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SfEP report: February 2011

What price quality? Overseas outsourcing of editorial services

Kathleen Lyle

The use of overseas suppliers – freelance or corporate – is well established throughout the UK's publishing industry. British publishers have routinely and successfully used overseas typesetters (mainly in India, Singapore, Hong Kong and the Philippines) for many years. Freelance editors are no longer tied to one location: the Society for Editors and Proofreaders (SfEP), although based in the UK, has members in 21 other countries, including Australia, Canada, Hong Kong, Israel, Japan, Malaysia, South Africa, South Korea and the US.

With the increasing availability of fast internet access in many countries, geographical location seems increasingly irrelevant. What remain relevant are linguistic ability and editorial skills. The SfEP's concern is that some overseas suppliers whose staff do not have English as a first language are now offering editorial services, often based on a rigid, rule-based approach. At present, this seems to occur most often in scientific journals. In this context, it's important to remember that many of the authors of the papers in them don't have English as a first language either and may require considerable editorial help.

In 2010, the SfEP asked members to report their experiences of this type of editorial outsourcing. More than 40 replied, giving us perspectives from freelance project managers, proofreaders and in-house desk editors, as well as freelance copy-editors who have seen their supply of work dry up and their income dwindle. The relevant parts of their replies are quoted and commented on in this report.


Extra work for in-house editors (and freelances)

  • 'In-house staff complained to me about poor work done in the Far East that they had to spend much time correcting.'

  • 'I worked in-house for a large educational publisher and they were experimenting with outsourcing packaging work to a company in India (editing/typesetting). The staff in-house dreaded working on these projects as they invariably had to be worked on again (normally in-house).'

  • 'Management found that money saved out-of-house was being spent in-house instead and that turnaround was slower. In-house editors had to do more work.'

  • 'Having promised a very speedy turnaround, we soon found that layouts were not hitting deadlines and that the rejigging required in-house took up yet more time.'

  • 'The strength of overseas suppliers is supposed to be their ability to throw any number of bodies at work to get even large projects completed quickly. However, their great weakness is that these bodies can only work with very precise rules and instructions, which leaves the slack to be picked up by someone in the UK.'

  • 'It may be that costs saved up front are lost elsewhere in lost revenue or post-editing work required to bring files up to scratch.'

  • 'A month or two ago, I was asked to proofread the first issue of a journal that had been "badly edited in India".'

  • 'I recently did a third proofread on a new edition for a large educational publisher which had been copy-edited in-house and two proofreads done in-house, and I found it littered with mistakes.'

  • 'I was asked to proofread a medical book which was in its sixth round of revises. The author continued to spot errors at each round, some introduced in the course of correction. The original copy-editing (by the Indian typesetter) seemed to have been sketchy and there were innumerable inconsistencies, which the client agreed that it was now too late to do anything about. It was only possible to make the most essential corrections.'

Comment  The use of freelances for additional quality control or proofreading comes 'above the line', and can be set against the savings derived from outsourcing. This isn't the case for additional work by in-house staff, whose costs are counted as overheads. Presumably the additional workload will decrease their in-house productivity and therefore their profitability in real terms.

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Disenchantment

  • 'They [a UK publisher] had considered using overseas suppliers to cut both costs and production times, but they believed this would be counter-productive.'

  • 'Two of my clients (both very large UK/international academic/professional publishers) did try overseas outsourcing but withdrew after numerous mainly qualitative problems.'

  • 'The quality was so poor and the complaints from the journal editors so great that it was all brought back to the UK after a year.'

  • 'A couple of years later, the publisher, disenchanted with India, brought the work back to the UK.'

  • 'They [a large UK academic publisher] decided to have [a multivolume publication] edited and typeset in India. However, when the first batch of proofs appeared, the volume editors were appalled and insisted that the quality was unacceptable.'

  • 'There has always been a drop in quality when [work is] transferred overseas regardless of the claims of the overseas supplier, and on occasion that drop in quality has been enough for work to eventually be moved elsewhere and/or be lost to the company.'

  • 'I learned that there are regrets in some quarters that this [overseas outsourcing] route was ever taken. The cost savings have not been as great as expected, and the hassle has been considerable.'

Comment  The return of editorial work to the UK may mean more work for UK-based freelances, but sometimes at disadvantageous rates – see later.

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Poor-quality editing

Language editing

  • 'Indian copy-editors do not edit!'

