Offshore editorial function in India in scholarly/academic publishing: lost opportunities and potential for growth

Copyediting outsourcing to India

It was sometime between the late 1980s and early 1990s that the experiment to “outsource”—the term was not common then—editorial work to India began. Typesetting had been there for some years, and it was perhaps felt that copyediting too can be done in India, if the right people could be found and trained to do the job. So some British editors came to India to train people on copyediting scholarly manuscripts in what was broadly understood as STM (science, technology, mathematics).

Soon the internet came, and with it a lot more work came in to India, both from the United Kingdom and the United States. More trainers and more training. Then came medical journals and books as well as higher education books, and STM (with math now becoming part of science and technology (ST) and M standing for medicine) soon became STEM (the E standing for engineering or (higher) educational content). Gradually, humanities and social sciences also came in to the picture.

The volume of work coming in to India has increased so much over the years that we now have about 30–40 well-known companies (and perhaps many smaller ones), and some of them have branches in different parts of the country as well as overseas.

But with technology came cost-cutting and a gradual erosion of prices. Rates were coming down by the year—and so was the quality of work. It became an accepted fact that when you send work to India, you get back work of mediocre quality. Nobody seemed to care much, as the West was actively outsourcing to cut down costs. We had a clear off-shore pricing, which now seems to average at about 40% of what it could cost to get the same job done in (say) the United States.

No doubt voices have been raised about quality, but they have died out over time as cost-cutting seemed to be the main driving force. I remember a veteran in the US publishing industry stating in unequivocal terms on LinkedIn (on a discussion relating to quality of work coming out from India) that if you pay peanuts you get only monkeys to do the job.

All said and done, the volume coming in to India has still not reached a plateau. In fact, as an April 2018 report (https://www.horsesforsources.com/offshoring-IT-trump_042918) put it, “The healthy trend here, for the future of IT and business services, is the fact that the industry finds itself on the healthiest growth footing since 2013 . . .” And, quoting the lowest possible price and gaining by volume seems to be the modus operandi of most companies in India—you can’t blame anyone; it is simply a question of survival (with so many players in the field competing for a piece of the pie).

Where we stand after 30 years

It’s perhaps close to 30 years since copyediting came to India, and I’ve spent 22+ years in the field of scholarly and academic editing.

Looking back, I feel sad that, as a country, we have not utilized the opportunity that had come to us. When typesetting came to India, we managed to grasp it and establish it in the country in various ways, and also move along when the world went digital and wanted so many end products other than the simple print PDF.

 But no such thing happened with the editorial function. If the editorial function in India had taken roots, the simplest and most obvious thing that would have happened is that we would have become very strong in (editorial) proofreading. It is only when copyediting and proofreading become established that an organization—or country—can gain a footing in other editorial functions. These include indexing, project management, documentation, design survey, book design, developmental editing (or substantive or structural editing, as it is referred to in different parts of the globe), and manuscript evaluation. In short, India as a country could have grown in so many related editorial areas and formed niches around each of them. But nothing substantial seems to have happened in all these areas in 30 years. Absolutely nothing.

I understand that some of you may want to object; you may say that we do have proofreading, indexing, and project management in many companies. But the truth is that these are more diluted than even the copyediting we do. Why? Ideally, proofreading is to be done by an experienced copyeditor who can read a book “as a book” before it gets printed and published. But we have such a shortage of decent copyeditors that we do not have an editor to spare for proofreading. So we put junior copyeditors into proofreading and manage the show. With indexing, we seem to have come some way, but there are still so many gaps in understanding that we have quite a distance to cover to reach professional indexing. And our project management in the publishing services industry is a far cry from the project management done in the West.

It is equally true that the West has also suffered a lot in the last 30 years. For example, there has been a drastic reduction in in-house jobs in the United States during these years, and the consequence of this has been (a) the loss of the collective knowledge held within the editorial houses and (b) a gradual loss of training and mentoring of copyeditors. Veteran editors know that both training and a versatile knowledge of editing have dropped significantly over the years and that there is a shortage of good editors even in the United States for the volume of work available for editing. But here too the cost factor has been overriding all quality expectations.

Why are we in this situation today?

