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May 20, 2013

Quiz Bowl: Editorial Processing and Assessment

Filed under: editing process — amastyleinsider @ 11:22 am
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So, what happens to my manuscript once it has been submitted for publication? Who reads it? Who decides its fate? If it is accepted, what happens next? Help!

Many authors are perplexed by the editorial processing and assessment stages of the publication process. Sometimes it seems as if manuscripts are submitted for publication only to disappear into a sinkhole of unpublished data. Never fear, diligent authors. This month’s AMA Manual of Style quiz covers the procedures involved in editorial assessment and processing.

Here’s an example to test your knowledge of this often puzzling process.

Who on the editorial team makes decisions regarding rejection, revision, and acceptance of manuscripts?

editor

peer reviewer

both the editor and peer reviewer

So, what do you think? (Use your mouse to highlight the text box.)

editor

That one wasn’t too hard. The editor is the head honcho after all, although input from the peer reviewers is invaluable.

If you’re interested in learning more about how manuscripts are processed and assessed, check out this month’s quiz at www.amamanualofstyle.com.—Laura King, MA, ELS

March 12, 2013

Quiz Bowl: Author-Editor Relationship

Filed under: editing process,quizzes — amastyleinsider @ 3:06 pm
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There have been some famous, even notorious, author-editor relationships: Charles Dickens and Edward Bulwer-Lytton, Ted Hughes and Sylvia Plath, Raymond Carver and Gordon Lish. This month’s quiz takes us on a tour of some of these fruitful and fractious relationships as a means of exploring effective ways for editors to handle issues with authors. The following is an example from this month’s quiz.

Vladimir Nabokov, author of Lolita, notoriously and wittily disdained editors. In a 1967 interview in The Paris Review, he said, “By ‘editor’ I suppose you mean proofreader. Among these I have known limpid creatures of limitless tact and tenderness who would discuss with me a semicolon as if it were a point of honor—which, indeed, a point of art often is. But I have also come across a few pompous avuncular brutes who would attempt to “make suggestions” which I countered with a thunderous ‘stet!’”1

What is the best way for editors to communicate with authors who balk at the suggestions made to improve the manuscript?

a. E-mail the author to tell him/her that all the edits are based on the AMA Manual of Style and therefore not subject to change.

b. Telephone the author to discuss the edits, iterating the rationale and providing resource support for the changes.

c. Do not respond to the author.

d. Eliminate all the edits and publish the paper as the author originally submitted it.

What would you do? Here’s our advice (use your mouse to highlight the text box):

Telephone the author to discuss the edits, iterating the rationale and providing resource support for the changes.

Usually, an author’s insistence to overrule all editorial changes is a knee-jerk reaction to extensive editing. Most authors are aware of the editing process, although some need to be guided gently through it. Communicating with the author and explaining the reason for the changes (as well as providing resource support when necessary) can often defuse a volatile situation.—Laura King, MA, ELS

 

  1. Gold H, interviewer. Vladimir Nabokov, The Art of Fiction No. 40. The Paris Review. http://www.theparisreview.org/interviews/4310/the-art-of-fiction-no-40-vladimir-nabokov. Accessed February 8, 2013.

October 19, 2012

Top 10 Mistakes Authors Make

Filed under: editing process,usage — amastyleinsider @ 4:58 pm
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Publishing a style manual, particularly a lengthy, detailed manual that covers a ridiculous amount of technical material (Hello, AMA Manual of Style!), is a grueling process. In our case, it involved 10 people meeting for at least an hour every week for more than a year, where we tried not to get into arguments about grammar, usage, and the presentation of scientific data. After the meetings there would usually be flurries of e-mails about grammar, usage, and the presentation of scientific data. Then we’d all go home and dream about grammar, usage, and the presentation of scientific data. You get the picture.

My point is that the writers of style manuals are often a little, shall we say, too close to the material. In the case of the AMA Manual of Style, we are all editors as well—and it can be hard for us not to roll our eyes when we run into the same problems on manuscript after manuscript. Come on, authors: there’s a whole book on this stuff!

