global warming.jpgWe all know that a controversial topic today is climate change. Yes, this is about climate change, but no, it isn’t about whether there is global warming or not. Instead, this is the story of what happens when the editor goes missing.

The story begins with a 2007 report by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), a United Nations-affiliated group. Five glaring errors were found in the report, errors serious enough to warrant an apology from the scientists who wrote the particular section under scrutiny.

The section dealt with glacier melt in the Himalayas and the prediction that the glaciers could all melt away by the year 2035. Alas, that prediction missed the mark by several hundred years — the year should have been 2350, not 2035. The scientist who discovered the errors admitted that the errors are neither significant in comparison to the findings of the whole report nor intentional, but they are significant enough to raise questions of credibility regarding the whole report. As a reader, imagine if this had been the drug book your doctor consulted when prescribing medication for you.

Isn’t credibility at the bottom of every author’s book and every publisher’s name? When a new Stephen King novel is published, King’s credibility as an author whose books are worth reading is on the line, as is the publisher’s reputation for publishing interesting and readable (i.e., quality) books. If the new King novel is poorly written and edited, King’s reputation suffers, as does his publisher’s. Consequently, it behooves both King and his publisher to hire professional editors for a high-quality, professional edit. And what is true for fiction is trebly true for nonfiction!

In the case of the IPCC, the scientist who publicized the errors noted, “It is a very shoddily written section. It wasn’t copy-edited properly.” Is this a cautionary tale for publishers and authors? It should be. Instead of focusing on the science behind the report, the focus has shifted to the poor editing and via the poor editing to overall credibility.

Similarly, in the world of ebooks the debate about quality (or lack thereof) has shifted the debate from the author’s story to the shoddy craftsmanship of the ebook sold by the publisher. The “story” is no longer how good or bad a particular book’s storyline is, but how riddled with editorial errors it is. What is it about publishers that makes it difficult for them to grasp the simple fact that to get professional editing, one must hire professional editors and that professional editors do not work for minimum wage! (I say this because publishers will retort that they do hire editors; what they don’t confess is that they hire the least expensive editor possible regardless of whether or not the editor is otherwise qualified.)

Editing is a skill. Bad editing, as the IPCC discovered, can lead to disastrous results. Publishers are learning the same thing as the litany of complaints keeps growing. And, as publishers have also learned, when the focus shifts to poor quality, publishers lose the debate — even the opportunity to debate — the core issue: value. That occurs because poor editing leads readers to believe there is no value; something with no value cannot command a high price. (It was not so long ago that Princeton University Press had to recall a book’s entire press run because of complaints about shoddy editing and in 2009 the American Psychological Association replaced first printings of its new style manual for the same reason.) Remember the Yugo automobile, the poster child for poor quality and little value?

Publishers are on that same Yugo path — slogging their way to becoming the new poster child for poor quality products. Too many books are replete with errors — factual, grammatical, syntactical, and spelling — with individual paragraphs having multiple errors, and most pages having several errors. This problem has become more acute within the past quarter century, there seeming to be a causal relationship between consolidation of publishers into mega media companies and a concurrent decrease in editorial funding.

There was a time when “pride of authorship” referred not only to the author’s pride but to the publisher’s pride. Publisher pride seems to have waned as the focus on quarterly profits has waxed. For the want of a professional editor, the errors in the IPCC report have caused a tectonic shift in the climate change debate from whether global warming is fact to whether or not the fact-finders are credible purveyors of fact. Lack of professional editing in ebooks is causing a similar tectonic shift as ebookers debate the value of ebooks compared to the pricing.

Professional editing is not the panacea for all that troubles the publishing industry, but a return to using professional editors to edit books will allow the debate to refocus on concerns other than wholesale lack of value.

Editor’s Note: Rich Adin is an editor and owner of Freelance Editorial Services, a provider of editorial and production services to publishers and authors. This is reprinted, with permission, from his An American Editor blog. PB


  1. I disagree. Bad editing? More like obfuscation, suppression and destruction of records, selection of data to get the “right” results, and possibly much murkier stuff. I used to be a firm believer in AGW (anthropogenic global warming), and had been since I was a biology undergrad in the late 1960s. After the CRU emails/code were leaked/hacked I looked into the whole thing more closely and was shocked. Now I’m convinced it’s a monumental scam. Anthony Watts’s blog is a good place to start for those still bamboozled.

    The worst thing is that the whole environmental movement could end up being discredited, with tragic consequences for us all.

  2. I really don’t see how a reasonable person can still believe in man-made global warming. Even if it was occurring, when all you hear from it’s proponents are lies and more lies how can you take them seriously?

    And this wasn’t an error. I remember the 2035 number being blasted all over the place so there is no way the people responsible for that report didn’t know about it. It was the highlight of that freakin’ report. Climategate then this, how many times do people have to be lied to before they get it?

  3. Climate change is a rapidly growing field. We expect information to be updated/confirmed and even challenged.We also expect errors to be exposed. A document can at best summarize the best guesses to date. Yes, sure, this particular detail was wrong (although as Joe Romm reports, it was discouraged — but not forbidden — for IPCC to include “gray literature” from non-peer-reviewed sources).

