Editorial services in detail
This page is very long (>6600 words). It is not designed to be read (i) end to end or (ii) on a small screen.
ON THIS PAGE:
2. C-EDIT service: tasks
3. P-READ service: core tasks
4. P-READ service: supplementary tasks
5. MED-EDIT service:core tasks
6. MED-EDIT service: supplementary tasks
8. Medical editing in practice: a table in a scientific article
My goal in creating this page is to give prospective clients a clear idea of the work I carry out for each of the three editorial services I offer:
- copy editing (C-EDIT),
- proofreading (P-READ),
- medical editing (MED-EDIT).
As a copy editor (C-EDIT service), my objective is to help authors get their intended message across effectively (clarity). The communication process is enhanced by engaging readers (style) and sounding natural (syntax).
While copy editing a text, there are three possible courses of action I can take each time I detect what I consider to be a potential weakness: (i) I immediately make the necessary change, (ii) I submit my proposed change to the author for approval or (iii) I ask the author to make the change. My decision is based on how much autonomy I’ve been granted by the author and my own judgement. At all times, my overarching desire is to preserve the author’s voice.
As a proofreader (P-READ service), I focus on smaller issues such as spelling, punctuation and consistency. Here the changes are less subjective: author input is not required except to specify that a particular convention, for example the ISO date format, be followed.
Proofreading is sometimes not given the importance it deserves: errors may be relatively minor but too many will detract from the message and potentially undermine the author’s credibility.
As a medical editor (MED-EDIT service), I carry out all C-EDIT and P-READ tasks and several other tasks adapted to the specific needs of healthcare documents such as articles for publication in peer-reviewed journals, or PowerPoint presentations and posters for conferences.
If you hire me as a medical editor, you will be hiring someone with extensive experience in the field, a large and evergrowing body of relevant knowledge and the motivation to continue learning.
The body of knowledge I have acquired, either through study or by ‘osmosis’, is what allows me to differentiate between related but distinct concepts like efficacy/effectiveness, mean/median/mode, dose/dosage, incidence/prevalence, signs/symptoms, etc, and to know that some terms, such as ‘significant’, have a very specific meaning for scientifically minded folk.
My motivation arises from my longstanding interest in medical matters and it’s what impels me to strive to truly understand what I’m editing. This can have tangible benefits for you. Example: an editor without experience in the field is likely to skip the term ‘Mediterranean anaemia’ without a second thought. I know —having done the research in the past— that the disease is much more widely known as ‘β thalassaemia major’; a casual reader scanning article titles might skip the former term but not the latter.
The final section on this page, Medical editing in practice: a table in a scientific article, gives a concrete example of medical editing.
The rest of this page describes the tasks I carry out for each of my editorial services.
First, I provide short sections for each service giving an overview of tasks. For the P-READ and MED-EDIT services, there are tasks that I carry out systematically (core tasks) and tasks that I carry out only on request (supplementary tasks):
- C-EDIT: section 2,
- P-READ: section 3 (core) and section 4 (supplementary),
- MED-EDIT: section 5 (core) and section 6 (supplementary).
Please note that supplementary tasks may incur an additional charge, depending on my estimate of the workload. I will let you know of any additional charge in advance (never retrospectively).
Second, I provide a longer ‘Notes’ section (section 7) in which I expand upon some of the tasks, with copious examples.
Click on the icon of a task in a short section to jump to the corresponding description in the ‘Notes’ section. Then click on the icon of that task in the ‘Notes’ section to return to the starting point in the short section.
2. C-EDIT service: tasks
Clarity (getting the message across) C-EDIT
▮ There are no ambiguities. 1
▮ Definitions are provided for terms or concepts when necessary i.e. when you believe that they’re not part of the baseline knowledge of the people likely to be reading your article.
If a definition is provided, it appears at the first mention of the word and nowhere else.
▮ Non-standard abbreviations are defined at their first mention and nowhere else.
Part of my role as a copy editor is to point out when I think a document would be enhanced by addition of a glossary. This would likely be the case if several abbreviations are used repeatedly throughout a long document.
