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The rise of the proof-reading robots

Friday, February 10, 2017 3:28
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By Brian Clegg

You can’t pick up a newspaper these days without seeing dire warnings that the robots are coming and are going to take our jobs. Often this dire warning is aimed at manual labour or taxi drivers or burger flippers – low paid jobs. Yet the real benefits to automation for companies will be stronger if they can replace workers getting higher financial rewards.

Any author will tell you that they are slightly in awe of editors who can go through copy word by word and spot all the little errors and foibles an author is prone to*. And the best ones are very canny about specialist areas, dealing with all kinds of technical gubbins. This editing process is an essential to creating a quality book. But some publishers appear to have decided that the role is a waste of money and can be automated.

A friend of mine is writing a book for an academic publisher.  I won’t tell you which publisher it is, but their name begins with Spring and ends with er. It’s a book on a technical subject and the author has just got the detailed edit back to check. It is nothing short of horrendous. It has clearly been done by a piece of software, rather than a person. Many of the corrections are downright idiotic. For example, whenever (s)he mentions ‘potential energy’ the edit has corrected this to ‘potent energy’. And it’s not even as a Word markup with the option of rejecting the ‘correction’ – it has just been changed.

I’m not saying that this kind of editing will forever be beyond the capabilities of a machine. And practically every professionally published book I’ve ever read has had a couple of errors slip through – so a competent machine providing another layer of checking would be great. But right now, this is nothing more than a joke. The technology is simply not up to it.

The poor author I mentioned is in a quandary. (It’s not me, by the way!) Should (s)he reject the edit entirely and say ‘Do it again!’? You have to be quite confident in your position in the author-publisher relationship to do this. Or should (s)he painstakingly work through and correct all the ‘corrections’?

It’s not an easy call.

* As I’m sure all good copy editors know, you can end a sentence with a preposition in you want to.

Now Appearing is the blog of science writer Brian Clegg (, author of Inflight Science, Before the Big Bang and The God Effect.


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