Senior manuscript editor Mary Nell Hoover talks about journal editing

Mary Nell HooverAcademic journals are some of the first places that groundbreaking scholarship makes its debut. Speed and accuracy are both important, and so manuscript editors working with journals must be able to deftly maneuver among different styles and strict deadlines. Mary Nell Hoover, a senior manuscript editor, talks about her job in the Journals Editorial Science group of the University of Chicago Press and explains how the digital world is changing research publishing.

Tell us a little bit about the path that brought you to become part of the Journals Editorial Science group. Did you come from a science background?

I was an English major—aren’t we all? After I taught high school English for a short time, I worked in hospitals and other medical settings, where I was hired because of my language skills. Along with doing administrative work, I assisted physicians (mostly surgeons) with their medical reports and their manuscripts for submission to medical journals; after that, I did freelance editing and typing of dissertations.

When I was hired by the Press, my first five years were in administrative positions. It took me that long to realize that I should go with my heart and find the courage to take the manuscript editing test. I was afraid I didn’t know enough to edit manuscripts for scholarly journals. In Journals Editorial, I started in a group that edited humanities, social sciences, and economics journals, and eventually I was in a group that added a plant sciences journal and a geology journal to the mix. To my surprise, learning to edit those science articles was very similar to learning to edit an economics or philology article.

The Journals Editorial department has always changed to accommodate the amount of work, the production schedules of the journals, our editing tools, and the technology required for publication. The science journals soon were grouped together as their production schedules became shorter, they more frequently included online enhancements, and they began to publish individual articles online ahead of print. A separate group of editors evolved because it was more efficient that way, and I was eager to be in that group.

Can you take us through your work process? 

Ours are the last eyes to see a proof before the article is published. Before it arrives in our department, the manuscript has been reviewed by experts in the field and has gone through substantive revisions. We do nonsubstantive manuscript editing.

When it arrives at the Press, the manuscript file is translated into an XML file. We then do the manuscript editing in XML on-screen, and we query authors via e-mail and in queries in the author’s proof. Our XML editing software has coding in the form of tags, and we check existing tags and add tags as appropriate, for both PDF (print) and HTML (web) presentations. Many of our articles include online enhancements such as supplemental data tables or author-supplied PDFs to which we link, online-only text appendixes or typeset tables that we edit, figures, and videos, and we make sure these elements work properly. We have to keep track as we edit to be sure that we are tagging and providing appropriate wording for the online and the print editions. For example, when a figure will appear in color online but is grayscale in print, the legend for the figure in the print version must describe the parts of the figure without referring to colors, while the online version describes the colors. In addition, we do our own typesetting for most of our journals, so we can push a button and retrieve a typeset proof from the printer down the hall. It is highly satisfying to tweak tables and math and two-column layouts so they look exactly the way we want them, and to see instant results.

What are some of the ways that journal manuscript editing differs from book manuscript editing?

Each journal has its own design and its own style, and our job is to maintain that journal’s design and style across all of its issues and volumes over the years. This begins with the font and type size for the article title and text and extends from the format for tables and references to the finest details such as how numbers and abbreviations appear. It also includes style points such as preferred technical terminology and word usage for this journal. Consistency with what has come before in that particular journal is our goal.

Our six journals have six different styles, and we work on all six journals at the same time, with manuscripts in various stages of production. We are changing gears constantly, and there is constant time pressure too because our journals are published so frequently (mostly monthly and bimonthly). We are pushing hard all the time to keep each manuscript moving through the process as quickly as possible because our production controllers are posting individual articles online (publishing ahead of print—AOP) as soon as we are finished with them. When an article is posted AOP, it is published, and no revisions may be made without errata, so we must be very fast and also very, very accurate.

Journals are increasingly moving online, and online-only journals are becoming more common. Has this affected the way you edit? Do you think we’ll ever get to the point where journals are solely online?

 All of our journals are online and also are printed and bound into issues, though individual articles might be designated as online only and not appear in the print issue. However, we treat every article the same way, producing a version for the HTML and also producing a PDF version for printing. These PDFs are needed for producing the printed journal, and they also provide readers of the online edition with beautiful printouts of articles if they want them. For our science journals, this PDF is important for seeing math and tables in the correct formats.

Presentation techniques will continue to evolve; for example, recently the Press has instituted a process for making e-book/e-reader editions, and all journals published by the Press are now available in this format. But the need for meticulous preparation will always exist. I can imagine a time when journals might not be sold as printed issues, but preparing PDFs and producing the highest-quality scholarly texts will always be part of the process at the Press.

Besides The Chicago Manual of Style, what other writing tools do you use? 

Each of our journals has its own set of style notes that have evolved over the years, and we consult these frequently as we work. We also consult various additional resources as we come across questions that are not answered in the style notes. All of our journals list The Chicago Manual of Style as our style guide; some of our journals also list the most recent editions of the Council of Science Editors’ style manual, Scientific Style and Format, or the American Medical Association’s AMA Journal of Style. We use the first spelling in Merriam-Webster’s Collegiate Dictionary and we consult unabridged, medical, and science/technology dictionaries. When they are available, we use the online editions of these resources, and we also consult online databases, glossaries, and other information, such as the US Geological Survey’s website and the “List of Title Word Abbreviations” on the website of the International Standard Serial Number Network (for journal title abbreviations in reference lists).

Mary Nell Hoover is Chief Manuscript Editor for science journals at the University of Chicago Press. She has worked at the Press for thirty years.

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