▮ No blocks of text are absorbed into a last item. 2
Good style (engaging your readers) C-EDIT
▮ The vocabulary3, tone and register are appropriate for the intended readership.
Some questions I ask myself while editing:
- Is the text too formal/stiff? Too casual/familiar?
- Would its readers expect a certain style of writing? If so, would they be potentially antagonised by a different style?
▮ There are no parochialisms. 4
Syntax 5(sounding natural) C-EDIT
Correct syntax plays a big part in how natural a given text sounds. Syntax problems such as use of comma splices 6 are more likely to occur when the author’s mother tongue is not English.
Good form C-EDIT
▮ Numbering (of headers, tables, figures, etc) is sequential without any gaps.
▮ In the context of reading flow, figures or tables are given after they are first mentioned in the main body. 7
▮ Full-width tables or figures do not disrupt the reading flow. 8
3. P-READ service: core tasks
Punctuation P-READ CORE
Rather unsurprisingly, I tend to follow British customs in matters of punctuation.
Among other things, this means that by default:
- I use serial commas discretionally. 9
- for abbreviated words, I apply the ‘last-letter rule’ to determine whether to use a full stop. 10
- I use single quotes then, if nested quotes are necessary, double quotes. (Rather than the other way around.)
However there are some punctuation matters that everyone agrees on, for example:
- use of smart quotes (‘single’ and “double”) rather than straight quotes, which should be reserved for program code (
<div id="sidebar">). This gloriously succinct website summarises my practice.
- when to use hyphens (-), en dashes (–) and em dashes (—).
As regards the hyphenation and spacing of compound words, usage varies in different places and evolves over time. 11 My own ‘H&S’ practices have evolved over time. For example, I write email where before I would write e-mail. My commitment as a proofreader is to hyphenate any given word consistently throughout your text (please note however that hyphenation also depends on the word’s grammatical function in the sentence 12).
If you prefer, we can agree on a single reference source that I will comply with, for example Lexico (Oxford University).
Spelling 13 P-READ CORE
My default is UK (British English) spelling.***
Consistency in formatting P-READ CORE
As any proofreader will tell you:
consistency is king!
For some formatting matters, consistency involves first deciding on a given formatting (regardless of whether this decision is made unilaterally by me or by the author, or jointly agreed upon).
For others, there are well-established conventions so no decision-making is required.
Achieving consistency includes attending to the following matters, among others:
- treatment of numbers, which includes decisions such as:
- formatting of dates. 17
- formatting of in-text references to figures or other illustrative material. 18
- formatting of nested sequences. 19
Morphology P-READ CORE
Language scholars often combine morphology and syntax into morphosyntax.20
For my purposes, I include morphology checks as part of my P-READ service and syntax checks as part of my C-EDIT service.
One morphology check is use of correct singular and plural forms, especially for technical words derived from Greek or Latin. 21
4. P-READ service: supplementary tasks
Cross-checks 22 P-READ SUPPL
Cross-checks are checks to ensure that fragments of text in different parts of the document that should be identical are indeed identical.
5. MED-EDIT service: core tasks
▮ All C-EDIT tasks and all core P-READ tasks.
▮ Compliance with a journal’s style guide MED-EDIT CORE
The style guide of a targeted journal takes precedence when its instructions conflict with those of other sources.
▮ Compliance with standard templates MED-EDIT CORE
Some of the standard templates used in medical sciences include:
- The IMRAD model
IMRAD (Introduction, Methods, Results,Discussion) is a well-established model for reporting the results of original quantitative research. One of my tasks when editing such articles is to detect possible ‘leaks’ between sections e.g. interpretation of data in the results section.
- CONSORT guideline 23
For randomised clinical studies, I will check compliance with the CONSORT guideline (one of several published by the EQUATOR network).
- QRD templates
As regards medicinal products intended for the European market, I will check against the QRD templates for summary of product characteristics, patient information leaflet and product labelling.
▮ Compliance with standard conventions of writing in the life sciences 24 MED-EDIT CORE
▮ Consistent formatting of citations and reference lists 25 MED-EDIT CORE
▮ Quality control MED-EDIT CORE
Quality control encompasses several checks including:
- QC checks of figures and tables:
- For clinical trial reports: results are given for all primary and secondary endpoints described in the Methods section.
