Lindsey Buscher talks about Scientific Style and Format

l-buscher-bio-picPlant scientists, zoologists, microbiologists, and many other scientists often deal in special characters and precise formats beyond even the scope of the thousand-page Chicago Manual of Style. That’s where Scientific Style and Format comes in. Overseen by the Council of Science Editors, it offers sections such as “Stereochemical Nomenclature,” “Plant-Pathogenic Fungi,” and “Dwarf Planets and Small Solar System Bodies (Asteroids and Comets).” We talked to Lindsey Buscher, the project manager for the eighth edition of Scientific Style and Format, about what it took to revise the manual and about the future of science writing.

CMOS: First, tell us a little bit about the Council of Science Editors. What kind of publications do your members edit? Do you have noneditors as members?

LB: CSE is a wonderful group of professionals who are either involved in or interested in the scientific and academic publishing field. We are dedicated to communicating scientific research in an effective and efficient way, and we enjoy sharing our knowledge and experiences with each other, especially with those who are new to the profession.

Our members are involved with a very wide range of publications—anything from small trade booklets to well-known journals and even textbooks in a variety of scientific, medical, and technical specialties. Most of us work with peer-reviewed journals, but certainly not all of us. There are also plenty of noneditors, such as authors, publishers, online peer-review system vendors, people who work for printing houses, in marketing and sales, and pretty much anything that has anything to do with the publication process.

CMOS: CSE president Heather Goodell recently said, “I find myself often trying to explain the role of a scientific journal editor.” Can you talk a little bit about this challenge?

SSFLB: That’s actually the very first thing I learned while attending my first CSE annual meeting—just how differently the term “scientific journal editor” can be defined depending on who you talk to, which company they work for, what their day-to-day tasks actually entail, which way the wind is blowing, etc. For example, what one company might call a “managing editor,” another company might call a “production editor” or “project manager” or something along those lines, or maybe something completely different, like “associate editor” or “acquisitions editor.”

The job descriptions can vary pretty drastically, too. A scientific journal editor could do anything from technical copyediting, content editing, or proofreading to managing the production of an article or journal. Some of us work more with budgets; some work more with print and/or online publication schedules; and some work directly with authors or work exclusively with other vendors. Some of us are freelancers who do all of the above. It really is a difficult thing to explain to someone not in this field, at least as a standard, all-encompassing, one-line response, but I think that’s part of what makes this profession so dynamic and interesting and exciting to be a part of, because an editor’s role can shift and evolve, especially when new technologies are introduced. Some may think that’s a sign of instability, and not to overstate it, but I see it as an endless opportunity to get involved with how that evolution takes place and help it move in a direction that’s increasingly beneficial to everyone, whether you’re an editor yourself or someone who will receive a cutting-edge medical treatment thanks to the research that is published in a medical journal or in a textbook that becomes part of the standard curriculum at a prestigious medical school.

CMOS: How would you explain Scientific Style and Format to the Chicago Manual of Style users on this site? Do you have a few examples of how they are similar and how they are different?

LB: CMOS is an excellent resource for a wide range of grammar and style points in general and academic writing; SSF is geared more toward specific scientific disciplines and how certain style points may change or have different meanings within the context of those disciplines. For example, in general prose, the use of italics tends to indicate a foreign word or phrase (CMOS 7.49) or can be used upon first mention of a key term (CMOS 7.54), whereas in biology, italics could indicate the name of a genus, species, subspecies, or variety, or in genomics it could indicate a specific gene or allele, or in astronomy it could indicate the name of a satellite after christening (SSF 10.1.1.2). In both manuals, though, italic font also indicates the title of a book in a reference citation.

CMOS: Can you talk about the revision process of SSF8? How do you approach revising such a book? And how do you decide what needs to be changed and what can stay the same?

LB: I can’t say exactly how it came to be decided that SSF needed to be updated and a new edition published, but once the CSE Board did make the decision, they began searching for a project manager who was crazy enough (but admittedly organized and capable) to take on such a huge project. They found me! I got to work immediately on scouring the CSE membership and putting together a subcommittee of volunteer experts in each of the specific scientific disciplines covered in the seventh edition as a starting place, as well as general experts who had either worked on previous editions of SSF or who at least had a solid grasp on how to go about updating the general chapters.

Once the subcommittee was established and chapters from the seventh edition were assigned, we began having regular conference calls to openly brainstorm ideas about how the general structure should look (follow the seventh edition pretty closely in terms of organization and chapter structure, or drastically depart and create a whole new flow?), what new topics we definitely needed to incorporate (in 2006 Pluto was reclassified as a dwarf planet—should we mention that? And should we come up with a standard way to cite new media like blogs, tweets, and podcasts?), and what we might consider eliminating (any mention of the USSR or calling the Internet “the World Wide Web” seemed dated . . .).

We decided that the overall organization and structure of the seventh edition was sufficiently useful and didn’t need to change too significantly, although there were plenty of authoritative international bodies that should be consulted and updates made accordingly, such as recent changes in copyright law and ISO standards. Certainly discussion and use of terms like microfilm sounded outdated (unless used in a historical context), and could thus be removed.

Once the brainstorming was underway, each subcommittee member took the text from the seventh edition and started making updates. All changes were then vetted by an advisory group consisting of a CSE Board member, an experienced expert in updating style manuals, myself, and an unbiased fourth party and CSE member. After about a year and a half of meetings, track changes, revisions, countless emails, a round of reviews by additional field experts, vetting, proofreading, more revisions, and more track changes, the text was more or less finalized and the print and online production were underway. Basically it was a three-year-long whirlwind, and a lot of people were involved and worked tirelessly to see this project through completion, and we’re all very proud of the finished product and hope that users will find it valuable!

CMOS: There has been a lot of attention lately to plain writing and making science communication more clear. Why do you think this has become more prominent lately? Did it have an effect on some of the revision choices going into the new edition?

LB: There are probably many reasons why plain writing is having its moment right now, but I think one of those reasons is transparency. It has a lot to do with the saturation of information in the general public thanks to the multitude of online resources and the sharing and spreading of information through social media. I think another major reason is globalization. English is universally accepted as the language of scientific communication, but not all scientists who make significant contributions in their respective fields are native English speakers. In order for their research to be understood both around the world and also by experts and nonexperts alike, it is especially important for their findings to be communicated in a way that is clear and concise so that the language itself doesn’t become a barrier to understanding.

CMOS: Are you seeing other trends in science writing? What are some hot topics at your conference this year?

LB: Other popular themes I’ve noticed lately include issues of ethics, such as predatory publishers or author or editor misconduct, the constantly evolving technologies and social media outlets used in our industry, all the various levels of open access, and how to deal with the sheer volume of data that is now available at everyone’s fingertips, which is actually one of the central themes of the CSE annual meeting in San Antonio this year (May 2–5): “4D Publishing: Data, Decision, Difference, and Direction.” There are many sessions planned around these topics, and it promises to be one of our best conferences yet!

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