, and that you may wish to contact, is available at: Getting Noticed – Web-based English-Language Editing Services Listings.]
Louise Harnby is a professional proofreader and copyeditor. She curates The Proofreader's Parlour and is the author of several books on business planning and marketing for editors and proofreaders.
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