6. MED-EDIT service: supplementary tasks
▮ Reference details are correct MED-EDIT SUPPL
On request, I will check references against a bibliographic database such as PubMed to ensure that titles, author names, years,…, are correct.
▮ Cited author names are correct MED-EDIT SUPPL
Where the Harvard citation style is used, the surnames of cited authors appear in the main body of the text.
On request, I will ensure that all author names are spelt correctly throughout.
▮ Clinical study titles are correct MED-EDIT SUPPL
▮ Editing or shortening of abstracts MED-EDIT SUPPL
This may be a standard edit or, if the word count far exceeds the targeted journal’s limit, substantial editing.
▮ Editing of cover letters MED-EDIT SUPPL
On request, I will edit the cover letter that accompanies the article submitted for publication.
▮ No ambiguities 1
A fragment of text is ambiguous when it gives rise to more than one interpretation. There are many possible causes, ranging in scope from a missing or misplaced punctuation mark to a paragraph of text. Some ambiguities are easy to spot and fix; others are more convoluted and need to be read several times to parse the fragment as someone else might.
A copy editor has to be on the look-out for several types of ambiguities:
- Some words are like screaming sirens. ‘Biweekly’ is one such word.
Take the sentence:
The biweekly ferry service is a lifeline for the islanders.
Does ‘biweekly’ mean ‘twice per week’ or ‘every two weeks’? In my opinion, this word should be banished from everyone’s vocabulary.
- Other words are like flags visible from afar.
For example, the word ‘by’ in expressions of time:
Submissions must be received at the Admissions Office by 6 April.
Does the last minute start at 11.59pm on 5 April or 11.59pm on 6 April?
(Another possibility is that the deadline is the Admission Office’s closing time on 6 April.)
- Sometimes, when percentages are expressed, it is not clear what constitutes the total of whatever is being talked about.
The Buy Local campaign was well-resourced: 80% of shop owners in Siddleworth (444) contributed funds.
Are there 444 or 555 shop owners in the town? The sentence could be rephrased in the following ways to remove the ambiguity:
The Buy Local campaign was well-resourced: 80% of Siddleworth’s 555 shop owners contributed funds.
The Buy Local campaign was well-resourced: 444 shop owners in Siddleworth —80%— contributed funds.
- Some sentences have ambiguous antecedents.
For example, what does ‘this’ refer to in the following sentence:
Thomas arrived late for a meeting with our biggest client and his presentation seemed improvised. This resulted in disciplinary action.
It could be reworded as follows to make the intended sense clear:
Thomas arrived late for a meeting with our biggest client and his presentation seemed improvised. His lack of preparation resulted in disciplinary action.
▮ No blocks of text are absorbed into a last item 2
The item in question may be the last section in a chapter, the last subsection in a section or the last bullet point in a list.
Here is an example of a block of text absorbed into the subsection that immediately precedes it:
The last paragraph (‘Most rocks […] Earth’s crust’) looks like it belongs to the subsection ‘Igneous Rocks’ but it actually belongs to the section ‘Rock types’. It should be visually separated from the last subsection, perhaps by a large space, a narrow horizontal bar or a few asterisks (* * *).
I admit that this layout problem is a personal bugbear of mine. Although easy to avoid, it occurs more often than you might think (especially when you start looking out for it).
▮ Vocabulary 3
Some of the many factors underlying word choice are as follows:
▮ Use of terms appropriate to the readership
Here are a few sets of words, each going from the most to the least formal/technical:
- malignant neoplasm > malignant tumour > cancer
- circa > approximately > about
- et al. > and colleagues / and co-workers
- coagulation > clotting
- saccharose > sucrose > sugar
- hypertension > high blood pressure
- supine > lying face-up
Jargon words are used in all technical fields but there are sometimes precise or close-enough equivalents that the average layperson would know. In the medical field, the following substitutions could be made:
- myalgia > muscle pain
- hypoglycaemics > glucose-lowering drugs
- cerebrovascular accident > stroke
- blood glucose > blood sugar
- efficacy (of a drug) > effectiveness
(the distinction between the two should be maintained in specialist texts)
- emesis > vomiting > throwing-up > puking
- adverse events / adverse drug reactions > side effects
(again, the distinction should be maintained in specialist texts)
▮ Use of terms and expressions that are less ‘loaded’, more neutral:
- diabetic > person with diabetes
- impotence > erectile dysfunction
- The patient failed treatment > The treatment failed
The accusatory wording is widely used by medical professionals (without ill will) but I would always suggest a rewording for patient-facing documents.
