Friday, March 28, 2008

Sloppy Editing of Edited Volumes

I’m writing this on the airplane on the way to the SAA meetings in Vancouver. I have discussed some of the problems with edited volumes in archaeology in an earlier post. Here I want to point out another problem: sloppy editing and production. I just read some chapters in a recent Mesoamerican volume edited by two archaeologists, both relatively new PhDs. I found an unacceptably large number of errors in the text, tables and figures. One or two mistakes will almost always get through the editorial process and into published books. But the large number of problems in these chapters suggests that the volume editors did not read the chapters carefully (there are nonsensical phrases, citations to wildly inappropriate sources, text in figures that makes no sense at all, etc.). It also shows that the copy-editors for the press (a university press) did a poor job.

I guess I shouldn’t be surprised that volume editors don’t pay close attention to the chapters in their books, given my earlier discussion of the problems with edited volumes. The idea seems to be to get a book out quickly, with more attention to speed than quality. And perhaps I shouldn’t be surprised that the press did a lousy job of copy-editing. Since I began publishing in the 1970s, I have noted a marked decline in the quality of copy-editing, particularly in books (most journals still seem to have decent editing). My wife is an editor, so I am very aware of the difference between good and bad editing. I’m not talking about subjective impressions of writing style, but about basic problems: errors in grammar, inconsistencies, meaningless prose, and the like (I will probably blog about editing at some point).

This particular press has a particularly bad reputation for the quality of editing and production. Many of their books are full of typos and errors, and sloppily produced art. Book reviews of their books often point this out, and it is quite obvious to the casual observer. When I pointed this out to someone at the press a couple of years ago (to explain why I was not interested in submitting any manuscripts to them), they assured me that things had improved. But the recent volume I mention above makes me wonder about that. From a scholarly and intellectual perspective, this publisher has published some good books. But from the perspective of editing and production standards, they leave a lot to be desired.

In the past couple of months I have heard at least two publishers of archaeology say they are reducing the number of edited volumes they will accept in the future. They are not cutting these out entirely, but they are trying to reduce the number of awful books (my term, not theirs) published. Perhaps presses are starting to come around on edited volumes. It would also help if archaeologists would pay more attention when deciding where and how to publish our research. Journal articles are a much better choice than book chapters because they are reviewed with more rigor and they have much wider visibility and distribution.

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