  • '[Indian copy-editors] do not (for example) change infelicitous wording to something more elegant and can introduce errors … I certainly could not leave them to edit work by authors whose first language is not English.'

  • 'Instead of leaving the English as it was (correct), they often rewrote the text, conveying the wrong scientific meaning entirely. The authors (mostly non-native English) did not know that the meaning had been changed and it was only picked up if I was asked to do proofreading after the copy-edit.'

  • 'Frankly, I am astonished that … a high-profile publisher of medical texts favours low costs over quality, and the potential hazards of introducing errors are obvious in the context of medical texts … the risks for introducing injurious and possibly fatal results in the medical community as a result of erroneous text are vastly increased.'

  • 'The Indian typesetter inserts comments for the author's attention, and these comments are sometimes in substandard English – which surely cannot help form a good opinion of the standard of the publisher's work in the minds of authors.'

  • 'The journal editors were not happy with the extent of the sample copy-edits [by an overseas company]: technical changes had been made, but no language work had been undertaken (such work is needed for the majority of papers accepted by this journal, sometimes greatly so).'

  • 'Using second-language-English editors had led to a variety of problems, some more obvious than others: (1) difficulties with English grammar and syntax (notably articles and verb tenses), especially in material written by other non-native speakers; (2) what seemed like an unwillingness to raise appropriate queries with authors, meaning that material that should have been probed and challenged was getting through without emendation.'

  • '… The standard deteriorated after [overseas outsourcing] (perhaps not surprising when papers written by people without English as a first language were being edited by other non-native speakers).'

  • 'They could not tell whether an author's abstract was written in good English or bad and were liable to convert good English to worse.'

  • 'Some copy-editors took on work that they are not able to understand; in places it was clear that the editor had insufficient science to unravel what the authors intended.'

  • 'The copy-editing was erratic; there was little understanding of agreement between noun and verb, … use of past or present tense, use of active or passive voice, use of capital versus lower-case letters, consistency in edited style, breaking up of long convoluted sentences. Some subtleties of English were included but others were completely overlooked.'

  • 'The faults that did occur were not minor: some changes were incorrect, some made the text nonsensical scientifically, some were made on a "global pre-edit" basis and so created glitches, some were made as single changes and not checked to ensure consistency with text in other areas. Most importantly these changes were not flagged for the author, who traditionally is a poor proofreader.'

  • 'The moral of the story … check everything done by Indian copy-editors and then complain very loudly. A good copy-editor knows when to leave text as it is.'

  • 'What they hadn't done was actually attempt to edit any of the actual language.'

  • 'Badly written papers not surprisingly showed up the weaknesses of some copy-editors and were misinterpreted on a serious scale by the overseas copy-editing/typesetter.'

  • 'One problem with these editorial agencies is that they require rigid house styles and don't have the skills, experience or judgement to know when not to apply the rules. Having the wisdom to know when not to follow house style is, in my book, one of the most important signs of a good editor.'

  • 'In terms of copy-editing and proofreading … the quality was very poor and lacking a very basic grasp of good grammar (e.g. mistreatment of definite/indefinite articles or even leaving them out completely), let alone colloquial English. The suppliers I have worked with could apply a clearly delineated style guide but failed to address almost all instances of poor phrasing/grammar. This was most evident when an author was a non-native speaker; proofs would frequently be returned edited only for style and with the language basically left as originally submitted. Even when detailed criticism was sent along with a request for a re-edit, there appeared to be an inability to engage with the text in a manner that I believe the SfEP would consider to be "proper" editing.'

  • 'Cheapness is obviously the criterion, but one does wonder about the standard of English that results.'

  • 'I do wonder if an academic work prepared for publication by this outsourcing system would measure up to the standard set by the previous system, where the publisher sends the MS to a known, trusted, native-English-using copy-editor.'

Comment  There are various issues here: inadequate knowledge of English, lack of appropriate subject knowledge, inability/unwillingness to do anything that isn't strictly rule-based, over-reliance on pre-edit clean-up macros, and sometimes unnecessary changes that may alter the sense or introduce errors. There usually seems to be a lack of the kind of lateral thinking that a good editor requires – perhaps because there's no time for it, or because it doesn't fit in to the script-based approach generally adopted by these suppliers.

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Other aspects of editing and page layout

  • 'Apparently little effort had been made at the editing stage to impose any uniformity on the chapters in the way the text features were handled, and the headings were graded in an almost random way. There were also a lot of small typos that the authors hadn't noticed and should have been cleaned up by the copy-editor.'