- stroke victim > stroke patient > person who had a stroke
▮ Use of the most up-to-date terms:
- latent diabetes > impaired glucose tolerance
- acute renal failure > acute kidney injury
▮ Use of terms appropriate to the locale:
These are some of the differences between UK and US English in the medical field:
|UK English||US English|
|FBC (Full Blood Count)||CBC (Complete Blood Count)|
▮ No parochialisms 4
Lexico defines ‘parochialism’ as:
A limited or narrow outlook, especially focused on a local area; narrow-mindedness.
I apply the first sense when I am copy editing texts that are not primarily or exclusively intended for a geographically limited readership. For example, if I come across the word ‘foosball’ while editing the webpage of a hotel located in a major tourist city, I’d be inclined to reword it to something more generic, more easily understandable by a global audience, such as ‘table football’.
Similarly, I don’t expect or assume that:
- readers outside the UK know the full forms of abbreviated English counties (Yorks. for Yorkshire, Oxon for Oxfordshire, etc)
- readers outside France know that a number in brackets sometimes refers to a département (let alone know which specific département it refers to and where it is).
This sentence is not ideal:
The Parc du Mugel botanical garden in the town of La Ciotat (13) is a delight for the eyes. ☹
The Parc du Mugel botanical garden in the town of La Ciotat on the Mediterranean coast is a delight for the eyes. 😊
- readers outside the US know the codes of individual States (MA for Massachusetts, ME for Maine, etc).
▮ Natural syntax 5
Every language has rules about how words can be combined in a sentence.
The syntax rules of Spanish are what make the following text perfectly acceptable:
Participaron en la reunión:
• el Ministro de Cultura,
• la Ministra de Comercio,
• y varios representantes del sector de teatro.
This word-for-word translation into English is however prohibited under the rules of English syntax:
Participated in the meeting:
• the Minister of Culture,
• the Minister of Commerce,
• and several representatives from the theatre sector.
▮ No comma splice 6
A comma splice is the use of a comma to combine what should be two independent sentences.
In everyday writing, the comma splice is usually considered wrong and would be replaced by a ‘stronger’ separator (semicolon, colon or full stop). Importantly, this doesn’t exclude its use for stylistic purposes in literature.
Not infrequently, I come across comma splices in English texts written by French-mother-tongue authors. The comma splice seems to be much more accepted in everyday French. So this French sentence would not raise any eyebrows:
Le ciel s’éclaircit, j’entends des pas, on frappe à ma porte. 😊
An English translation preserving the comma splice, as follows, is not acceptable:
The sky’s clearing, I hear footsteps, someone’s knocking on my door. ☹
The English sentence should be repunctuated, perhaps as follows:
The sky’s clearing. I hear footsteps. Someone’s knocking on my door. 😊
▮ Figures / tables mentioned before they appear 7
The reading flow for English is top to bottom of the leftmost column, top to bottom of the 2nd leftmost column (if present), top to bottom of the 3rd leftmost column (if present), etc, until the rightmost column.
In the context of this reading flow, each figure or table should be given after it is first mentioned, as follows:
Of course, everyone knows how it should be done. But when authors are making large-scale edits to their text, they may inadvertently introduce errors like this that are only picked up by another person specifically looking out for them.
▮ Full-width figures or tables do not disrupt normal reading flow 8
I willingly admit that this is a bugbear of mine.
A full-width figure in the middle of a page does not break up the normal reading flow:
A full-width figure in the middle of a page ‘breaks’ the normal reading flow:
I’ve only noticed this issue in documents intended for print publication that have been laid out using DTP programs. It’s very disconcerting! I also hasten to add that it’s also a problem that is easy to fix in the specialist software.
