Do editors fact-check writing? Fact-checking, accuracy, agreements, standards, and artificial intelligence (AI) including ChatGPT
Recently, a colleague on a committee asked me about fact-checking. Do editors actually fact-check the work of writers and subject experts? Shouldn’t the writer or subject editor do this instead of the editor?
Accurate? Fact-checked? Always important but even more so with AI
Is it accurate? Was it fact-checked? These have always been key questions for writers, authors, subject experts, editors, and anyone publishing content. These are particularly important with growing concerns about artificial intelligence (AI) and worries about AI making stuff up or failing to research with rigour. (See “Is it real or is it ChatGPT? (and does it matter?)” and “Using ChatGPT for Book Research? Take Exceeding Care.”)
But back to the question
Do editors fact-check writing? Editors can. I often do in my role as editor, but I do so based on discussions with my clients. When my role is writer, I always fact-check my own writing.
Professional editors are well-placed to fact-check or raise concerns about facts and inconsistencies in text. They can be the extra set of eyes on a document after the writer has read it 100 times and before it is published. Professional editors have long been well-placed to raise concerns about factual correctness, plagiarism, and copyright. And now they are well-placed to fact-check and raise concerns about accuracy or misinformation in the face of artificial intelligence (AI).
How this works in practice depends on the context and contract.
- When I’m working with subject experts and they are writing about their specialty, I edit according to the contract with the client—so for structure, requirements for plain language, publication style, grammar, usage, mechanics such as spelling and punctuation, some of the preceding, or all—but I also use Track Changes and add comments to ask, for example, “Authors—see suggested changes for required style. Is this edit correct and clear?” or “Authors—see name variation here vs. page 20. Please confirm or change.” Then, at the last point that the writer sees the text, the writer signs off on the content.
- With some clients, the contract spells out that the editor must “Check all facts that fall within the realm of general knowledge—basically anything that can be verified with a quick internet search: dates and details of events, locations, geographic references (directional, distance), historical references, famous quotations, etc.” and change the text or query any inconsistencies.
- With still other writers and clients, I am to fact-check ALL stated facts, including dates and proper nouns, correct any errors based on authoritative sources, and flag those changes, or query the author to resolve concerns.
These varied approaches are backed up by industry standards and can be set out in a clear contract for each editorial project.
Editors Canada’s “Professional Editorial Standards” (2016) includes this standard:
“E14 Query, or correct if authorized to do so, inconsistencies (e.g., in spelling, punctuation, facts, visual elements, navigation elements, metadata, other content that may not appear on a published web page). Use judgment about the degree to which such queries and corrections are called for.”
As well, Editors Canada’s “Definitions of Editorial Skills” includes the following:
Editing to ensure correctness, accuracy, consistency, and completeness. It includes:
- editing for grammar, spelling, punctuation, and usage
- checking for consistency and continuity of mechanics and facts, including anachronisms, character names, and relationships ….”
And the same Editors Canada’s “Definitions of Editorial Skills” includes the following additional services that might or might not be included in the contracted editor’s scope of work:
Checking the accuracy of facts, citations, and quotes by referring to the writer’s original sources or to other authoritative sources….”
Creating new material based on content supplied by a writer. It may include:
- writing original material
- fact checking ….”
So, do editors fact-check text? It depends. Many do. For clients or employers who hire editors, editors can be an extra defence against errors in published text. In practice, it helps to settle the details of who will fact-check what and create a sign-off stage at which point the writer or content publisher signs off on the text. With AI (ChatGPT and others) adding to the challenges facing writers and content publishers, pro editors can bring this distinct, value-added skill of fact-checking.
Canadian Spelling: It’s Complicated!
An editor colleague recently asked in an online editors’ group about how to direct a client to information about Canadian spelling. Like a good number of Canadian editors, I shake my head with frustration: It’s complicated.
Canadian English is sometimes presented as half British, half American, but inconveniently neither. However, the real issue is that Canadian English is a thing of its own, drawing on different traditions, and with its own unique words but without a core reference that is regularly updated.
Here are some sources and commentaries.
