Editing math papers for spelling and grammar - worth it?
July 20, 2008 1:42 PM   Subscribe

Anyone ever worked as an editor/proofreader for science and mathematics articles not written by native English speakers?

I'm a grad student in mathematics. My department sends out lots of emails about job opportunities, and this one caught my eye. I would be editing math papers written in English by mathematicians who want to publish in English-language journals, but for whom English is not their first language. The editing is limited to spelling and grammar, I wouldn't actually be editing any mathematical content.

The pay is per article, and the rates vary depending on the length of the article and the turnaround time (which is set by the client, not the editor). The scale is $10 for an article of < 1500 words with a turnaround time of a week to $30 for the same length with a turnaround time of 12 hours. For articles 1500 - 6000 words, it goes from $25 - $60 based on turnaround time. For articles 6000 - 12000 words it goes from $50 - $80, and for articles longer than 12000 words they pay $6 - $8 per 1000 words.

The person I contacted about the job said that they could do a 5000-word article in under an hour.

My questions are:
1) Does that seem like a reasonable rate of pay?
2) Is an hour for editing a 5000-word article reasonable?
3) Have you ever worked for a service like this? Any thoughts/stories? Was it worth it?
posted by number9dream to Work & Money (8 answers total) 2 users marked this as a favorite
Yes, I have. I hesitate to name a price because some papers will be almost no work, and others will be a tough slog. I would insist upon payment by the hour.

Are you editing, or proof-reading? Proof-reading entails only fixing spelling, grammar and typos. The end product has to be letter perfect, but not necessarily elegant. I hate proofing because I usually hate the result. The fee above is okay, but not stellar. Remember, you need someone who knows mathematics to do this.

Editing is fixing and rearranging sentences and suggesting improvements as well a guaranteeing that the end product is letter perfect. I would charge more, particularly if the authors don't write English well.
posted by gesamtkunstwerk at 2:02 PM on July 20, 2008

If you sign up is there a big commitment to do lots of these? I think doing one article and see how you feel would be ideal.

In my experience in editing manuscripts in bioinformatics by native speakers (for my colleagues for free), which is a bit less hairy than mathematics by non-native speakers, I would expect to spend up to two hours to do a thorough copy editing of a 5000-word article. Maybe if you do it all the time, as the person you contacted does, you get faster.

If this is self-employed work for contract in the U.S., remember that you will have to pay higher taxes on self-employment income to cover Medicare and Social Security costs your employer would pay ordinarily.
posted by grouse at 2:10 PM on July 20, 2008

it will depend on how well you want to do the job. i have refereed papers where you need to think hard about the science before you can fix the english (but you could easily and quickly have fixed up the syntax leaving it readable yet unintelligible).
posted by not sure this is a good idea at 2:12 PM on July 20, 2008

Oops. I reread the email I got and it said under an hour for a 3000-word article, not 5000.
posted by number9dream at 2:16 PM on July 20, 2008

I've done it for a book of NATO proceedings for $20 an hour flat. You won't be able to turn around an article of 3K words in under an hour until you've done a few, especially if you're not familiar with the researcher's field.

Some of those researchers can mutilate the English language in ways you've never even considered. I recommend getting a good stylebook for whatever format you're expected to use, and access to a printer-- I occasionally resorted to printing out single baffling sentences in giant fonts and trying to reassemble the syntax, like a backwards William Burroughs.

It's mind-numbing work at best, but if you need the cash, it's not that bad. I seem to recall buying my first PalmPilot with the proceeds, which implies that I worked about 30 hours or so total on the book.
posted by fairytale of los angeles at 5:46 PM on July 20, 2008

As gesamtkunstwerk & "not sure" both cautioned, be sure about the specs before making a long term commitment. If the only requirement is to copyedit, you might be OK on piece work, but I, too, would try for an hourly rate.

I was unclear on who you would be doing this for. Is this for a journal, or only for journal aspirants? In either case, if you render their work legible but still unintelligible, I fail to see how this helps their cause.

I edited book reviews written by academicians and non-academic subject matter experts from around the world on subjects in humanities and some with scientific bent. In my case, since it was for a journal, but still "just" copyediting, I had to make sure punctuation and conventions were all to Chicago Manual spec. I don't know which particular standard you'll have to maintain, but there must be some controlling style. If you haven't done that before, it will take some time to get up to speed, but when you do, you probably will be in fine shape whenever you write for publication. So you've got that going for you.
posted by beelzbubba at 9:19 PM on July 20, 2008

I've done a bit of this before and would caution that jobs are sometimes described as "proof-reading", when really they will expect them to be edited into proper English.

Also - do you happen to know the native languages of the orignal (client) authors? It tends to be a lot easier and faster to check papers written by European authors compared to Asian authors for example. Might be beyond your control though.
posted by theyexpectresults at 12:22 AM on July 21, 2008

It really depends on how much work things will require. While you say that you'll be just editing spelling and grammar, there is a very fine line between clarity of explanation and grammar, and if you end up with situations where you have to bang your head on the wall thinking "this sentence is technically grammatical but I don't have a clue what it means, and I suspect the author means something else," it'll take forever. Trying to correct "we integrate over S, the set of cromulent numbers" and trying to figure out what cromulent means in this context can drive you crazy.

If your source suggests that it's about 5000 words per hour and you have reason to believe the same will hold for you, the wage sounds reasonable for a grad student and I encourage you to consider it. If the specific subfield you're working with is the same one you'd be editing for, that's a bonus as you'll be able to understand them faster and will be reading articles which may come in handy for you later on anyways.

I suppose I'm only answering question 1) directly, and so the blunt answer is 'yes, $50-80 per hour is reasonable, but only if you believe the answer to 2) is yes'
posted by bsdfish at 4:12 AM on July 21, 2008

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