▮ Serial comma 9
A serial comma is a comma that appears before the conjunction ‘and’ or ‘or’ in a list of three or more items.
This sentence uses a serial comma:
My favourite pizza toppings are pepperoni, tomatoes, ham, and beef.
This one does not:
My favourite pizza toppings are pepperoni, tomatoes, ham and beef.
Those who advocate systematic use of the serial comma argue that its absence sometimes generates ambiguity, as in this sentence:
While in Paris, Andrew met up with some long-lost friends, Julien and Magali.
Here it’s unclear whether Julien and Magali are Andrew’s long-lost friends.A serial comma removes the doubt:
While in Paris, I met up with long-lost friends, Julien, and Magali.
In the US, serial commas are used systematically.
In England, my understanding is that the most widespread practice is to only use the serial comma to remove ambiguity. This is what I was taught and it’s what I will do by default (i.e. unless instructed otherwise).
The serial comma is often called the Oxford comma in reference to its well-known adoption by Oxford Univerisity Press.
▮ Full stops in abbreviated words 10
As with the serial comma, my default behaviour is the traditional one this side of the pond and it’s what I was taught. Specifically, I tend to use a full stop after an abbreviated word if the last latter of the abbreviated word is not the last letter of the word it is abbreviating.
So I would not make any corrections to this sentence:
Prof. Johnson, Dr Harris and Mr Thomas were all present at the conference.
▮ Hyphenation and spacing in compound words 11
The hyphenation and spacing of compound words are arguably the most fluid rules in the English language. Usage varies by time and place. Generally there is a natural evolution from use of a space, to use of a hyphen then finally fusion into a single (‘solid’) word e.g. hot line > hot-line > hotline.
I have observed (in my lifetime):
- e-mail evolve into email.
The hyphenated form still occurs but it’s becoming increasingly rare; I personally resisted the shift to the solid form for a long time. I’ve never seen e mail, presumably because everyone finds the isolated ‘e’ too strange.
- web site evolve directly into website.
I don’t recall ever having seen it written web-site. This is a testament to how quickly the internet penetrated everyday life.
▮ Seemingly inconsistent hyphenation of compound modifiers 12
Compound modifiers do not usually need hyphens when they follow a noun:
The documents are up to date. 😊
The up-to-date documents […] 😊
Compound modifiers should be hyphenated when they precede a noun. This is a good habit and also helps to avoid ambiguity:
For example, if I visit a website for the first time and a popup appears with the text
Save 50% with our new member discount!
I wonder whether:
(i) the discount scheme has just been launched and is applicable to all members
(ii) or the discount scheme is only for people who have recently become members.
Case (ii) is more correctly written with a hyphen: Save 50% with our new-member discount! 😊
▮ Spelling 13
My default is UK (British English) spelling.
These are just a few of the differences between US and UK English, some widely known, others less so:
|UK English||US English|
|to practise||to practice|
And some more-subtle spelling differences:
▮ Morphosyntax 20
Morphology and syntax, together with phonetics, phonology and semantics, make up grammar.
Morphology is about how words are formed, whereas syntax is about how words can be combined. Linguists tend to combine the two because different languages can communicate the same thing by the way words are formed (morphologically) or by the way words are combined (syntactically).
Let’s take the English sentence:
Ι saw Messi at a bar
In Greek, it could be translated as:
Είδα τον Μέσι σε ένα μπαρ
(I-saw theacc. Messi at a bar)
We could rearrange the first three words and the translation would still be valid:
Tον Μέσι είδα σε ένα μπαρ
(Theacc. Messi I-saw at a bar)
In other words, what English achieves syntactically (through subject-verb-object word order), Greek achieves morphologically (by changing the article from the nominative case [ο] to the accusative case [τον]).
▮ Correct singular/plural forms 21
There are many irregular plural forms in English. Some are known by all native speakers (mice, children,knives,…) while others are learned plural forms that generally appear in texts of a technical nature.