Let us return to the Indian scenario. The base for all the editorial functions mentioned earlier is copyediting, as it involves understanding of content at the fundamental level. And, as I just mentioned, copyediting has not become established as a profession in India even after 30 years. One reason is that it takes quite some time to learn the subject, a couple of years to come to grips with it, and many years to really master it. This obviously means that we may not have many qualified trainers in the country—and more so with the speed at which the work has been pouring in over the years.

So people started “innovating”: they split the work into formatting (and mechanical styling) and language editing, so that whoever could address the content was not burdened with the mechanical aspects. At some point, this got divided further into preediting, reference styling, style editing, and language editing. And then to cap it all, you had an in-house QA. Each company had some variation of this overall concept. With this model, work could be done by freelancers, homemakers—anybody who could look at content.

But with few qualified trainers—or at least not in sufficient number—the art itself could not grow, and we were, to make matters worse, splitting it into so many compartments. With copyediting not getting established, publishers also found an opportunity here: they sensed that they could get the mechanical things done in India and send it back to UK/US to get the content edited. Cost cutting was already going on, and the latter development provided further impetus to it.

And today we do a good chunk of low-quality work in India, and a huge chunk of higher level work goes back to the US/UK or gets done there completely. It is not that Indians could not provide high-quality work. As a retired US veteran once put it, “There are small pockets in India where good work is done. But all attempts to look at large volumes have led to nowhere.”

Is editing a financially viable career?

The drop in pricing made many companies to go in for a model where they had minimal copyeditors in-house and they gave the work out to freelancers. And soon, many small editorial businesses came up, acting as vendors to the main companies.

In such a scenario, the profession has not only not grown, but the money doled out is also so minimal that so many editors have started asking questions whether it is financially viable to take up editing as a career. These questions are quite pertinent, as the cost of living itself has increased steadily over the years.

It is also to be noted that quite a few publishing/editing courses that had been started earlier in universities and institutions have now been shut down as there were not many takers for these courses or qualified personnel could not be found to run them (or both).

Artificial intelligence and fears of the death of editing

As if to make things worse, machine learning and artificial intelligence (AI) are currently taking the world by storm and people worry unnecessarily whether editing as a profession will soon disappear.

These fears are unfounded, and for several reasons. At present, AI is used in the following areas in the publishing industry:

  • Metadata (its application in discoverability, engagement, and sales)
  • Data integration
  • Reader analytics
  • Audience targeting
  • Audience engagement (predict mass audience or bestseller appeal)

In some quarters it is also used to provide help to authors and publishers by comparing a manuscript across elements of craft, style, grammar, plot, and more to discover similarities or dissimilarities it shares with bestseller standards. This does not mean that AI is going to rewrite the book for the author. And even if we assume, for argument’s sake, that it does—at a later date—the output will still have to be run through an editor.

But there are still deeper reasons why editing cannot disappear. Food, clothing, and shelter are considered the basic needs of man. Once these are satisfied, man’s curiosity takes over. The cure for boredom is curiosity, but there is no cure for curiosity! This simply means that science will continue, and the goal of research (beyond the goal of exploration) will be publication. So we will need editors as long as there are scientists and researchers on this planet—simply because many of them cannot write correct English.

Editing is too complex an activity of the human mind to be replaced easily by AI

It has never been possible to replace the human mind. You might want to refute that by saying, “Only time can tell.” My reply is that time has already shown that to us clearly. Let me explain.

With all our great advancements in science, we now know how the Pyramid of Giza was built, but we are still incapable of building anything like that. The Pyramid of Giza is a great reminder to us of two things:

  • People more intelligent—or advanced—than us have lived before us on this planet
  • Time is cyclic—that events come and go in succession (Without preferring to get into a discussion on this, I would add that this is purely an Eastern (Indian) concept; modern science believes that time is linear—and although the concept of cyclic universes has been mooted, it has neither been proved nor gained acceptance yet.)

There are innumerable examples in history pointing toward the cyclic nature of time. I used the Pyramid of Giza as an example simply because it is the most visible, still-existing structure, and an example that anyone can understand. Moreover, no other man-made object has been studied as extensively as the Pyramid of Giza. The geometrical structure of the pyramid by itself—more than anything else—makes it a more convincing argument that the guy(s) who built it 4500 years ago knew the value of π (pi) or its applications, and the scientific world rediscovered it much later.

In time, so many things come and go. But the human mind—and its talents—has outlived everything else.

Are we—you may ask—yet again at a time in the cycle where it is time for editing to go? No—not yet!