  • 'There were illogically graded headings, and any number of inconsistencies of hyphenation and spelling [found on proofs].'

  • 'Publisher's suggestions regarding moving text at first proof were taken completely literally, resulting in questions moving into the wrong section of the text and generally poor layout. No one had made any attempt to work out where the moved text was going to go and what knock-on effect it would have.'

  • 'The end result from my work was a great many pages of queries, which would result in cutting text, rewriting text, deleting diagrams and photos – requiring re-layout of a large amount of material. I am not confident that the Indian company will be able to implement the changes so that they work.'

  • 'Artwork was rarely edited to journal style (but this may reflect a poor brief, not poor typesetting).'

  • 'Inability to follow numbering system for figures.'

  • 'Poor photo research.'

  • 'Poor sizing of photos.'

  • 'Evidence of cultural problems in interpreting original brief.'

Comment  Sometimes there seems to be a mismatch between what the clients expect and what overseas suppliers offer. It may be convenient to call this 'cultural', but it probably reflects the way in which UK editorial freelances have tended to undersell themselves and their services. We do lots of things because we think they're part of the copy-editing/proofreading job, but if they aren't explicitly specified in the brief, an external supplier won't do them.

Proofreading

  • 'Multiple corrections required, taking more time to insert on a proof than they would have on an original script.'

  • 'I sent back a set of proofs absolutely covered with marks, but no amount of proofreading could really have rescued it.'

Comment  Heavily corrected proofs are often a sign of inadequate editing. They're likely to lead to more errors of omission and commission: it's easy to overlook some corrections where there are so many and all too easy to introduce further errors in the course of correction.

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Insistence on first-language input

  • 'I have had two or three assignments per year from an outsourcing company in India for proofreading or copy-editing; the client is a large academic publisher and they insist that this part of the work is done by a native English speaker.'

  • '[Indian] copy-editors are sometimes unable to cope with submissions in poor English and intervention of a native speaker at proof stage is then essential.'

  • 'Both of these [UK publishers] outsource some project management to companies overseas, with explicit instructions that they hire UK freelances, so keeping the language work in the UK.'

  • 'I believe that the freelancers they [an overseas editorial company] use (probably around 100–200) are mainly from the UK and the USA and from other English-speaking nations. It would seem that this company has added to the work opportunities for UK freelancers rather than reduced them.'

  • 'The quality of the editing did improve … (it was appalling at first), largely due to a new native-English-speaking editor being employed at their Indian office.'

  • 'I listed every failure and I complained so much that the journal copy-editing was eventually diverted to a native-English copy-editor in Canada and we have been fine ever since.'

  • 'I got the impression that the outsourced suppliers would sometimes engage the help of native-English-speaking editors for problematic projects.'

  • 'So there's a British publisher outsourcing to an Indian outfit who outsources to a British editor. Something wrong here, surely?'

Comment  This seems to represent a relatively recent attempt by publishers and their overseas suppliers to get the best of both worlds. It's an advance over the kind of 'non-editing' mentioned above, but its consequences for UK-based freelances are questionable: see next section.

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Financial consequences of outsourcing for UK freelances

  • 'The fee might not look particularly good at first, but I find I can work fairly quickly as all the technical and formatting work is done in-house by the outsourcing company.'

  • 'The tighter deadlines have left me sufficient time to do a good job, without sacrificing work quality.'

  • 'That means that editors and proofreaders deal with someone in India, but get paid UK rates.'

  • 'The rates offered by the overseas project managers to UK freelances fall some way below [the rates offered by the UK parent company], both for copy-editing and for proofreading. Further, timescales … are very short.'

  • 'Recently I have been approached by a couple of Indian companies looking for UK editors to work for them on projects for UK publishing houses, which is a new twist. The pay was too low so I haven't actually done so.'

  • 'This has meant that I and several other British freelances have seen a drop in the page rate for editing because we in the UK were previously doing this pre-editing work (as well as the on-screen editing), and this drop in rate has not been commensurate with the reduction in work required for each text.'

  • 'We used to supply typesetting, technical illustration, project management, copy-editing and proofreading, but we've only been offered the last two in the past 18 months – at a much lower rate than we previously charged.'

  • 'The project management company normally pays considerably less than the publishers, who themselves were paying less than SfEP suggested rates.'

  • 'The payment rates had dropped considerably; probably not to as little as the Indian people had been paid, but much less than I'd been paid previously. Overall result: more work for much less money.'