This is a list of some standard singular and plural forms. Admittedly it’s my standard English because others would consider some of them to be learned forms.
|Singular form||Plural form|
1By default, I consider ‘data’ and ‘media’ to be plural. However on request I will treat these words as singular nouns (and ignore the little voice inside my head). It’s true that languages evolve and it’s also true that I wouldn’t talk about ‘insurance premia’ but I still don’t see myself updating my internal dictionary in the foreseeable future. If I do, it’s more likely to be for ‘data’ than ‘media’ because its singular form is less visible; in other words, ‘medium’ is a lot more common than ‘datum’. (For information, I tend to use ‘date point’ instead of ‘datum’.)
For some words (none of which are listed above), I would choose the everyday or learned form according to the context and what feels right. These word pairs include formulas/ formulae, spectrums/ spectra and maximums/ maxima.
If you prefer, we can agree on a single reference source e.g. Lexico by Oxford University and I will observe its rules. Lexico for example uses irises (only plural form given) and appendixes (the preferred plural form).
There are several other aspects of the English number system that lead to much head-scratching among non-native English speakers:
- seemingly plural nouns that are actually singular e.g.
shingles (the disease)
- identical singular and plural forms e.g.
a species, several species
a series, several series
a means, several means
- the many ways in which the plural of compound words is formed e.g.
a carpark, several carparks
a brother-in-law, several brothers-in-law
a passer-by, several passers-by
a stand-in, several stand-ins
a grown-up, several grown-ups
▮ Consistent treatment of numbers: digits dropped in ranges 14
Most readers are blissfully unaware that there are rules for deciding which digits are dropped (elided) in the second number of a range. For example, should it be 31–35 days or 31 –5 days?
The main rule I was taught is: elide as much as possible but never elide terminal -11,-12,[…],-19.
So by default I would elide 325–329 to 325–9 but 315–319 to 315–19 (not 315–9).
I’m not sure of the reasoning behind the ‘11 to 19’ exception but it’s stuck with me. (Possibly another Britishism!)
▮ Consistent treatment of numbers: spacing or comma separator 15
There should be consistency in whether a space or comma is used to separate each 3-digit block.
In other words, should it be 1,234,567 or 1 234 567? A space (non-breaking of course) is more usual in scientific writing.
▮ Consistent use of comma separator in numbers 16
If it’s decided to use a comma separator, there should be consistency in when to start using the comma. My default is to use the comma for numbers greater than 9999 i.e. numbers of at least 5 digits. Others (I think the minority) use the comma for numbers greater than 999. So I would write 1234 rather than 1,234.
▮ Consistent formatting of dates 17
With regard to dates, consistent formatting covers not just standard formatting matters (punctuation, separators, spacing) but also the order of time units, which most often follows one of these two conventions:
- day – month – year
e.g. 3 April 2020, 3/4/2020, 03/04/2020
- month – day – year
e.g. April 3, 2020, 4/3/2020, 04/03/2020
To prevent misinterpretation, it is better to use unequivocal date formats, such as the following:
(i) 3/APR/2020, 3-APR-2020
When dates are particularly important (for example, start and end dates of courses of drug treatment), I sometimes like to visually distinguish days and months by using a short alphabetical code for the month.
The ISO 8601 international standard is year-month-day with mandatory use of hyphens as separators. This system is currently used in some countries, including but not limited to Japan, Hungary, Sweden, Finland and Denmark. In addition to being unequivocal, there is also an obvious advantage for electronic filing systems: chronological order coincides with alphanumerical order.
Another date format uses Roman numerals for the month. According to this page, this format is still common in parts of Eastern Europe; moreover, I understand that it used to be common in other parts of Europe before being supplanted by Arabic numerals.
Some people consider Roman numerals to be too old-fashioned. But I would point out that they are currently used in decidedly ‘cool’ contexts e.g. by the televised annual championship of the US football league and by a worldwide technology company creating some of the most desirable and cutting-edge consumer products. So why shouldn’t they be revived for dates?
▮ Consistent formatting of in-text references to illustrative material 18
Formatting used for in-text references to each type of illustrative material (figures, tables, diagrams, etc) should be consistent throughout the text.
To reference figures, you could pick one of these commonly used formats:
For details, refer to Figure 1.
