The really dangerous formatting errors

15th Feb 2012

No journal editor expects submitted papers to be perfectly formatted. But there are different types of error that cause different problems.

  1. Common formatting errors that are easy to spot and easy to fix, like double spaces at the end of sentences
  2. Things that aren’t really errors, which will be ignored when the paper is typeset, such as spacing between paragraphs
  3. ‘Errors’ that are really matters of house style, such as italicisation of the ‘p’ in ‘p-value’
  4. Things that are hard to spot and that could cause the reader to misunderstand something crucial.

It is this last category that I would like to focus on here. These are the kinds of errors that every scientific copyeditor should know to look out for, but not all do. If you do one of these things, you will cause extra work for whoever copyedits your paper. Not a major problem, you might think. But if the copyeditor is not experienced in this kind of problem, or is rushed or underpaid, or if the journal doesn’t copyedit it at all, the error might not be spotted. As you will see from the examples below, this could have serious consequences.

Misuse of underlining

OK, so you want to quote a mean and standard deviation. But that symbol you want to add between the two, that ‘plus or minus’ sign (±), where is that in your wordprocessor? It’s not always obvious where to find the symbol you want. So some clever authors think ‘I know, I’ll put in a plus sign and underline it! It looks the same, doesn’t it?’

Well it looks the same as long as the underlining never gets lost. But the journey from the author’s wordprocessed file to the final published article is a long one, and the underlining could be stripped out at various points: preprocessing, copyediting, typesetting or conversion to XML or HTML. Some typesetters, I’m told, remove all formatting from documents and add it back manually by looking at a pdf of the original. Sure, proper professional scientific typesetters used by journals are unlikely to do this, but can you be sure? Underlining is generally not used in published work, so some copyeditors also remove it – again, they should always check first for any underlining that means something, but can you be sure that they will see your clever underlined plus sign?

Similar logic also leads to the underlined less than sign, or greater than sign, to give a version of ≤ or ≥.

So I wonder, now, how many papers there are out there that quote the mean + standard deviation not the mean ± standard deviation because of this error. I haven’t actually seen any myself – have you?

Greek letters

A similar difficulty presumably leads some authors to fudge Greek letters. Take microliters, an extremely commonly used unit in molecular biology papers. The correct symbol is ‘µl’, but I’ve lost count of the times I’ve seen ‘ul’. Maybe this wouldn’t cause too much misunderstanding if left in, but the fact remains that it is incorrect.

More dangerous is to put in an ‘m’ and change the font to Symbol. This can lead to the same kind of problem as underlining – the Symbol font can all too easily be stripped out by mistake during processing. And do you really want the amounts to be given in milliliters rather than microliters? In some rare cases this could actually be dangerous, if someone took a drug at 1000 times the intended dose because of this kind of error.

Another surprisingly common error is to use the German ß instead of β. ß means double-s and is completely unrelated to β, despite its surface similarity.

Degrees

This one I find even more surprising than those mentioned above: using the wrong symbol for the degrees sign (°). This symbol isn’t hard to find in the Insert Symbol dialog in Microsoft Word, or in the LibreOffice equivalent. Superscript lower-case letter o or superscript zero aren’t good substitutes, again because the formatting might be stripped out. There is a very similar looking symbol called ‘Masculine ordinal indicator’, which is used in languages such as Italian to abbreviate ‘primo’ (‘first’). If you use this it probably won’t cause any harm, but it will still be incorrect.

Finding the right symbol

The best way to insert any symbol in Microsoft Word is to find out its character code in Unicode and then type the code and then press ALT+X to convert it into a character. For example, type 2265 and then, with the cursor just to the right of the 5, press ALT+X – this gives ≥. This site has a convenient search function – type in ‘greater than or equal to’ and you get a list of possible characters, of which U+2265 (ie Unicode 2265) is at the top. In Open Office or Libre Office, the process is similar but slightly more complex and is explained here.

Thanks to @nfanget, @EndoMetabPub, Katherine Timberlake and Kathleen Lyle (the latter two of SfEP) for suggestions for this post.

Your experience

Editors, have you seen any other formatting errors that are as dangerous as those mentioned here? Researchers, have you seen any examples that got through to the published version of a paper?

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10 Comments on “The really dangerous formatting errors

Thankfully our system is robust enough that we usually do not get Symbols fonts dropping out, although it does occasionally happen at art editing. But while you’re rooting around the Insert > Symbol window, you might as well set up keyboard shortcuts for the symbols you use often. On my computer CTRL+ALT+a/b/d/g/s links to α/β/δ/γ/σ, and ALT+m is minus.
Never had the underline problem though.

sharmanedit says:

I’m glad to hear that Nature’s system wouldn’t cause problems with Symbol font. The keyboard shortcuts are a good tip for anyone inserting the same symbol often.

PS Anna can you add a preview button to the comments? I wasn’t sure my html would show up properly until I clicked “Post”, and you know how I like to review what I write before publishing 🙂

sharmanedit says:

Sorry, I don’t think that’s possible in WordPress.com, unfortunately. Maybe one day I’ll move to a self-hosted blog, which will give a lot more flexibility with that kind of thing, but I’m not ready to take that leap quite yet. (If anyone knows a way to do this in WordPress.com, please do let me know.)

Nancy Boston says:

There are another two that I see all the time (as an editor). The first is a hyphen or en-rule (dash) for a minus sign in a negative number. Although the dash can look very similar to the minus sign (depending on the font used), the main disadvantage of using it instead of the minus is that it will break at the end of a line, separating it from its number, while the proper minus sign will not. The other is a lower-case letter x for a multiplication sign, although this is much easier to spot.

sharmanedit says:

Thanks Nancy. I hadn’t realised this difference between hyphens and minus signs. But this isn’t something I would expect any author to get right – we copyeditors need to check for this.

Nancy Boston says:

More rarely, I’ve seen single and double straight quotation marks used instead of single and double prime symbols. The dangers here are twofold. First, these might be converted to “curly” quotes somewhere along the line, which doesn’t look at all like a prime symbol. Second, if the double quote marks are changed to single throughout or vice versa (the double are more often used in US style, the single are more often used in UK style), then your inches will be converted to feet, or your feet to inches (and primes used in other ways – in map references, maths or genetics – could also be affected).

sharmanedit says:

I agree these are incorrect, but I disagree that this is rare – I see it a lot. It would be great if authors could get prime symbols right, but I think we will have to keep on converting quotes to primes. Thanks for pointing out the dangers when converting quotes. Feet and inches are rare in scientific texts, but degrees/minutes/seconds in maths and geography are places where double primes are used, so care is certainly needed.

amlees says:

Another two, in music, are a b for a flat sign and a # for a sharp sign. I expect music specialists already have systems to ensure that ‘proper music fonts’ are used, though.

I get the minus signs, degree signs a lot, and the prime problem occasionally. What gets me is the way authors spend so much time on their text, putting in the correct maths, and then their figure labels have any old rubbish…

sharmanedit says:

Thanks amlees. I wish I edited music to have this problem! Do you know where to find the proper flat and sharp signs or the Unicode codes for them?

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