Which, of course, is precisely the problem. There is a whole THOUSAND-PAGE book that tries to encompass all aspects of medical editing. It’s impossible to expect authors to absorb all the information–they’re just trying to get published, and it’s our job to help them. Here, in classic top-10-list reverse order, are the top 10 editorial problems we see in our submitted and accepted manuscripts, compiled by committee and editorialized upon by me. If any authors happen to read this, maybe it will help them avoid the most common errors; if any journal website–design people read it, maybe they can grab some ideas for more explicit user interface; and if any copy editors read it, maybe they can enjoy shaking their heads in wry commiseration.

10. Missing or incomplete author forms. Most journals require authors to fill out some forms, usually involving things like copyright transfer, an assertion of responsibility for authorship, and so on. These forms are often filled out incorrectly or incompletely. Following a form’s instructions as to signatures and boxes to check can save significant amounts of time in the publication process.

9. Not explaining “behind the scenes” stuff. Values in a table don’t add up—oh, it’s because of rounding. The curve in this figure doesn’t connect the values listed in the “Results” section—oh, we used data smoothing. This kind of thing can be easily explained in a footnote, but many authors forget to do so because it seems so obvious to them.

8. Making life difficult for the copy editor. Authors and editors have the same goal: a polished, published, accurate manuscript. Sure-fire ways authors can ruin what should be a pleasant working relationship are to suggest that the copy editor is making changes in the manuscript for no reason; calling the copy editor to discuss changes without having read the edited manuscript first (this wastes oodles of time); and not reading the cover letter that comes with the edited manuscript. This last is particularly charming when the author then calls the copy editor to ask all the questions that are very nicely answered in said cover letter.

7. Common punctuation and style mistakes (not an exhaustive list). Most frequently we see authors fail to expand abbreviations; use different abbreviations for the same term throughout a manuscript; use commas like seasoning instead of like punctuation marks with actual rules of deployment; and overuse the em dash. However, I’d like to tell any authors reading this not to fret, because that’s the kind of stuff we’re paid to fix. Plus I can’t really throw stones—being a fan of the em dash myself.

6. Errors of grandiosity. Sometimes a perfectly nice and valid study will go hog-wild in the conclusion, claiming to be changing the future of scientific inquiry or heralding a sea-change in the treatment of patients everywhere. Or authors will selectively interpret results, focusing on the positive and ignoring the negative or neutral. It’s natural to want to write an elegant conclusion—it’s one of the few places in a scientific manuscript where one can really let loose with the prose—but it’s always better to err on the side of caution.

5. Wacky references. All journals have a reference citation policy, and across scientific journals it is fairly standard to give reference numbers at the point of citation, cite references in numerical order in the text (as opposed to only in tables or figures), and retain a unique number for each reference no matter how many times it’s cited. However, we still get papers with references handled in all kinds of odd ways (alphabetical, chronological, or seemingly inspired by the full moon). References that include URLs can mean big problems. Often the URL doesn’t work or the site is password-protected, subscription-only, or otherwise useless to the reader. Also aggravating: references that are just the result of the search string for the article and not the URL for the article itself.

4. Duplicate submission. In scientific publication, it is not acceptable to submit a report of original research to multiple journals at the same time. Journal editors are likely to be more disturbed by this if it looks deliberate rather than like a simple mistake (not realizing that a foreign-language journal “counts,” for example) or if the case is debatable (a small section of results was published in another paper, but the new paper adds tons of new material). Remember those forms from the 10th most common mistake? One of them asks about previous submission or publication. We need authors to be up-front about any other articles in the pipeline, even if (especially if) they’re not sure if they might constitute duplicate publication.

3. Failing to protect patient identity. Yup, there’s a form for this too! Any time a patient is identifiable, in a photograph or even in text (as in a case report), authors must have the patient’s consent. (Contrary to popular belief, the gossip-mag-style “black bars” over the eyes are not sufficient to conceal identity.) Usually we hear complaints about this, because studies are written long after patients are treated and it can be hard to track people down, but them’s the breaks. If it’s really impossible to obtain after-the-fact patient consent, editors will work with authors to crop photos, take out details, or whatever it takes to “de-identify” patients.

2. Not matching up all the data “bits.” In the abstract, 76 patients were randomized to receive the intervention, but it’s 77 in Table 1. There was a 44.5% reduction in symptoms in the medicated group in the text, but later it’s 44.7%. Sometimes this is because the abstract is written first from the overall results, while the data in a table are more precisely calculated by a statistician; or maybe the number of patients changed along the way and no one went back to revise the earlier data. Either way, it drives copy editors crazy.

