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.