Does Your Editor Need to be an Expert in Your Field?

val-gerardBy Val Gerard

People looking for an editor in science and medicine often request someone who is an expert in their particular field. But, do you really need (or want) an expert in your field as an editor?

The graduate students I advised as a professor usually worried most about the “outside” member of their qualifying exam or dissertation committee (i.e., the person from outside of the student’s field). This person was often best at identifying major problems and asked the most insightful questions, which is undoubtedly why they were so scary. As a graduate student, I watched a fellow student fail his doctoral defense because the outside member of his committee found a major flaw in his experimental design and interpretation. The student’s advisor and other committee members, all experts in his field, had overlooked or disregarded the problem. As a postdoctoral fellow at Caltech, I became friendly with half of a rather famous team of molecular biologists. To say the least, I was surprised to learn that this person was actually a physicist. Because his background and training were in an unrelated discipline, he had no preconceived notions or prejudices about research in molecular biology and could view experiments and results with fresh insight.

If you are looking for an editor, there is a take-home lesson here. An expert in your field may understand your material, even if it is not clearly or logically presented, because they can subconsciously fill in the blanks or intuit what you are trying to say. A non-expert, on the other hand, must carefully consider the meaning of every sentence and paragraph, every figure and table, every hypothesis and conclusion. It is the non-expert who will find the confusing sentences, the missing information, the illogical design or conclusions.

There is another important reason for using a non-expert as your editor. Given the interdisciplinary nature of science and medicine today, material on all but the most technical topics will ultimately be read both by experts in your field and by people from other disciplines. Your manuscript, book, dissertation, or grant proposal—not to mention educational materials or brochures aimed at the public—needs to be comprehensible to non-experts, as well as experts in your field. A non-expert editor will be better able than a fellow expert to help you speak to a broad audience.

A professional editor is just that: someone with expertise in producing written material that is accurate, clear, concise, and well organized. An experienced editor with a background in science can comprehend—and make comprehensible—material in almost any discipline. My own research is primarily in ecology and physiology, with a smattering of biochemistry, mathematical modeling, and related topics; yet, in my 8+ years as a freelance editor, I have worked with experts in almost every field of biology (e.g., molecular and cell biology, genetics, toxicology), in chemistry and geology, in veterinary medicine, and in many medical fields. Of course, there are fields that I cannot work in:  material in physics, mathematics, engineering, and theoretical computer science is sometimes so technical that it does require specialized knowledge to fully comprehend. That is why I always ask for a representative sample of the material to read before I determine whether or not I can help a potential client.

Has working with experts in many fields made me an expert? Of course not! But it has taught me that, as a non-expert, the editorial assistance I provide is as valuable, probably more valuable, than that of experts in those fields. As a recent client of mine, an atmospheric chemist, said, “I am really impressed by your editing and your understanding of scientific concepts.” I think he meant to say, “I am really surprised,” by the expert editing of a non-expert.

Val Gerard, Ph.D.
Science and medicine editor

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