Why editing may be an important skill in the years to come

No doubt the digital revolution, machine learning, and AI have all helped (and rattled!) the world way beyond imagination. At the same time, we are also becoming aware of the problems inherent in the process.

  • We know very well that every blogger is not a super-writer.
  • We know that the quality of published materials has been on a downward trend—almost to the extent that many of us may have had a gnawing feeling sometime or the other whether book designing, editing, typesetting, and proofreading have all become valueless.
  • We have seen a decrease in the reading habits of children born in the last two decades.
  • The habit of reading physical books has been, to a great extent, replaced by electronic modes of reading.
  • Nevertheless, the print industry has survived and proved wrong the earlier belief that it might be wiped out; in fact, paper seems to coexist quietly with the myriad new forms that have emerged.
  • We also know that our attention spans are getting shorter with the increasing electronic gadgets and multimedia content; humans seem to be losing the patience to read large amounts of text, and prefer to spend more time in reading or seeing content in different forms.
  • Many scientists, medical specialists, and thinkers have said that the tactile sense associated with paper has a tremendous positive effect on the human mind and is associated with memory and learning, particularly in the preadult learning phase.

Vint Cerf, the father of the Internet, has cautioned that humanity’s steps into the digital world could be lost to future historians, simply because the programs needed to view them are fast becoming defunct:

When you think about the quantity of documentation from our daily lives that is captured in digital form, like our interactions by email, people’s tweets, and all of the world wide web, it’s clear that we stand to lose an awful lot of our history. We don’t want our digital lives to fade away. If we want to preserve them, we need to make sure that the digital objects we create today can still be rendered far into the future. . . .

We are nonchalantly throwing all of our data into what could become an information black hole without realising it. We digitise things because we think we will preserve them, but what we don’t understand is that unless we take other steps, those digital versions may not be any better, and may even be worse, than the artefacts that we digitised. If there are photos you really care about, find some really good quality photographic paper and print them, because we know those will last at least 150 years.

We are at a stage where we are becoming aware of the dangers involved in what we’re trying to do. So no matter how we advance, the next few decades will be ones where increased importance will be given to reading habits and good writing. And no doubt, editing will also gain in stature as a scholarly profession. It is nature’s law that we get some beating to understand the value of the good things that we do. And perhaps businessmen who value the art will rejuvenate the publishing business and nurture it in such a way that it is viable both as an art and as a business.

Wondering whether I’m trying hard to make you believe that my guess is right? Well, I believe in these ideas so whole-heartedly that I’ve decided not to go in for another full-time job—but have started a professional copyediting training program on my own, offering 20+ courses (see https://theartofcopyediting.com/overview-2/).

What we can do to rejuvenate copyediting in India

The first thing we need to understand is that (a) quality is the single-most important factor in editing and (b) as a country we are nowhere near an international standard. Forget about my opinion; the very prices tell us what our quality is. And still more pathetic is the fact that most editors in the country do not even have an inkling as to what professional editorial standards are.

So the first step has to be training and education. But before we address that issue we must take a step back and ask a more basic question: What is quality? Quality is simply a characteristic of the output. The quality of the input determines the nature of the output. The right kind of input here would simply mean having the right kind of people to do the job. It is only then that training and education will bear fruit.

And where should all this logically start? It must start in the places where this work is handled day in and day out. The publishing services companies in India—those that provide services at the presubmission or the postacceptance stage—are the places where these concepts must begin and take roots.

  • We must ensure that we attract the right kind of people to this industry.
  • Once the right people are in, they must be trained and educated and made to understand what a professional standard is and how much it takes to maintain that standard.
  • In-house training followed by a long period of mentoring—as long as practically possible—is the only way by which this art can be learned.
  • When this happens, the vendors and freelancers working for these companies will also wake up to the calls of quality.

But this means involvement and belief in the utility of this vision on the part of the companies.

  • The current low pricing for offshore editing implies a hidden opportunity: scope for 150% improvement—or a potential increase of 150% of the current level of revenue. Where and how do you get that kind of a mega opportunity?
  • Connect this to the foreign exchange that such an effort can bring in and you will see the great opportunity we now have in this country.
  • Where there is a clear opportunity, there can be a conscious investment in that field at the business, national, and governmental levels.

We need government agencies and private investors who share the vision to nurture the art patiently for the foreign exchange and the long-term higher revenues it can bring for the companies and the country.