    Romm writes elsewhere , “It isn’t news that the 2007 projections by the UN Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change are not accurate. The real news is that the 99% of their “mistakes” are UNDERestimates of likely impacts. Indeed, they lowballed the sea level rise projections so badly that even the Bush administration rejected them within a year.”

    For RICHARD: the Watts blog is a notorious source of bad information. (the latest Watts misinformation was debunked on the NYT just this morning ). Try for more rigorous analyses.

    Now that the means exists to edit documents online after publication, do scientists have the responsibility to update older documents as better info becomes available?

    As a writer and reader of technical books, I understand how hard it is to have error-free copy; I will almost always check the Oreilly or Packt Publishing site after buying a print book. Wouldn’t it be nice to have a self-updating book like this…so we wouldn’t need to worry about information being wrong or out-of-date? But the problem goes deeper than that. If you buy a four year old book about Php or web design, it may recommend algorithms or methods which are no longer appropriate or necessary because of improvements in web technology. These kinds of technical books are not inaccurate per se; they were appropriate for the time the book was published. For technical books we need a process that ensures that the editor and writer can keep watch over the book after initial publication. Frankly, I’m surprised that ebook publishers haven’t touted the ease of updating as a reason to opt for ebooks over print books.

    We need more and better editing — not just in scientific documents but even creative literature. Using a Stephen King novel as an example, it would bother me less to find a random typo or continuity error than to come across a chapter that was boring and full of cliches. An editor would have to have balls of steel to stand up and say his opinion to Mr. King’ s face. I’m sure the recent Glen Beck book or Sarah Palin book was impeccably edited even though the rhetoric and ideas were unremarkable. Editing has started to be seen as useful mainly for ghost-written books. That is sad.

    I’m actually surprised that an error like this would arise in the IPCC document. Political documents have to go through a rigorous approval process. If anything, group-written documents are written using diplomatic language which is unbelievably bland and timorous. My superficial impression from reading parts of the IPCC report is that it used a lot of qualifiers.

    Related: here’s a relevant post titled IPCC is not infallible on

    the measure of an organisation is not determined by the mere existence of errors, but in how it deals with them when they crop up. The current discussion about Himalayan glaciers is therefore a good opportunity for the IPCC to further improve their procedures and think more about what the IPCC should be doing in the times between the main reports.

  4. Climate change is not controversial. It is accepted as fact by the vast majority of the scientific community based on decades and decades of research and monitoring. To say you disagree with climate change is like saying you disagree that viruses cause disease or that the planet is round.

  5. People doubted global warming before; and with or without an editor, they will continue to do so. People are good like that, very capable of rationalizing their beliefs with whatever information is (or is not) at hand. In this case, the shoddy editing was used to distract people from the message in the text, even to the point of downplaying the issue at heart over the editing debacle.

    Not that getting accurate information is not important… but we mustn’t allow important issues to be “smokescreened” by non-sequiturs. Next will be the complaints that the paper used in the report was shipped from China, or that one of the scientists has an illicit affair going on behind his wife’s back… and we’ll be wasting time staring at newsrag covers instead of addressing the problem at hand.

    It’s too easy to lose focus, at exactly the time when we need to be laser-sharp about fixing these problems. Mistakes were made in editing; that doesn’t invalidate the message itself, it only demands further striving for accuracy.

  6. @Mike — I know a couple of people who claim the world is only 5,000 years old, at least 1 person who disputes that the sun is the center of our mini-universe, and that the Bible was written by God’s own hand. In law school one student believed that diseases were caused by washing, especially washing with soap (the idea being that one washed away natural immunities) and so the student never washed or bathed — him-/herself or his/her clothes or his/her/dishes and eating utensils.

    So why are you surprised that there are believers and disbelievers regarding global warming, death panels, whether Obama is a native-born citizen, Rush Limbaugh is a druggie, Medicare is socialized medicine, etc?

  7. Or whether NASA really went to the moon or that Arabs caused 9-11…
    There are literally dozens of books out there on irrational thinking. And every day sees a new idiotic conspiracy theory popping up. (Apple getting into book publishing?)

    That said, Climategate has a core of true scandal; Data *was* purposefully deleted and UK Freedom of Information Law *was* purposefully violated. The UK press is digging and finding *real* issues.

    It’s not just a vast right-wing conspiracy; there *is* actual misbehavior fueling the blogosphere.

    It’s going to take a while for the dust to settle so a proper evaluation of the reports can be made and validated and we can get back to talking real science and not politics.

  8. It’s never out of place to emphasize the critical role of editing in the publishing process, but, geez, such gross generalizations are made in this piece: “Publishers are on that same Yugo path.” There are tens of thousands of publishers and I expect copyediting is still important to a whole lot of them. More facts, fewer generalizations, please. That’s important in any debate.

The TeleRead community values your civil and thoughtful comments. We use a cache, so expect a delay. Problems? E-mail