For details, refer to figure 1.
For details, refer to Fig. 1.
▮ Consistent formatting of nested sequences 19
Of course, sequences such as 1,2,3,… a,b,c,… i,ii,iii,… (for chapters, sections, figures, etc) should increment one by one.
Consistency becomes harder to maintain when there is more than one level of sequencing. An example will illustrate this better:
▮ Cross-checks 22
Two common cross-checks are between:
- the contents page and the content itself
For example: are the heading titles and the page numbers on the contents page correct? Of course, this check is not needed if you are using an automatic feature to generate the table of contents.
- running headers (for print publications)
Typically, the title of the publication is on left-sided pages and chapter titles are on right-sided pages.
An example will illustrate this task better.
This is the front cover of a book:
This is the contents page:
These are some of the cross-checks I would carry out in the main body pages:
1 Does the left-side running header give the book title?
2 Does the right-side running header give the chapter title?
3 Does the chapter title match what is given in the contents page?
4 Does the page number match what is given in the contents page?
▮ Compliance with standard conventions of writing in the life sciences 24
These are some of the conventions used in the life sciences:
▮ at its first mention, the scientific name of a species is italicized, with the first word (the genus) but not the second (the species) having an initial capital. At subsequent mentions, the genus but not the species may be abbreviated (without a full stop).
Drosophila melanogaster (also known as the fruit fly) is biologists’ favourite species.
Drosophila m. is a brilliant model organism! ☹
Drosophila melanogaster (also known as the fruit fly) is biologists’ favourite species.
D melanogaster is a brilliant model organism! 😊
The above is a good general rule. But as always real life is more complicated:
- there are 5 codes for the naming of different groups of living organisms e.g. the International Code of Nomenclature of Prokaryotes, which covers bacteria and archaea.
The codes have slightly different recommendations on how to style scientific names but journals often take a pragmatic approach by adopting a single style for consistency.
- the general rule does not cover very specific nomenclature scenarios such as how to style scientific names when two organisms with the same genus are mentioned. In this situation, the AMA Manual of Style recommends that the genus be expanded at the first mention of each organism.
Staphylococcus aureus and Staphylococcus epidermidis may be components of normal flora or pathogens in clinically significant infections, although S aureus is the more serious pathogen of the two. 😊
instead of this:
Staphylococcus aureus and S epidermidis may be components of normal flora or pathogens in clinically significant infections, although S aureus is the more serious pathogen of the two. ☹
▮ the generic name or, more properly, the nonproprietary name of drugs should be used. In certain types of documents, for example adverse event reports, the brand or proprietary name of the drug is used too (ideally alongside its nonproprietary name). To differentiate the proprietary name from the nonproprietary name, an initial capital is used for the former:
The patient was prescribed a 4-week course of plavix and aspirin. ☹
The patient was prescribed a 4-week course of Plavix (clopidogrel) and aspirin. 😊
▮ italics should be used for the short codes (‘gene symbols’) of genes, to avoid potential confusion with other entities such as the disease itself or the protein product of the gene.
BRCA1 and BRCA2 help make proteins that repair damaged DNA. ☹
BRCA1 and BRCA2 help make proteins that repair damaged DNA. 😊
▮ Formatting of citations and reference lists 25
Two distinct citation styles are used in scientific texts:
- the Vancouver or, more generically, numeric citation style uses numbers in the main text and a numbered reference list after the main text:
Among the many studies performed, one found that the category of chocolate-based desserts was the most popular.5
In the reference list:
5. Lindt PK and Milka SK. Survey of dessert preferences among adults. Journal of Chocology 2015;3(1):34-8.
- the Harvard or author-date citation style mentions authors in the main text and lists them alphabetically in the reference list:
Among the many studies performed, one found that the category of chocolate-based desserts was the most popular (Lindt & Milka, 2015).
In the reference list:
Lindt PK and Milka SK (2015) Survey of dessert preferences among adults. Journal of Chocology 3(1):34-8.
There are some variations within each style. For example, some publications place a full stop after each first name initial (Lindt P.K.); some place the in-text reference number in brackets (most people.(5) ).