- The Canadian Oxford Dictionary, 2nd edition, (sometimes referred to as CanOx2) is a gem, but dates back to 2004 and is (sadly) not being updated. Clients might have the printed dictionaries in their offices. Members of Editors Canada can access CanOx2 online as a membership service (choosing the Oxford Reference Online Premium Collection and specifically the Canadian Oxford Dictionary). Others (including clients) might be able to access the same source through their own workplace or public library.
- Caps and Spelling from the Canadian Press is the guide for Canadian journalists, and it’s regularly updated. I recommend Caps and Spelling for words that do not appear in CanOx2 (e.g., Covid-19, bitcoin) or for words that might be changing in meaning, spelling, or both. Members of Editors Canada can access Caps and Spelling online as a membership service.
While the Canadian Oxford Dictionary and CP’s Caps and Spelling might not be available to clients, clients might appreciate an easy-to-access article about Canadian spelling by a Canadian editor (Virginia St-Denis) in the Language Portal of Canada and this page.
Some editors might turn to an online source such “Dave VE7CNV’s Truly Canadian Dictionary of Canadian Spelling,” but I question if it is current. I prefer to stick to CanOx2 and Caps and Spelling as authoritative sources and then keep a careful style sheet.
And for those wondering why there is no updated dictionary of Canadian English, well, it’s a big question and one that is being worked on. This CBC article from 2022 gets into some of the details.
On Canadian English and Dictionaries: Q&A
Here’s a list of Canadian dictionaries I have on my bookshelf. Question: What stands out?
- Canadian Oxford Dictionary, 1st edition © 1998; 2nd edition © 2004—edited by Katherine Barber
- Gage Canadian Dictionary © 1997, “a major revision of Gage Canadian Dictionary © 1983; Canadian Senior Dictionary © 1979; The Senior Dictionary © 1973, 1967”
- Gage Canadian Dictionary Intermediate © 1991
- ITP Nelson Canadian Dictionary of the English Language © 1997, “adapted from the American Heritage High School Dictionary, 3rd edition, published by Houghton Mifflin Company”
- The Penguin Canadian Dictionary © 1990, a Penguin Books Canada/Copp Clark Pitman Book—edited by Thomas M. Paikeday
Answers: How old they are. How some are adapted.
In an opinion piece in Quill and Quire, Emma Skagen (a fellow Canadian editor) complains about the lack of an updated, homegrown dictionary of Canadian English. I agree with her concern. Writers and editors have complex relationships with dictionaries.
The fact that Oxford University Press published the Canadian Oxford Dictionary under the outstanding editor-in-chief Katherine Barber was a feat, but today CanOx or COD (as Canadian editors call it) needs to be updated, or some other new, homegrown dictionary of Canadian English needs to be developed.
Back before 1998, I heard things like “Use Gage but change to ‘-our’ and see our style guide for other preferences, and note all variations on the style sheet.” Or “use Gage but use ‘–or’ because this is for the Alberta and B.C. market.” Or “Use Nelson and keep a style sheet, of course.” Or “Use the most-recent Merriam-Webster’s Collegiate Dictionary and check CP Style for anything you can’t find, and keep a style sheet, of course.” And can you imagine teaching spelling in Canadian schools? And what about distinctly Canadian and regional words and their meanings? Keep a style sheet, of course.
The years 1997 and 1998 changed all that. Three different dictionaries of Canadian English were released and CanOx had particular heft (“five years of work by five Canadian lexicographers examining almost twenty million words of Canadian text held in databases representing over 8,000 different Canadian publications” not to mention the regional analysis and the database of citations shared by lexicographers for the Oxford English Dictionary around the world). Canadian editors could look to one source describing Canadian English (and keep a style sheet, of course) as we edited, queried authors, and wrote. We could even compare new dictionaries—word nerd heaven!
The second and last edition of CanOx was published in 2004. So, for a descriptive (not prescriptive) dictionary, that is old. Yes, Oxford University Press (OUP) makes ongoing additions with Canadian English to Oxford Languages. And, yes, a Canadian editor could use a combination of CanOx from 2004 and the Canadian Press Caps and Spelling or specific subject, industry, or government guides. Could Editors Canada collaborate with Canadian publishers to create an up-to-date, homegrown dictionary of Canadian English? Alas, Editors Canada had long negotiations about that, as Emma Skagen recounts in Quill and Quire, but no contract was signed.
