Eva van Emden, Freelance Editor

Certified Copy Editor and Proofreader

eva@vancouvereditor.com

November 7, 2014

Ethics for Editors Seminar

Understand your role.

Keep your promises.

These were the guiding principles behind our discussions during an Editors’ Association of Canada seminar taught by Mary Schendlinger of Geist magazine.

Why does a copy editor need to understand ethical issues?

Editors are the front line of the publishing industry: after authors, editors work most closely with manuscripts, and often, that makes them the publishing professionals who flag potential libel, copyright infringement, plagiarism, invasion of privacy, and biased language. If you work with self-publishing authors, you might be the only publishing expert who can warn the author about these issues.

Responsibilities to many stakeholders

You may think of publishing ethics in terms of dealing with your employers or clients, but there is a much wider range of stakeholders to consider: authors; readers; your colleagues and the larger community of writers and artists; other publishing professionals, such as printers, designers, booksellers, libraries, advertisers, and investors; and the environment.
  • The author’s hard work and creativity should be respected. Copyright law gives them the right to be credited and compensated, and for their work to be published without distortion.
  • The reader deserves a good product.
  • You can support your colleagues and the publishing community by participating in industry events and supporting professional associations. Treat your clients and staff well. Be honest and fair with your professional recommendations.
  • Consider the environmental footprint of your publications and your work methods. Even Internet use has an energy cost.

Some questions and common problems

Here are a few questions that came up together with answers that were offered.

When you’re a freelance editor, is it OK to turn away a manuscript because you don’t agree with the opinions expressed in it or you just don’t feel like working on it? Yes. It’s OK to choose projects that you’ll enjoy working on, and the editing process works best when the editor is enthusiastic about the project.

Conversely, is it OK to accept a project you’re not enthusiastic about? Yes. You can do an excellent, professional job editing a manuscript even if you’re not personally passionate about wing-nut-manufacturing specifications, the life cycle of the hookworm, or cooking with kale.

What should you do when you find plagiarism in a manuscript? If you find racist or sexist statements? Plagiarism can happen by accident, and biased language might be completely invisible to the author. Treat the problem as a problem with the writing, not a problem with the author, and address it in terms of how it could distract the reader from the book’s message.

What if you’re working on a manuscript and you find errors that should have been fixed at an earlier stage in the editing? Don’t just complain to your employer that the earlier editor didn’t do her job. It may be that what looks like an error was kept at the insistence of the author.

Further reading

  • See also my introduction to Canadian libel law.
  • Various style guides have sections on legal issues: Editing Canadian English, 2nd Ed., Chapter 11, “Editors and the Law,” Chicago Manual of Style, 16th Ed., Chapter 4 “Rights, Permissions, and Copyright Administration,” Associated Press Stylebook, “Briefing on Media Law,” and Canadian Press Stylebook, various sections including “Legal.”
  • Canadian Copyright Law by Lesley Ellen Harris has a newly updated edition.

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