1. Not reading a journal’s Instructions for Authors. These days almost all scientific journals have online submission, and almost always there is a link to something called “Information for Authors,” “Guidelines for Manuscript Submission,” or something similar. Judging by the kinds of questions editorial offices receive almost daily, authors rarely read these—but the publication process would often go so much more smoothly if they would.

We are proud of our style manual, although we realize it isn’t the last word in scientific style and format. There can never really be a “last word” because some editor will always want to have it! Anyway, without authors there wouldn’t be anything to edit, so we would never hold any “mistakes” against them. No matter how grievous a manuscript’s misstep, an editor will be there to correct it, because it’s our job. (But mostly because we can’t stop ourselves.)—Brenda Gregoline, ELS

 

April 25, 2012

The “Asterisk Solution,” or Group Authorship Is Still Authorship

Filed under: authorship,editing process — amastyleinsider @ 2:04 pm
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Authors may come alone or in pairs or trios. Or more. Today, more and more frequently, they come as part of a group. There is nothing wrong with group authorship—groups can accomplish great things. But if a group is named in the byline as sole author or in addition to individually named authors, all members of the group are still being presented as authors and all must meet authorship requirements.

This is a point of contention or difficulty for some authors (or some groups), who wish to have only the name of the group in the byline even if only a small number of the members of the group (eg, the Writing Committee) meet the standards of authorship set forth by the International Committee of Medical Journal Editors (ICMJE) and outlined on the authorship forms required by our journals.

What to do? The AMA Manual of Style lists an option to address both concerns: (1) authors who want only a group name to appear in the byline, even if all members of the group do not meet authorship criteria, and (2) journals that want to adhere to the criteria for authorship outlined by the ICMJE. Let’s call this the “asterisk solution.” An asterisk is placed after the group name in the byline, and this links to an asterisked footnote that indicates which members of the group met authorship criteria.

The asterisk solution often is a happy one for both authors and journal editors (and it allows readers to see who the true authors are). But sometimes even the asterisk is objected to. The editors of 3 ophthalmology journals (Archives of Ophthalmology, American Journal of Ophthalmology, and Ophthalmology) found strength in numbers. In August 2010, the 3 editors published a jointly written editorial in each of their journals, outlining the “asterisk solution” policy from the AMA Manual of Style and announcing that they planned to hold firm to this policy in their journals.

Being an author is a form of recognition and can add to one’s reputation. It also represents a responsibility. The asterisk solution bestows recognition and responsibility with a single character.—Cheryl Iverson, MA

January 24, 2012

Envy, Jealousy

Filed under: editing process,usage — amastyleinsider @ 11:10 am
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Words that convey similar meanings sometimes come to be used interchangeably. In the case of envy/envious and jealousy/jealous, though, the move seems to have been in one direction only; jealousy is often used in place of envy (“I’m so jealous of your new job”) but not vice-versa (one does not write, for example, “He was poisoned by his envious wife.”). Theodore Bernstein further points out that jealousy is sometimes used, not merely in place of envy, but as a stronger form: “‘There, within a stone’s throw of the sea, he makes his home, and his description of how he does this makes one move from envy to downright jealousy.’”1 A human, and perhaps all-too-familiar, state of affairs—anyone who denies having experienced such a progression of emotion is either hopelessly out of touch with his or her feelings or a liar.

However, although jealous has been used in place of envious since the late 1300s2 and using jealous as a more intense form of envious creates no confusion, it is often held that the words have distinct meanings and that this distinction should be maintained. Even authorities sometimes flounder around a bit when trying to nail the distinction,3 but in general envy is taken to convey a coveting of the wealth, possessions, or success of someone else,4 whereas jealousy is often taken to convey a state of “intolerance of a rival for the possession of a thing which one regards as peculiarly one’s own or for the winning of which one has set one’s heart….”4 Jealousy also can be used in a less grasping sense to indicate the understandable guarding of some possession or attribute, as in “new colonies were jealous of their new independence.”5 Both of the latter meanings highlight that jealousy concerns an attitude toward something that one has or believes one has. In this sense, envious and jealous are not interchangeable—one can jealously guard something, but one cannot enviously guard something.

However, jealous also often carries a frank note of hostility, “a strong implication of distrust, suspicion, enviousness, or sometimes anger.4 This might suggest why the person seeking a word with a bit more heft than envious will sometimes use jealous instead—quite simply, when casting about for a suitably malicious word in the heat of the moment, jealous is low-hanging fruit.

