Wednesday, November 07, 2007

Editing the Dead

A manuscript that I have been reviewing/editing was sent back to the author for revisions, the author and I corresponded about the revisions, and then recently I got an email from someone at the author's institution informing me that the author had died unexpectedly. This manuscript, if published, will therefore be the Last Paper of this scientist.

Too bad the Last Paper is kind of awful. It is also too bad that there aren't any co-authors who can fix it up and make it good.

I never met the late author, but I am familiar with his name from his publications over the years. In his correspondence with me, he was very nice and was not at all upset about the extensive revisions required for further consideration of his manuscript. In fact, he seemed quite pleased to sink his teeth into the work and improve the paper.

The deceased person's co-workers want the manuscript to be published. I doubt if they know that it isn't a good paper, and are seeking only to honor a colleague they admired.

I have never rejected a dead person's manuscript before. If the author had lived and had not revised the first version of the manuscript, I would have rejected it. The only difference between that situation and the current situation is that the author's excuse for not doing the revisions is a very good one.

Should editors lower their standards for the dead? If we do, I doubt that large numbers of people will want to take advantage of this route to getting their manuscripts published. Therefore, publishing mediocre/bad papers by dead people from time to time is unlikely to set a dangerous precedent.

My concern isn't actually with standards in this case. If I accept this not-so-great manuscript, I can 'live' with myself [apologies for insensitive word choice]. It makes me sad, though, that this scientist's Last Paper is so lousy. Would I want my Last Paper to be like this or would I want an editor to be unsentimental and reject it?

However sad it is for one's Last Paper to be awful, the alternative isn't so great either. If someone dies just before publishing an outstanding paper, they wouldn't be around to enjoy the experience of stimulating new discussions, ideas, research etc.

The publication of this manuscript seems to mean a lot to the late author's students and colleagues, and I will probably accept the manuscript after doing what I can to fix the writing without altering the content of the paper. It's disconcerting, however, to know that the author won't be checking my editing.

So, the manuscript will probably eventually be published as this author's Last Paper. I guess that's OK -- no one would judge someone's overall scientific legacy on the quality of the Last Paper. The late author had a long career and published quite a few papers, and ultimately no one will care which paper was last. I hope.


Anonymous said...

Perhaps you can enlist one of the author's colleagues - maybe a recent co-author or former student - to improve the paper. A discreet conversation with someone who knows the field might do the trick. In their shoes, I'd probably put the effort in to improve my distinguished colleague's last paper.

Just a thought.

Anonymous said...

An option is to have one of the author's colleagues / students do the editing, in return for joint authorship perhaps adding a comment about the circumstances.

This will either improve the paper, or will lead them to understand that it better not be published.

Anonymous said...

I have to agree with the first two's common in literature to have people close to the process of writing finish the 'postprocessing' if you will of particularly important last works after the death of the author and provide the finished work to the public. Think of it this way--the author, had he lived or had he some ability to have a say from beyond the grave, from all accounts was not the kind to allow the unedited substandard work to be published. It is no honor for him to not do the entirely right thing.

Female Science Professor said...

It's not that simple in this case. The late author's students/colleagues do not submit papers to international journals and are not familiar with writing in English (they had to find someone else to write me the email in English).

Drugmonkey said...

interesting question about whether author wants the last one to be a crappy paper but then, do you think they'd really care?

in neurosciences we had what seemed like an unending stream [this may be just perception] of postmortem papers after goldman-rakic died unexpectedly. of course, those were multi-authored. makes me wonder what the status of all of those was and who was giving the OK on final versions...

Drugmonkey said...

and since i made myself curious...

a quick PubMed suggests something on the order of 20 posthumous papers for Patricia Goldman-Rakic. There are a few that are close enough in submission date that it seems that she'd have been mostly familiar with the submission.

but at least there is precedent for you to go by...

Anonymous said...

Would the late author say from the afterworld something like "over my dead body" with regard to the manuscript's publication in its current state? It sounds as though he would not have found it an honor to have such a submission be forever associated with him, despite his well-meaning colleagues.

The kinder service might be a recognition of the author and his "unfinished opus" in a commentary by the journal editor (you?), or, if such is not included in this journal, a brief note in the correspondence section. Thus, his passing and his contributions would be acknowledged without lessening the journal's standards nor his reputation. And perhaps mentioning the incomplete manuscript's existence would inspire an English-speaking colleague willing to make the intellectual investment to take on the burden of its completion - particularly if its revision and publication truly would advance the field.

Anonymous said...

Not being a scientist, I think of Dr Seuss.

His last, proper finished book was "Oh the Places You'll Go".

I think his incompletely revised and unpolished last work was later published, but it was clear it had gaps.

Same thing for Laura Ingalls-Wilder's story of life grown up - much less cheery than the finished novels.

Just another thought

Katie said...

Oh dear. Is there someone at his institution who could clean it up for him?