So while editors who edit Canadian English grumble about their patchwork solutions, it isn’t as bad as it once was and yet we still need to find a solution. We can dream.
Advice for Editors: Starting Out or Upping Your Game
Editors have a long tradition of mentoring and sharing advice among colleagues, including those starting out (a.k.a. “newbies”). I suggest the following for editors who are starting out or those wanting to improve their skills or business. (For other advice by subject, such as for editing visuals, please see my other blogs.)
- Join a professional organization (or two) in your region and/or specialty, and figure out how to get the most out of your membership. This means finding out all that is offered to you and giving back, which is a sure way to show off your skills, make connections, and learn new skills. In my case, I choose to focus on two organizations: Editors Canada and PLAIN. I volunteer for Editors Canada and a federal government plain language committee.
- Join the editing groups on Facebook that are frequented by professionals (and I might see you there) to lurk, learn, and contribute in a business-like, professional manner. In general, do at least basic research before posting a question. For context, note your location or those of the target readers (because these are international groups, and English and editing vary around the world). Play nice and behave professionally at all times.
- Read up on your subject and any specialty (through your public library and online, and with purchased materials). For example, the Copyeditors’ Knowledge Base (created by Katharine O’Moore-Klopf of KOK Editing) and the Editing Podcast (by Louise Harnby and Denise Cowle) are both great online resources that are free.
- Be prepared to invest in key tools and references that you will use regularly in your business. For example, a laptop computer, key dictionaries and style guides (such as the Chicago Manual of Style, as an online subscription or in print form), and the industry standard computer program (Microsoft Word) are minimum starting points. (Editors who are working and learning on staff, as employees, are the only exception as their employers will provide tools and references.)
- Contribute to the community, thank others, and give credit where it is due. An example of this is noting your sources on a style sheet or when referring to a lesson learned by and from a colleague.
Once you gather all your resources, get ready for ongoing professional development. I mean lifelong learning. Formal training (whether in a certificate or degree program, such as at Simon Fraser University or Centennial College) and formal workshops and seminars along the way (for example, from Editors Canada, ACES, or CIEP) are grand, but learning on the job from experienced colleagues and mentors, from precedents, and using industrial standards and best practices will help an editor become professional, knowledgeable, confident, and flexible. Everyone benefits from such editors—readers, authors, clients, employers, coworkers, colleagues, and the editors themselves. And these editors thrive.
Plain Language & Clear Communications Resources—Updated 2021
In 2015, I wrote about re-energizing my interest in and focus on plain language & clear communications. This is still true: I love this work.
For fellow writers and editors, here are some of the resources I find useful. I will add to this list and tweak it regularly. And if you have any suggestions, please contact me with them. Thanks!
- Plain Language Association International (PLAIN) http://plainlanguagenetwork.org
- the definition for plain language from the International Plain Language Federation, as quoted at <https://plainlanguagenetwork.org/plain-language/what-is-plain-language/> : A communication is in plain language if its wording, structure, and design are so clear that the intended audience can easily find what they need, understand what they find, and use that information.
- Oxford Guide to Plain English, by Martin Cutts—now in the 2020, 5th edition
- about upcoming ISO standards for plain language: <https://www.iso.org/news/ref2566.html>
- Plain Language in Plain English, edited by Cheryl Stephens and other work by Cheryl Stephens
- Plain Language: Clear and Simple, a Canadian government publication now available via Iva Cheung’s blog < http://www.ivacheung.com/2014/03/plain-language-clear-and-simple/>
- How to Write Clearly, available as a pdf from the European Commission at < http://ec.europa.eu/translation/writing/clear_writing/how_to_write_clearly_en.pdf>
- Claire’s Clear Writing Tips—an expansion on the above, also available as a pdf from the European Commission at <https://ec.europa.eu/info/sites/default/files/clear_writing_tips_en.pdf>
- United States government plainlanguage.gov “Checklists and handouts” listing at <https://www.plainlanguage.gov/resources/checklists/>