On the other hand, envy is not the innocuous little milquetoast that it at first seems. True, it can be used without malice; one can say, for example, “I don’t envy him his mother in law.” Equally true, it has in the past been used in a noble sense—Aristotle wrote of “good envy,” an admiration that drives one to emulate another3—although that usage has been rare since the 1600s and is now nearly obsolete.6 Certainly, envy carries less emotional charge than jealousy. But to assume that envy is simply a meek cousin of jealousy is to make a mistake.

If jealousy implies strong emotion that often is perhaps all too apparent to everyone involved, envy can imply something more clandestine; as Joseph Epstein puts it, “Malice that cannot speak its name, cold-blooded but secret hostility, impotent desire, hidden rancor, and spite all cluster at the center of envy.”3 Used in this sense, envy suddenly becomes a different animal altogether, and, as Epstein further points out, “The openness changes the nature of the game. Envy is almost never out in the open; it is secretive, plotting, behind the scenes.”3 Perhaps this is another reason that jealousy is often used, albeit subconsciously, in place of envy—after all, envy is one of the Seven Deadly Sins; jealousy is not.

In short, although envy and jealousy have long been used interchangeably and jealousy has come to be frequently used in place of envy, the words do denote different states, and the careful writer should take care to maintain the distinction between them. Both can be used in neutral ways (“She was jealous of her honor”; “I don’t envy him his workload”), but both also can carry weightier meanings; in choosing between them, one might keep in mind that “The real distinction is that one is jealous of what one has, envious of what other people have.”3

The bottom line:

● Looking for a word that expresses the coveting of what someone else has? Use envy.

● Looking for a word that expresses the guarding of what one has or believes one has? Use jealousy.

● Keep in mind that although jealousy is often used as a more intense form of envy, it might be better to use another word or to reword the sentence so as to retain envy.—Phil Sefton, ELS

 

1. Envy, jealousy. In: Bernstein TM. The Careful Writer: A Modern Guide to English Usage. New York, NY: Athaneum; 1985:166-167.

2. Jealous. The Compact Oxford English Dictionary. 2nd ed. Oxford, England: Oxford University Press; 1991:892.

3. Epstein J. The green-eyed monster: envy is nothing to be jealous of. Washington Monthly website. http://www.washingtonmonthly.com/features/2003/0307.epstein.html. July/August 2003. Accessed December 13, 2011.

4. Envious, jealous. Merriam-Webster’s Dictionary of Synonyms. Springfield, MA; Merriam-Webster Inc; 1984:295.

5. Jealous. Merriam-Webster’s Collegiate Dictionary. 11th ed. Springfield, MA: Merriam-Webster Inc; 2003:671.

6. Envy. The Compact Oxford English Dictionary. 2nd ed. Oxford, England: Oxford University Press; 1991:523.

December 7, 2011

Ode to the Style Manual

Filed under: editing process — amastyleinsider @ 5:01 pm
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(A poem from a hardcore user of the AMA Manual.) (No, not the cat.)

I study the Manual each day and each night

Coming away with equal questions and answers

Seeking all ways to be right

Are you a temporary compound, both sides with a tall, proud face
or are you with us permanently but deserve only lower case.

Are you a word just colloquial–or maybe even worse–

The ever-intrusive -ology (ie, completely perverse)

Have you been with us 5 times or more

Making a point so precise and succinct

Or are you here fewer times but wind up using more ink

It’s often exhausting, I must admit

I feel like I’m chasing elusive catnip

Each time I move close to the intoxicating scent

I discover new Elements that were recently sent

They arrive in my inbox with regular speed

And though I accept them, I must concede

I’d rather they land in another box I need

I give up and lay (or lie?) down

Staring off into space

Who knew that reading required such mental pace

But eventually I notice the pillow I chose

The source of all I have said

Provides a solid foundation from which to function

Indeed, a good place for my head

Finally

I must admit to own

The penultimate of nerdity

In my discomfort with the structure of

A poem on editing’s absurdity—Donna J. Thordsen

October 25, 2011

Masterful, Masterly

Filed under: editing process,usage — amastyleinsider @ 1:49 pm
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Writers are often taught that masterful and masterly mean different things and to ensure that they are used correctly. Masterful, so such thinking goes, is taken to mean “suggestive of a domineering nature,” or “inclined and [usually] competent to act as master,”1 whereas masterly is used to denote “having the power and skill of a master.”1

