On 30 April, SenseMed held their first online meeting to discuss the problems editors face with ever-changing scientific terminology. This was SenseMed’s second meeting so far, the first one being held in-person before the pandemic forced everything online. One advantage of online meetings is that people can join in from anywhere and the meeting was well attended by editors and translators in England, Germany and Spain as well as the Netherlands, setting the stage for some fruitful discussion!
After giving everyone a chance to introduce themselves, SenseMed convenor Curtis Barrett kicked the meeting off by explaining the topic under discussion: when we, as scientific editors, come across terminology that we are not sure about, what should we do? Should we just make sure the language is correct and move on – or is it our responsibility to intervene? Curtis described one example of odd terminology he came across in a research paper and how he solved the problem after a long discussion with his fellow SENSE members Kate McIntyre and Jackie Senior. In this case, the client was pleased with Curtis’ intervention. But Curtis also shared examples of times when he was sure the client had used the wrong terminology, only to discover that this was a new term and his client was completely correct.
Kate emphasized this problem of ever-changing terminology using ‘-omes’ as an example. We are all familiar with the genome, the proteome and even the transcriptome, but things are really getting out of hand. These days, there’s an ‘-ome’ for everything and, worse still, individual ‘-omes’ often have multiple meanings. So what is an editor to do? Kate suggested a useful strategy: check the phrase in Google, if it still seems unclear check PubMed or ask a colleague, and if you are still none the wiser, query the author.
This is an excellent strategy (and it is pretty much what I do myself), but there are problems. We may meet some resistance if our bill suddenly doubles because we spent half a day on the phone to a colleague trying to decipher what ‘microbiome’ means in a paper we are editing. And what if our client has specified that they only want us to check the language? Surely we should respect that and provide the service we have been asked to give?
Yes and no. The brief we get from our client should, of course, be respected and adhered to as far as possible (if we want to keep our clients anyway!). However, I think it is also important not to forget who we are really working for: the reader. We can only do the best job for our clients if we think about their reader when editing their work. If we stumble on a word or phrase in a scientific article, there is every chance that the reader may do so too, even if that word is established in the field. Adding a comment in the margin to point out that a short explanation would help the reader does not take long and could make all the difference.
This SenseMed meeting was lively and gave us plenty of food for thought. Curtis tells me that he already has ideas for the next meeting, so watch this space!