Saturday, May 6, 2017

Who Copy Edits ASTM Standards?

This posting is not about science or law. It is about English writing. I recently had occasion to read the “Standard Guide for Analysis of Clandestine Drug Laboratory Evidence” issued by ASTM International, a private standards development organization. The standard exemplifies a common problem with the ASTM standards for forensic science — an apparent absence of copy and line editing to achieve clear and efficient expression of the ideas of the committees that write the standards. 1/

This particular standard, known as E2882-12, opens with an observation about the “scope” of the document — namely, that
This guide does not replace knowledge, skill, ability, experience, education, or training and should be used in conjunction with professional judgment.
The word “replace” has caused a couple of readers to complain that this admonition implies that unstructured “knowledge, skill, ability, experience, education, or training” suffices for the analysis of the evidence. That is not  a fair reading of the sentence, but joining the two clauses with “and” makes it seem like they are separate points. Why not make it as easy as possible for the reader to get the intended message? I think the sentence amounts to nothing more than the following simple idea:
This standard is intended to help professionals use their knowledge and skill to analyze clandestine drug laboratory evidence.
Why not just say this? Why all the extra verbiage?

Unfortunately, this text is not an isolated example of the need for detailed editing. Another infelicity is
capacity—the amount of finished product that could be produced, either in one batch or over a defined period of time, and given a set list of variables.
The words “and given a set list of variables” are a sentence fragment. They dangle aimlessly after the comma. The copy edit is obvious:
Capacity is the amount of finished product that could be produced, for a specified set of variables, either in one batch or over a stated period of time.
It still may not be clear what a “set of variables” means here, but at least the words about unnamed variables occur where they belong.

The wording in a section on reporting is especially obscure:
Laboratories should have documented policies establishing protocols for reviewing verbal information and conclusions should be subject to technical review whenever possible. It is acknowledged that responding to queries in court or investigative needs may present an exception.
One clear statement of what the sentences seem to assert is that
Laboratories should have written protocols to ensure that oral communications from laboratory personnel are reviewed for technical correctness. However, a protocol can dispense with (1) review of some courtroom testimony and (2) review that would impede an investigation.
Whether this edited version expresses what the authors wanted to say or presents a satisfactory policy is unclear, but at least the version is more easily understood.

Other phrases that should raise red flags for editing abound. I’ll end with three examples.
  • This guide does not purport to address all of the safety concerns, if any, associated with its use. The editor would say: Make up your mind. If there are no safety concerns, then the sentence is worthless. If there are safety concerns, then the standard should address them. If there is a reason not to address all of them, then the standard can say, “There are additional safety concerns for a laboratory to consider.” If there is a desire to be very cautious, it could read, “There could be additional safety concerns for a laboratory to consider.”
  • ... calculations can be achieved from ... . Copy editor: It sounds odd to speak of "achieving" calculations. The phrase "calculations can be made by" would be more apt.
  • Quantitative measurements of clandestine laboratory samples have an accuracy which is dependent on sampling and, if a liquid, on volume calculations. This sentence is both circumlocutious ("which is dependent") and disjointed ("if a liquid" is in the wrong place to modify "samples"). It also seems to conflate measurements on subsamples of the material submitted for analysis ("clandestine laboratory samples") with inference from the subsamples to the sample of the seized items. If this reading of the dense sentence is correct, editing would expand it along the following lines: "The accuracy of quantitative measurements of a liquid sample depends on the calculated volume of the sample. When the material analyzed is not the entire sample, then the accuracy of any inferences to the entire sample also depends on the homogeneity of the sample and the procedure by which the subsample was chosen.
Good writing requires the right words in the correct order. Good editing makes the writing more readable. Many existing technical standards in forensic science still need good editing to make them fully fit for purpose.

  1. Although some publishers distinguish between line editing and copy editing, this posting uses the phrase "copy editing" broadly, to refer to the process of reviewing and correcting written material to ensure "that whatever appears in public is accurate, easy to follow, and fit for purpose." Society for Editors and Proofreaders, FAQs: What Is Copy-editing?,

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