However, the use of masterful to mean “skillful” is now widespread; as Bernstein, clearly a proponent of maintaining the distinction, pithily puts it, “masterly is never misused; masterful often is….”2 Moreover, it seems that the distinction has not always been observed. Whereas masterful has been used in the sense of “domineering” since the 1330s,3 it also was used to mean “skillful” as early as 1613.3 And whereas masterly was used in the sense of “skillful” since the mid 1600s,3 it also was used to mean “domineering” as early as the 1530s,3 although that use has been obsolete since the late 18th century.3

In short, both words have been used to indicate “skillful” since roughly the time of King James I of England. However, the idea that writers should distinguish between them is comparatively new1—and such a late addition of a distinction is the reverse of the more common case, in which a distinction between words ceases to hold sway as the language evolves.

The origin of the distinction? Merriam-Websters posits that it was “excogitated by a 20th century pundit”1—this “pundit” apparently none other than Henry Watson Fowler, editor of The Pocket Oxford Dictionary, coeditor of The Concise Oxford Dictionary and The King’s English, and author of A Dictionary of Modern English Usage.4 In the latter work, Fowler established a distinction between masterful and masterly that was taken up by authorities such as Bernstein2 and that continues to be trumpeted to this day.5 Fowler’s reason for introducing the distinction? Masterly has only 1 sense (at least since its use to mean “domineering” became obsolete), so masterful should be limited to a single sense as well.1

However, some also have argued for the use of masterful in place of masterly in adverbial constructions, pointing out that although masterly is properly used as an adverb as well as an adjective, its use as an adverb seems awkward, even incorrect; eg, “He paints masterly.”2 Moreover, masterly, like many words ending in “y,” is what Bernstein (who nevertheless advocates distinguishing between the words) calls a “reluctant” adverb—ie, a word that resists serving as or being turned into an adverb.6 To make matters worse, masterly takes another adverbial form, the admittedly horrid masterlily.

Where does this leave the conscientious writer? Like Fowler, several modern authorities deem the distinction a valuable one5 and often advocate recasting a sentence to allow a more mellifluous use of a reluctant adverb5,6: hence, the sentence “Its wooden gables… showed how masterly they had been carved of old”3 might be recast as “Its wooden gables… showed the masterly manner in which they had been carved of old,” or similar. “A retreat of this kind,” Bernstein maintains, “is better than clumsy bravado.”6

At least one like-minded authority, however, has conceded that the battle to maintain the distinction—whatever its merits—has likely been lost.5 The prevalence of masterful in everyday usage confirms that opinion, receiving further support from the fact that the words have developed in roughly parallel fashion over time.3 Merriam-Websters concurs, maintaining that masterful used in the sense of “skillful” “has continued in reputable use all along; it cannot rationally be called an error.”1 Moreover, it has been suggested that using masterful in its original sense might even confuse readers now accustomed to the use of masterful to mean “skillful.”7

The bottom line:

● Using masterful in place of masterly to mean “skillful”? You’re in good company, and that usage has a long history. However:

● Set on maintaining a distinction between masterful and masterly? You can’t go wrong there, either. True enough, some readers might be confused by the use of masterful in its original sense—but since when do writers shrink from using words correctly to avoid confusion?—Phil Sefton, ELS

1. Merriam-Webster’s Collegiate Dictionary. 11th ed. Springfield, MA: Merriam-Webster Inc; 2003:764.

2. Masterful, masterly. In: Bernstein TM. The Careful Writer: A Modern Guide to English Usage. New York, NY: Athaneum; 1985:269.

3. The Compact Oxford English Dictionary. 2nd ed. Oxford, England: Oxford University Press; 1991:1045.

4. Sheidlower J. Elegant variation and all that. The Atlantic Online Web site. http://www.theatlantic.com/past/docs/issues/96dec/fowler/fowler.htm. December 1996. Accessed September 16, 2011.

5. Masterful, masterly. Good English Rules! Web site. http://www.goodenglishrules.com/masterful_masterly.htm. Accessed September 16, 2011.

6. Adverbs, reluctant. In: Bernstein TM. The Careful Writer: A Modern Guide to English Usage. New York, NY: Athaneum; 1985:27.