  • 'Many of the books I am sent to edit these days have been through some sort of "normalisation" process which is supposed to save the freelance editor time, and therefore the budget is correspondingly lower.'

  • 'I worry that such competition is driving down UK rates. Last week I turned down a job that would have equated to £7/hour, the lowest rate I've been offered in 20 years!'

Comment  Evidently experiences here are mixed so far. For many large UK publishers and their overseas suppliers, this is a new way of working, which may not yet have had time to settle down into a general pattern.

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Working practices

The good

  • 'The representative I was dealing with was very responsive, dealt with queries quickly, even when taking into consideration the time difference. His English was extremely good, which meant we were never at cross purposes.

    'They were well organised on the financial controls side, and gave me a proper work order, plus had me sign a form to formalise the position on tax.'

  • 'I have to say that the organisational side is very good, including feedback, keeping freelancers informed of any changes, etc. and invoicing procedures.'

  • 'Working direct with the typesetter improves quality tremendously, as does a well-negotiated service level agreement – particularly if working to tight deadlines or where multiple authors have to be factored in for corrections/revision at first proof stage … I have to admit the offshore sector has consistently raised its game in quality terms – and, of course, the costs please the bean counters.'

  • 'The outsourced suppliers are excellent at balancing workloads, dealing with chaotic manuscript transmissions, and doing the actual typesetting.'

  • 'My dealings with the company have been cordial and they generally pay up fairly promptly.'

Comment  Traditional practices in the UK publishing industry are far from perfect. There is scope for more efficient business practices that can be learned from overseas suppliers.

The not-so-good

  • 'If this [pre-editing] work has been done properly, I agree that it does save some time, but I have often found myself having to correct the tagging/formatting (and sometimes also the pre-editing, which is done without any attention to the context) – which takes longer than doing it myself in the first place.'

  • 'I believe this is what they get in India – certainty of overall cost, as well as a low cost. Of course, the editors are then working at speed, and everything is down to a price, rather than up to a quality.'

  • 'Often, the work we're offered is from Asian companies – and there are problems: poor communication, lack of editorial knowledge by the client, incomplete material. In short, a lot of the clients seem to be "pen pushers" with little knowledge of publishing nor ability to resolve problems: all they want is to pay as little as possible and get the job back on time and don't want to hear about problems that need resolving.

    'However, the major STM publishers seem happy enough with this state of affairs. They seem to operate on a "good enough" principle, and presumably the product meets needs even though STM books and journals may, overall, be produced to a lower standard than, say, 10–20 years ago. If the customers (academics) are happy and costs can be pushed right down, then the STM publishers are happy too.'

The bad

  • 'I find this way of working fairly remote, and perhaps less satisfying, as I prefer to work more closely with the author, handling queries and resolving problems before passing the project back to the publisher in a more finished form.'

  • 'Each chapter had to be returned individually, as soon as it was finished. I hate not being able to go back and revise a decision, based on later evidence!

    'I couldn't raise queries directly with the author, but had to send them back with the chapter, so I wasn't getting any feedback and ended up raising issues again and again, which may have been avoidable.

    'Queries had to be inserted in the file using the comments feature and repeated as a separate list, which was awfully time-consuming.

    'The file had been "pre-edited" in India and all the comments and markings left in, meaning I had a really ugly and messy file to deal with. I couldn't switch to the "show final" version, because I needed to see what all their comments and edits were.

    'The pre-editing wasn't well done, which meant I was raising issues not just on the author's work, but on that of the pre-editors.'

  • 'Overall, I do worry about quality … The file was a mess – all manner of highlightings for no apparent reason … the work on the file prior to me getting my hands on it made life unreasonably hard … in normal circumstances, would I have been able to edit the book as a book, not a series of discrete chapters? Would I have been allowed to correspond with the author and get answers as I went along? Who knows?'

  • 'For a hard-copy edit … I was unable to colour code with highlighter … as the project manager would only receive a B&W set of pages; I was unable to instigate global changes, indicating first mention, since the typesetters were unable to cope with that. This involved a great deal more work, especially on references, than would otherwise have been the case.'

  • 'I was asked to size every piece of artwork and every photo – even though I did not have sight of all artwork references (so could not complete artwork briefs), nor of any photos.'

  • 'Briefing links between copy-editor and typesetter were poor for captions and artwork, leading to errors.'

  • 'It was apparent that "editing" consisted of macros being used to "correct" the text and flag words such as which for the UK editors' attention, in case it should be changed to that.'

