Am I being a medical editing stickler?
December 19, 2010 11:06 AM   Subscribe

Editing question: Am I being too much of a stickler in editing medical documents?

I have a basic science background, but I frequently edit medical documents and I'm curious whether medical writers are a bit more lax regarding some of the rules that I was taught. I was taught that the word "observed" should be used instead of "seen" because seen exclusively implies visual recognition whereas observed more accurately describes the cognitive recognition that occurs (eg, This condition was seen observed in 25% of patients). Similarly, "higher/lower" and "longer/shorter" should only be used to describe altitude and length, respectively, but these terms appear constantly in medical literature to generally describe changes in values instead of the more broadly acceptable phrases "greater than" or "less than".

Personally, I think that I should just go with the flow since these terms are so pervasively (mis)used with no real threat of miscomprehension by the reader and I've also been accused of being an overzealous editor in the past. . .

So, I assume there will be singular and varying opinions about this, but I primarily want to hear from medical writers/professionals about whether you were taught these things and what the general acceptable consensus is among your peers/editors regarding the use/misuse of these words. Thanks.
posted by surfgator to Writing & Language (12 answers total) 3 users marked this as a favorite
It depends on the audience of the medical documents. If you're seeking to be understood by the widest possible audience, it makes sense to stick to familiar, easily read terms at the expense of precision in definition.
posted by entropone at 11:19 AM on December 19, 2010

As a general rule, I'd ask the client how he/she wants it done. The readers' preferences or rules of scientific method may be interesting, but they are secondary to what your client thinks. If the client has already told you you're overzealous, then yes, you should "go with the flow". (I edit non-fiction).
posted by The Toad at 11:20 AM on December 19, 2010

(mis)used with no real threat of miscomprehension by the reader

Ain't no such thing. I'm not a medical editor, but I've edited enough to have come up with one primary rule of language:
"Correct" means your audience understands you. Nothing more, nothing less.

If the field uses "higher" for "more," then go with it. If it could make a legitimate and even slightly important difference, then change it. Otherwise, don't bother.
posted by Etrigan at 11:25 AM on December 19, 2010

The answer is always "whatever the house style is for the publication, and whatever the accepted style is for the profession." Editors are not meant to be evangelists, or even grammar instructors.
posted by Sidhedevil at 11:43 AM on December 19, 2010 [3 favorites]

What publication are you editing? Have you checked AMA's style guide or
International Medical Editors for guidance?
posted by cestmoi15 at 11:56 AM on December 19, 2010

Best answer: I write medical articles for a living. The 2 main types of articles that I write at the moment include either 1) primary or secondary articles for medical journals or 2) documents to educate sales people at pharma companies (a lay person audience for type 2 documents)

For type 2 documents, I slip into whatever is easier for that audience to understand (although I would lean towards observed). For audience 1, I do similar to what you state above, but that is just one data point.

I don't know if this helps you, but I sometimes reference google scholar. It will pull up exact phrases and terms from published journal articles. I just put in observed and seen and those terms came up 6 million times and 5 million times, respectively. In regards to seen, I can see some of the exampleson that first page and it looks like people are using it in the context beyond vision e.g. "(young girls seen in office practice").

I do go to google scholar sometimes to decide whether or not I want to push for a certain term. If term/phrase 1 is cited 10 times and term 2 is cited 100000 times, then I can argue present it to someone as to why it may be better to use term 2.

Also, as someone who used to work with an editor at a med ed company, do you tell the writers why you are changing the word? I usually listed to the rationale and decided from there whether to put it in or not.

I would not just put it in because the client says so. Put a comment or tracked change in as to why you are doing it. I've seen people who are not doctors or science people review the first few rounds, a term gets changed ---only to have it put back in when the medical people review it later on. The person can decide to use the term or not, but just for their records and for your sanity.
posted by Wolfster at 12:28 PM on December 19, 2010 [1 favorite]

I'm a medical/science editor, and I would change "seen" to "observed" but let the "higher" and "lower" stand.
posted by mkuhnell at 12:37 PM on December 19, 2010

First of all, you have to use the terms of art and conventions used in the field. Second of all, you should not get fixated on corrections that are so obscure that they won't be generally understood by your client and, if uncorrected, won't cause confusion or look incorrect to the reader. Both of your examples fall into this latter category. Nobody is going to read "seen" and think, "huh, I guess they weren't using all of their cognitive processes there!" Likewise, nobody is going to read "seen" and think it's incorrect or unsophisticated either. (That is, unless it is a term of art in the medical field -- eg, means being actually seen during a patient visit as opposed to some other form of data collection.)

When you make these kinds of hyper-technical corrections, you are being a bad editor. You're just going to piss off the reviewer, who has to waste time reviewing your insignificant changes. You need to understand the difference between your own personal stylistic preferences (like preferring observed over seen) and actual errors or ambiguities.
posted by yarly at 1:24 PM on December 19, 2010

I write for a living, on medical topics, but I am not an editor.

Your examples strike me as being far too demanding. They may be suitable for the New England Journal of Medicine and others at that level, but not for most publications.
posted by megatherium at 1:52 PM on December 19, 2010

I think you're taking on too much responsibility on behalf of the author.

Now, if a colleague comes to you and asks for your help in being a more effective medical writer, there's a great place to preach the gospel of precision as a communication tool.

(By the way, it's definitely not a basic science vs clinical thing, in my experience.)
posted by desuetude at 5:15 PM on December 19, 2010

As a medical transcriptionist, I can tell you there are standards but what your boss wants trumps those standards. If your boss doesn't give you any special rules, go with what you were taught.
posted by IndigoRain at 9:26 PM on December 19, 2010

Response by poster: Thanks again for sharing your brainspace, folks. I appreciate it.
posted by surfgator at 3:52 PM on December 20, 2010

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