7. Masterful vs. masterly. Grammarist Web site. http://www.grammarist.com/usage/masterful-masterly/. Accessed September 16, 2011.

September 20, 2011

Purposely, Purposefully

Filed under: editing process,usage — amastyleinsider @ 12:45 pm
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These words sound similar, and over time their meanings have come to overlap somewhat. Generally, however, they are regarded as having different meanings and uses—although the differences are admittedly subtle—and in choosing between them, writers should carefully consider the message they wish to convey.

Purposely—meaning “with a deliberate or express purpose”1 or “intentionally”2—was first on the scene, entering usage in the late 1400s.2 A second meaning, “to good purpose; effectively,” came into use about 100 years later but is now considered obsolete.2

In contrast, purposefully—meaning “full of determination”1—was a relative latecomer, not coming into use until the mid 1800s,2 and is still used in those senses. Over time, though, purposefully also has come to be used interchangeably with purposely in the sense of “intentionally,”2 perhaps because something done with determination is also done intentionally. But of course the reverse is not necessarily true, which suggests that writers should use purposely when referring to intention alone.

To some ears, however, purposely sounds uneducated or incorrect, leading some writers to instead use purposefully in error; moreover, writers simply looking for a more impressive word will also sometimes instead use purposefully—again incorrectly.3 But even when purposefully is the correct choice, writers should take care that their intended meaning is not misconstrued. For example, the statement “On occasion, a clinician might purposely elicit pain” likely simply means that the clinician is intentionally eliciting pain (for the purpose of making a diagnosis). On the other hand, the statement “On occasion, a clinician might purposefully elicit pain” might imply that the clinician is determinedly eliciting pain (again—one can only hope—for the purpose of making a diagnosis). In both instances, careful handling of the context can make clear that the elicitation of pain is a necessary evil in service of a worthy end. For example, simply ending either of the above statements with “to help make a diagnosis” can go a long way toward ensuring that the clinician is not construed as something of a sadist.

The bottom line:

●Is “intentionally” the intended message? Use purposely.

●Is “full of determination” the intended message? Use purposefully.

●In both cases, however, take care to ensure that the context helps readers determine the intended meaning.—Phil Sefton, ELS

1. Merriam-Webster’s Collegiate Dictionary. 11th ed. Springfield, MA: Merriam-Webster Inc; 2003:1011.

2. The Compact Oxford English Dictionary. 2nd ed. Oxford, England: Oxford University Press; 1991:1474.

3. Purposefully, purposely. In: Bernstein TM. The Careful Writer: A Modern Guide to English Usage. New York, NY: Athaneum; 1985:376.

September 15, 2011

Jarring Jargon

Theodore M. Bernstein, in The Careful Writer: A Modern Guide to English Usage, describes jargon as “meaningless, unintelligible speech,” which is how some people might describe their last conversation with their physician. In science and medicine, many barriers to clear communication exist, with jargon being one of them. In fact, it’s so difficult for physicians and patients to communicate clearly that a federal program has been created to promote simplified health-related language nationwide. The Health Literacy Action Plan is a “national action plan to improve health literacy.” The entire action plan is 73 pages (which is probably their first mistake) and it highlights the fact that we have a problem.

As editors, we know that jargon is to be avoided in medical literature. While jargon may evolve for the most innocuous of reasons, it is a vocabulary specific to a profession that sometimes is esoteric or pretentious and that can be confusing to those not familiar with it (sometimes to those familiar with it as well). “Inside talk” can be just that by design—it keeps outsiders out. Therein lies the source of the negative feelings about jargon.

In addition to being exclusive, some jargon is offensive and unprofessional. Have you ever seen an FLK? Probably. That’d be a funny-looking kid. “We bagged her in the ER” sounds ominous; what it means is that a patient was given ventilatory assistance with a bag-valve-mask prior to intubation in the emergency department. Hopefully the emergency department physician didn’t describe the patient as a GOMER. This means “get out of my emergency room” and could refer to, for instance, an elderly patient who is demented or unconscious and near death and who perhaps should die peacefully rather than occupy emergency department resources. In this example, jargon diminishes the complexity of a situation that should be dealt with in a more thoughtful way. As Bernstein writes, “All the words that describe the kinds of specialized language that fall within this classification [of inside talk] have connotations that range from faintly to strongly disparaging.”