How the editorial function can grow in the years to come

As I mentioned at the beginning of this blog, establishing copyediting is the first step in the process. This can then help to strengthen, support, or fan out to several related skills:

  • Copyediting as a single profession gets established and people earn something decent for the scholarship inherently required for the profession.
  • Copyeditors gain proficiency, move forward, and get certified at different levels.
  • Proofreading becomes established, and journal and book editing quality is met simply as part of the process.
  • The quality of the work by itself fetches a higher rate per page.
  • Better copyediting strengthens project management, and when people with a strong grasp of the principles of copyediting move into project management, we will have a new era of superior project management (much better than what we have today).
  • When these two editorial functions get strengthened, all aspects of documentation automatically get strengthened.
  • When English as a medium of communication gets a boost, more people with better command of English may join the indexing profession and raise it to international standards. (Till date, indexing has mostly been managed by people who are good at understanding content but are not good at grammar.)
  • Book designing and design survey are other editorial functions.
    • Book designing is an art where you understand content and conceptualize artistic ways of presenting it using your good grasp of typography and design.
    • Design survey is a process where you analyze the content and pull out unique elements (in their original context and wording) to help the designer prepare a solid design that covers all the elements present in a book.
    • A good design streamlines the entire book production process upfront. Again, an ability to understand content at a higher level is crucial to this profession.
  • Developmental editing and manuscript evaluation are still higher editorial functions.
    • Some manuscripts may require developmental editing, which may happen right from the conception stage or when the author is still working on the draft.
    • Some other manuscripts may require an evaluation, which happens when an author submits a completed manuscript.
    • As copyediting gets established in the profession, the experienced ones can branch out into any of these (of course by getting mentored into the art through someone who knows it well).

All these will gain importance in the years ahead, as the industry seems to have reached a tipping point and is moving toward development of global services that shift the paradigm from a cost-reduction approach to a business-value proposition approach. Again, per the April 2018 report I mentioned earlier (https://www.horsesforsources.com/offshoring-IT-trump_042918),

 Many enterprise leaders are clearly no longer thinking, “How can we shave some more cost off our annual IT budget by moving more work to India?” Instead, they are thinking, “How can I get quality services delivered at competitive prices that take advantage of the cloud, automation, and global talent.” The subtle shift here is clearly one from an obsessive focus on low cost to one of getting quality services as the industry matures, where there are many leverage points to find productivity gains, beyond merely relying on FTE rates. The more pricing shifts towards outcomes, volumes and KPIs, the less visible offshoring becomes as a cost-lever.

Let us not let go of an opportunity that has come on its own

Whatever may have been the underlying reasons, copyediting found its way to India, and we are now aware that we have lost quite some years without realizing its potential for growth. No doubt the cost-cuttings, the technological advances, and many other factors could have been the reasons for our not establishing it as an attractive profession in India. But having gone through the mill, knowing the pros and cons, and knowing its potential for growth, let us at least now make efforts in the right direction to rejuvenate the profession in India.

Copyediting is an intellectual profession, which is why it has always been called a value-added service. When we nurture this profession, particularly in the English language—which has become an established medium of communication in the world—we nurture a tendency toward unbiased thinking, a decision-making capability, a capability to look at oneself in the mirror (to mention a few).

And this can have a tremendous positive impact not only in the scholarly/academic publishing industry, but also in innumerable other fields across India where English is the medium of communication—the pure Indian publishing scenario as well as other communication-dependent industries in India.

I’m a person who is loaded with dynamism and passion for this profession in every pore of my being. I’m willing to take it forward and am looking for people with a similar vision who care for this profession and want to nurture it, sustain it, and make it grow.

Please feel free to leave your thoughts and comments or get in touch.

 


Comments (on the original posting)

Vivek on June 20, 2018 at 11:56 am 
A company headed by an editor is the only answer.

Varsha Verma on June 20, 2018 at 12:35 pm 
Very interesting and impressive insight
 
Dr Nilima Vyas on June 21, 2018 at 4:33 am
A beautiful, comprehensive article. Although editing is here to stay, in future editors will run by the old rule “survival of the fittest.” That is, those who are curious, constant learners, and are in true sense part of the editing (not publishing) industry will thrive, whereas those who stop questioning every comma, do not sneer at every sentence, and go by conservative standards will miss the bus.

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