This month's typographical horror: Researchers PAY typesetters to corrupt information

One of the "benefits" we get from paying publishers to publish our work is that they "typeset" it. Actually they don't. They pay typesetters to mutilate it. I don't know how much they pay but it's probably > 10 USD per page. This means that when you pay APCs (Article Processing Charges) YOU are paying typesetters - maybe 200 USD.

Maybe you or your funder is happy with this?

I'm not. Typesetters destroy information. Badly. Often enough to blur or change the science. ALL journals do this. I happen to be hacking PLoSONE today (http://journals.plos.org/plosone/article?id=10.1371/journal.pone.0115884), but this is unlikely to be specific to them:

ploshorror

So what's the typographical symbol/s in the last line? Hint. It's NOT what it SHOULD be

Unicode Character 'PLUS-MINUS SIGN' (U+00B1)

image of Unicode Character 'PLUS-MINUS SIGN' (U+00B1)

So what's happened? Try cutting and pasting the last line into a text editor. Mine gives:

(TY/SVL = 0.05+0.01 in males, 0.06+0.01 in females versus 0.08+0.01 in both sexes in L.

This is a DESTRUCTION of information.

So authors should be able to refuse charges for typesetting and save over 100 USD. and thereby improve science.

BTW the same horror appears in the XML. So when the publishers tell you how wonderful XML is, make your own judgment.

There are other horrors of the same sort (besides plus-minus) in the document. Can you spot them?

The only good news is that ContentMine sets out to normalize and remove such junk. It will be a long slog, but if you are committed to proper communication of science, lend a hand.

 

 

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11 Responses to This month's typographical horror: Researchers PAY typesetters to corrupt information

  1. Anna Sharman says:

    Why do you think it is typesetters who introduced this ? As a copyeditor, I see this error (using underlined plus sign to mean plus-or-minus) often in author manuscripts. I know PLOS ONE don't copyedit papers, so it seems likely to me that this is an author error that has not been corrected by the publisher. Your main point may be correct, but I don't think this example proves it.
    To me it is an argument for copyediting, or at least that publishers should have procedures to spot this kind of thing and correct it during typesetting, though without an editor that could introduce other errors.
    A good copyeditor would also spot the use of superscript lower case o for degrees in this article - another common author error. I'd be interested to know what other 'horrors' you have found in it.

    • pm286 says:

      Thanks - it may well be an author. If I were a publisher who cared about science I'd want to avoid publishing this. If not, fine, but don't charge people for typesetting. Typesetting raw grot creates typeset grot.

      The publishers tell us how wonderful typesetting and XML is and (by inference) why you should pay for it. I'd much rather take the author manuscripts from arXiv (which cost 7 USD) and treat them as the publication.

    • Diane Schubach says:

      Exactly Anna (I especially love the superscript lower case o for degree). Authors are not typesetters, and typesetters are not copy editors, even the ones that speak English as a first language. But one thing I have found to be a universal truth after years as a copy editor is that errors creep in, even though files may go through a pre-editing routine, are seen by a reviewer, editor, production editor, typesetter, author, mom, errors still happen. And they always will.

  2. Yes, xml says:

    0.06+0.01

    Oh, how far we have progressed in scientific publishing! I notice they have a new journal style. Full marks for going single column. Time will tell if content and typesetting improves. Not looking good so far. ;-)

  3. Oh, I put the code for angle bracket underline, and it was eaten up, but XML has "underline" tag around plus sign.

  4. And remember, only a tiny percentage of publishers publish the XML, e.g. Plos, so we have no idea what lies in the iceberg below the water. That is the most frightening thing. It is a friendly whale or a killer shark?

    So at least a round of applause for Plos and others who make XML available, warts and all!

    • pm286 says:

      one hand clapping, I think. The XML is NLM-derived. I've spent this afternoon writing XSLT so if other use a similar approach that will save a lot of time. Currently I have looked at: PLOS = NLM, Hindawi none (but well-formed HTML), BMC homegrown (but at least they were the first and pioneered Open), and Elsevier (homegrown - a cross between a battletank and ...)

  5. I see several issues raised by this example, but I think it's best to treat them separately.

    The human aspect is that nobody, typesetter or otherwise, should be allowed to modify a scientific document without (1) having a basic understanding of its language and contents and (2) asking the authors to approve explicitly all changes, no matter how minor.

    The technical aspect is that the relation between the visual aspect and the semantics are not always clear for the various encodings and representations used in science publishing. Improving the situation would require agreements involving groups with vested interests, so this as much as social as a technical issue.

    The educational aspect is that most scientists are not even aware of the existence of the technical aspect quoted above. They tend to trust that their intentions are well conveyed by the final published paper, unaware of the problems. That's indeed an argument for publishing the authors' original manuscript, although that's not a panacea either: the manuscript may well contain notation that means something else in neighboring fields and should thus be avoided or explained.

    • pm286 says:

      >>The human aspect is that nobody, typesetter or otherwise, should be allowed to modify a scientific document without (1) having a basic understanding of its language and contents and (2) asking the authors to approve explicitly all changes, no matter how minor.

      Agreed. One paper Henry and I submitted to J.Am.Chem.Soc. They *insisted* on turning the tt-font into porportional and - worse - introducing smart quotes because "it was house style". It destroyed part of the meaning

      >>The technical aspect is that the relation between the visual aspect and the semantics are not always clear for the various encodings and representations used in science publishing.

      Yes. A common one is — used as minus. That destroys the sign of a quantity and it's hard to spot visually.

      >>Improving the situation would require agreements involving groups with vested interests, so this as much as social as a technical issue.

      A universal solution would, indeed, require harmonisation but IMO should only include the scientific community, not the publishers.

      >>The educational aspect is that most scientists are not even aware of the existence of the technical aspect quoted above. They tend to trust that their intentions are well conveyed by the final published paper, unaware of the problems. That's indeed an argument for publishing the authors' original manuscript, although that's not a panacea either: the manuscript may well contain notation that means something else in neighboring fields and should thus be avoided or explained.

      Publishing the original avoids errors introduced by the publisher. It also shows whether the publishers has (a) added value [rare] (b) done nothing [common] (c) destroyed value [common]

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