Jargon also sometimes violates rules of grammar, eg, turning nouns into verbs, “The doctor scoped the patient,” or creating back-formations, like “The patient’s extremities were cyanosed,” instead of “The patient’s extremities showed signs of cyanosis.” Jargon can sometimes appear to depersonalize, by defining a person in terms of a disease. A “bypassed patient” may be one who has undergone coronary artery bypass graft surgery rather than one who has been overlooked. Sometimes, patients might be referred to by their organs, such as “the lung in room 502” instead of “the patient in room 502 with lung disease.”

The AMA Manual of Style lists examples of jargon to avoid in section 11.4, Jargon. Some other examples that we’ve collected over the years are listed here:

* Collodion baby is better phrased as collodion baby phenotype or “the infant had a collodion membrane at birth.”

* Surgeons perform operations or surgical procedures, not surgeries.

* Rather than say a patient has a complaint, describe the patient’s primary concern.

* Do not use shorthand (eg, exam for examination, preemie for premature infant, prepped for prepared).

* Euphemisms sometimes are not clear and should be avoided: “The patient died” is preferred to “The patient succumbed or expired”; the same holds true for killed vs sacrificed (in discussion of animal subjects).

* Patients aren’t “put on” medication, they’re treated with medication. Also, patients aren’t “placed on” ventilators, they’re given ventilatory assistance.

Certainly jargon does have its place. It is specialized, and those in the same field can use it to communicate precisely and quickly. However, when it comes to medical and scientific publications, jargon is best avoided. Bernstein ends his entry on “inside talk” with the following: “It must never be forgotten that the function of writing is communication.” Clear enough.—Lauren Fischer

August 17, 2011

Statistical Rounding and the (Mis)Leading Zero

Filed under: editing process,statistics — amastyleinsider @ 2:17 pm
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Sometimes editors (not you or I, of course) obey the rules of their institution’s preferred style manual without fully understanding, or really thinking about, why some of these rules exist. For example, some editors (not you or I, of course) automatically delete (or, if they’re lucky, their editing program deletes for them) the leading zero in a few statistics, but not all. They know exactly when and where to delete the leading zero, but not why. Or they round some statistics, but not all, assuming that all of this has something to do with saving space. It does, of course,1(p830) but this isn’t the only reason we do it.

The AMA Manual of Style defines a P value as “The probability of obtaining the observed data (or data that are more extreme) if the null hypothesis were exactly true.”1(p888) Per AMA style, P values greater than .01 are expressed to a maximum of 2 decimal places and those less than .01 are expressed to a maximum of 3 decimal places. I set out in search of the complicated statistical reason why we use this specific number of decimal places and found that, in addition to saving space, we do it for one simple reason: it’s all we need. Yep, that’s it. It’s all we need to know. P < .00000001 doesn’t tell us any more of value than P < .001. Both tell us that the probability is very low, and that’s good enough. Of course, if the author protests or rounding will make P appear nonsignificant, an exception is made (for example, if P = .046 and significance is set at P = .05).1(pp851-852) Also, studies such as genome-wide association studies report P values of P < .00001 or smaller, often in scientific notation, to address the issue of multiple comparisons; it is essential not to round these. So every rule has exceptions, I guess (remember Spanish class, anyone?).

Why then, you ask, do we not save ourselves the confusion and simply round P < .001 to P = .00? There’s a reason for that, too, and it’s the same reason we don’t use leading zeros with certain probability statistics (ah, you say, it all comes together). If probability is the chance that a given event will occur,2 and we have only surveyed a sample of a given population, probability cannot equal 1.0 or 0 because we can’t say absolutely that a null hypothesis will definitely or definitely not happen in that population.1(p889) And if P can’t equal 1.0 or 0, why include a zero that doesn’t tell us anything new? For this reason, we use P > .99 and P < .001 as the highest and lowest P values. For the same reason, and because they are used often, the leading zero rule applies to α and β probabilities as well. Why? To save space, of course.–Roya Khatiblou, MA

1. Iverson C, Christiansen S, Flanagin A, et al. AMA Manual of Style: A Guide for Authors and Editors. 10th ed. New York, NY: Oxford University Press; 2007.

2. Merriam-Webster’s Collegiate Dictionary. 10th ed. Springfield, MA: Merriam-Webster Inc; 1997.

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