The International Committee of Medical Journal Editors (ICMJE) has been publishing guidance on all aspects of the article publication process since 1978. Its Recommendations for the Conduct, Reporting, Editing, and Publication of Scholarly Work in Medical Journals (‘ICMJE Recommendations’) refer readers to the following documents for guidance on how to format references:
- Samples of Formatted References for Authors of Journal Articles, available on the website of the US National Library of Medicine, is a short page for quick look-ups
- Citing Medicine provides more detailed guidance covering every conceivable citation scenario and is also available in full for free.
Notably the ICMJE Recommendations advocate the Vancouver citation style (in fact the ‘Vancouver’ in the name refers to the former name of the ICMJE: the Vancouver Group).
Many journals follow the ICMJE Recommendations exactly or with minor differences. The ICMJE website has a list of journals that have asked to be identified as following ICMJE Recommendations.
▮ Check against reporting guidelines 23
For anyone submitting a manuscript for publication, adherence to a reporting guideline is likely to increase the chances of acceptance and speed up the publication process.
The EQUATOR (Enhancing the QUAlity and Transparency Of health Research) network publishes a wide range of guidelines covering several types of research. And —more importantly— their guidelines have wide support among healthcare journals.
The guideline for reporting randomised studies is the CONSORT 2010 statement. When editing reports of randomised studies, I check them against the checklist (.doc Word file, 216 KB) and the flow diagram (.doc Word file, 48 KB) of the CONSORT statement.
▮ No discrepancies between body text and tables/figures 26
The information in the body text should be consistent with the information shown in illustrative material.
If this is the body text:
At six weeks, a significantly greater improvement in
overall BCTQ score was seen for the corticosteroid
injection group (mean score 2·02 [SD 0·81]) than for
the night splint group (2·29 [0·75]; adjusted mean
difference –0·32; 95% CI –0·48 to –0·16; p=0·001;
And this is the part of table 2 it is referring to:
Then one of the p values is wrong and a query should be raised.
▮ llustrative material supports the body text, not the other way round 27
Illustrative material (figures, tables, photos,…) should support the body text, not the other way round. Typically, the body text highlights the main findings or conclusions and illustrative material provides details for those who want them.
Let’s consider the same article as in the previous section.
This would not be ideal:
The 6-week data for the overall BCTQ score in the corticosteroid injection group vs the night splint group are shown in table 2.
This would be much better:
At six weeks, a significantly greater improvement in overall BCTQ score was seen for the corticosteroid injection group (mean score 2·02 [SD 0·81]) than for the night splint group (2·29 [0·75]; adjusted mean difference –0·32; 95% CI –0·48 to –0·16; p=0·001; table 2).
▮ Illustrative material can stand alone 28
A figure/table/photo stands alone when it can be understood without referring to the body text. Readers should not have to refer to the body text or guess what is being shown.
There is also a positive side effect to this practice: if a fellow researcher decides to insert your figure into a slideshow he will present at a meeting or conference, attendees in the audience will appreciate the contextual information.
8. Medical editing in practice: a table in a scientific article
This is an example of changes I would make or propose for a table in an article to be submitted for publication in a medical journal.
This is the original table:
1 COMMENT FOR AUTHOR
Suggestion: I think it would be better to provide a fuller title so that the reader instantly knows what the table is showing.
2 COMMENT FOR AUTHOR
Presumably ‘mean (SD)’ are being shown? If so, this should be indicated in the legend.
3 CHANGE I MADE
– as range marker changed to to so that it is clearly differentiated from surrounding –
4 COMMENT FOR AUTHOR
I am guessing that the differences are highly significant. If this is the case, I think it would be a good idea to provide the actual p values.
5 COMMENT FOR AUTHOR
Define BCTQ? Would it be understood by colleagues outside of your specialty?
6 COMMENT FOR AUTHOR
Please check this value. I think there is a typo.
AU GENERAL COMMENT:
As a suggestion: I wonder whether there is a visual way to bring together each of the three headers (Overall.., BCTQ symptom severity…, BCTQ functional limitations) with their two data rows? Perhaps through use of colour?
This is the final table submitted after feedback from and discussion with the author: