Medical documents usually require both proofreading and editing. They are generally manuscripts intended for publication, so need to be returned free of errors and written with the clarity and concision required by peer-reviewed journals. It may help to keep the following in mind when tackling medical editing.
Before you tackle the main text of the document, check the headings for consistency. You may find that the numbering is incorrect, or that some headings are numbered while others are not. The capitalization of headings may also be inconsistent. Such issues are easier to spot when you focus on the headings in isolation.
Numbers and mathematical operators
Most style guides suggest that mathematical operators be spaced when preceded and followed by a number or variable, but this may not always be the case. If guidance is lacking, ensure consistency. It may be helpful to make a pass of the document focusing solely on these sections; it’s easy to miss the difference between ‘p = 0.05’ and ‘p=0.05’ when they may appear pages apart. This will also make it easier to spot other consistency issues such as the italicization of variables (‘p’ vs ‘p’) and the use of zero before decimal points (‘p = .05’ vs ‘p = 0.05’)
It’s important to keep track of these to ensure they are used correctly. The easiest way to do this is to perform a search every time a new abbreviation appears. Search for both the full terminology (so you can be sure it isn’t repeated) and the abbreviation (to be sure it is used more than once and therefore needs to be used).
- Treat the abstract as a separate entity. Any abbreviations used in the abstract need to be defined again in the main body of the paper.
- If abbreviations are not defined, try a Google search. If you can establish the full terminology with certainty, add it. If you can’t, leave a comment.
Whatever your level of familiarity with medical research, you are likely to come across unfamiliar terminology, be it the names of drugs, testing products, or anatomical structures. It’s important to check these with a Google search to ensure that spelling, capitalization, hyphenation, etc. are correct.
Frequently, a search will show instances where a given term is capitalized and instances where it isn’t. In this case, it’s best to ensure consistency within the document and to draw the author’s attention to the issue with a comment.
Reporting verbs for citations
While we don’t generally edit the references in medical documents, the in-text citations may benefit from attention. Some writers tend to be overly reliant on certain verbs when reporting the previous work of other researchers. Commonly overused reporting verbs in citations include find, state, argue, note, and report. For example:
If you find that many of the in-text citations employ the same one or two reporting verbs, consider making amendments for greater variety and clarity. Recent research analyzing almost 4 million words of academic writing found 438 different reporting verbs used in citations, so there are plenty to choose from!
Also, be on the lookout for in-text citations using claim and mention, as these are frequently used but often inappropriate. Claim comes with connotations of potential dishonesty, or of propositions being made somewhat baselessly, while mention suggests a casual or incidental manner, and neither of these are ideal for academic citations.
Often the biggest challenge with medical documents is the editing. Remember that you are not just looking for errors in grammar or language use; you also need to address issues such as ambiguity/lack of clarity, false comparisons, the use of vague or non-academic vocabulary, and poorly hedged results/conclusions. This means you have to focus carefully on the meaning and logical flow – you have to read the text with a scientist’s mind. Let’s take a look at some of these issues in more detail.
Take a look at this example from a methodology section:
While there’s no problem with this grammatically, it does have other issues. If we tried to use this a guide to repeat the experiment, we would encounter questions.
- What were the samples rinsed with?
- Were the samples washed three times for 20 seconds each time, or three times for a total of twenty seconds?
While we might be able to assume the answers to these questions, a methodology that leaves the reader having to make assumptions or guesses is not sufficiently clear.
Here’s another example:
Again, while this is grammatically correct, it lacks clarity. We are left with the question, ‘More accurate and reliable than what?’ In other words, it’s not clear what the study’s model is being compared to.
Once again, we need to think it terms of what this does not tell us. We know that samples from the liver cirrhosis patients were taken before, 2 weeks after, and 12 months after the SPD, but we are given no indication of when samples were taken from the healthy individuals.
This is the kind of thing you need to look out for as a medical editor. The above excerpts would all need to be commented on, advising the author of the ambiguity/lack of clarity.
This is another commonly occurring issue in medical documents. Take the following example:
It might be obvious what this is intended to mean, but what’s more important is what it actually says, which is that the results were compared with the group. This is clearly not the intention. We could correct this easily by saying, “Group A’s results were compared with those of Group B.”
Medical documents have to maintain the appropriate academic register, and that means using suitable vocabulary. In basic terms:
- Avoid phrasal verbs
- Avoid vague, generic, everyday words when more specific, academically toned alternatives exist.
Some examples of general words and their more academic alternatives include:
Get – obtain/acquire/procure, etc.
Good – effective/optimal/beneficial, etc. (as appropriate)
Look at – examine/investigate, etc.
Find out – establish/ascertain, etc.
Do/carry out – conduct/perform, etc.
Give – provide/administer, etc.
Although somewhat outdated, the Academic Word List (AWL), widely available online, is still a useful guide to the kinds of words that are suitable for academic writing.
Poorly hedged results
Hedging (sometimes called modality) is an important part of academic writing, referring to the idea that science very seldom states any finding as proved or absolute. Room is always left for doubt. This can present issues, especially for L2 English speakers, and there are even cultural differences in the extent to which academic writing is generally hedged. For the purposes of medical editing, results and conclusions should generally be hedged. This can be done in various ways, including the use of modals, other verbs, adverbs, and adjectives. Some of the most common hedges include:
may – “This may explain why the test group’s results…”
suggest – “The findings suggest that the treatment was successful…”
could – “Delays in treatment could lead to…”
indicate – “Our results indicate a causal link between…”
likely – “It’s likely that the decrease was due to the use of…”
often – “Patients often present with…”
seem – “SPD seems to be efficacious in this context…”
possible – “There is clearly a possible link between…”
appear – “The experiment appears to demonstrate that…”
If you encounter a completely unhedged statement in a medical document, such as “The results prove that a causes b,” or “Male patients show greater resistance than female patients” either add a hedge or leave a comment for the author.
Medical editing is as much about checking the logical clarity and specificity of the information as it is about ensuring grammatical accuracy and a lack of proofreading errors. The more medical editing you do, the more familiar you will become with the kinds of problems that arise and the easier it will be to identify and remedy them.