  • 'The proofreading was no longer being done by UK freelances by that time, as the pre-press division of the printers they used (in India) were double-keying in lieu of proofreading.'

  • 'Because of the turnaround times agreed and low prices, the overseas suppliers inevitably end up training their staff to work in a manner similar to call centre staff – they work to a "script" of how to process a manuscript and struggle when problems push them outside that script, which inevitably leads to errors … The typesetters are … completely clueless on how to handle a situation where the author has badly formatted a reference or left out detail. The result is that the wrong question to get the information from the author is asked (e.g. 'What is this reference?' which just gets a generic author answer such as 'a book', which adds no further detail) or the issue is just ignored entirely.

    'The supplier staff are also usually expected to handle a great many files very quickly, so the speed aspect means they cannot dwell over any one problem and they are rarely given leeway to apply any sensible thinking to a situation, instead being forced to stick to procedure even when the results are ludicrous (e.g. when part of an address is missing, asking "Please give state for New York City Pharmaceuticals, Manhattan, USA" when the answer is obvious – this reflects badly on the client, as it makes it appear that the work is being processed by essentially idiots).

    'There is also the issue of rapid staff turnover, which means it is very difficult to sustain any training of staff above the most basic level – this means that the same mistakes come up over and over again as new staff come on board and no learning is applied. Any "knowledge" must be added to the processing script as an instruction or it is lost.

    'Overseas suppliers are also usually unrealistically optimistic, and will always claim they will do X or Y to quality level Z, but will rarely deliver – this is a cultural issue mainly.'

Comment  Done well, pre-editing can save copy-editors' time, allowing them to concentrate on important features of the text rather than small details of style. Unfortunately the way it's done at the moment is often far from perfect, so that it sometimes has to be undone/redone by the copy-editor.

Copy-editors commented on lack of communication with the author, which led to queries having to be repeated for chapter after chapter – this is frustrating for both author and editor. Queries inserted by the typesetters can also be a source of irritation. They may be inappropriate or badly worded, perhaps as a result of an inflexible protocol adopted by the typesetter. See comment above about the inadequacy of rule-based systems for editing.

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The ugly

  • 'The company did nothing to let its freelances know what was happening [when outsourcing was introduced].'

  • 'I stopped working for [an EU-based publisher of STM books and journals] … rates they offered became lower and lower compared to my other clients, so it ceased to be worth my while. The straw that broke the camel's back was not strictly an overseas issue, however – they required their freelances to buy some expensive software and train themselves in its use without giving any guarantee of enough work afterwards to justify the investment.'

  • 'About five years ago, I lost four medical journals for which I had been sole copy-editor for several years (one of them for over 14 years), when the publisher decided to send them to India for copy-editing (and typesetting as well, I think). This was a large proportion of my income and left quite a gap in my client list as well.'

  • 'I learned later that [editorial work] had been outsourced to India and the project managers were no longer employed. A couple of years later, the publisher, disenchanted with India, brought the work back to the UK and put it out to its former typesetter to project manage. The typesetter contacted me and asked me to copy-edit a book, openly admitting that they didn't know anything about project managing the editorial side of the process. It was a shambles.'

  • 'It is becoming increasingly clear that many in-house editors do not know what it is they are asking freelance copy-editors to do.'

  • 'A major publisher I worked for outsourced typesetting to India, and it thus became logical to do the proofreading there as well.'

Comment  We've all heard of freelances being suddenly left without a source of income, sometimes with no warning. This seems cruel, although it's one of the risks of freelance life. However, a lot of valuable expertise has been jettisoned in this way, and there's often no one left in-house who knows the details of the editorial process. The publisher is at the mercy of suppliers who may not be adequately briefed, may not understand the brief, or may not be capable of providing the quality they promise.

This may be partly the fault of freelances themselves: we're not good at blowing our own trumpets and we could/should probably do more to sell ourselves to the decision-makers in large publishing houses.

Where do we go from here?

Editors are traditionally accustomed to being in the background. Although the focus in large publishing houses has moved from editorial to marketing in recent decades, we've continued to assume that everyone understands the value of the work we do and is prepared to pay us (although usually not very well) to do it.

That's no longer the case. If publishers, ever aware of the bottom line, now think that substandard but cheap editing is 'good enough', that's what they'll use. It's up to us – i.e. SfEP and anyone else who is interested in editorial quality – to demonstrate what good editing is and the value it can add to their publications.

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