The intended audience for this post consists of writers who use citations in their work and editors who are new to working with material that includes citations. Most of my work involves reference work of some form, and some of it consists entirely of references.
Sometimes authors ask for a “reference check,” but this can mean a lot of different things. Often, authors who are students or are otherwise new to working with an editor don’t actually know the extent of the reference check they need and are relying on their editor to do whatever it is they think is correct. In practice, this needs to be something that client and editor agree on before work begins.
What to Expect When You're Expecting Citation Help
At a minimum, checking references will usually mean the following:
“Checking” here doesn’t mean fixing; it just means checking. In this minimal-work scenario, the editor will flag any errors or obvious omissions but not look up the material. The author is expected to do that work after receiving the edited draft. This level of work is what’s appropriate if the author is a student or degree candidate whose familiarity with citation style is one of the things they’ll be judged on for academic credit.
Moderate Citation Work
A moderate amount of work might also include, as determined before the work begins:
A couple of these override one another (flagging missing info vs. looking it up), but I include them in the same list because they both count as moderate levels of work to me. This is a standard degree of work for a project that includes references but on which the client either isn’t a student or isn’t receiving academic credit for knowing how to use their citation style.
Heavy Hitting—Experienced Editors Will Know to Charge More
Sometimes authors leave citations as an afterthought and need a lot more work getting them into presentable shape than the above will cover. When that’s the case, the editor should consider the tasks to be premium services, and authors should expect to pay premium rates for them. This is usually work that would have taken the author far less time to complete if it had been done during the writing than it is for editors to accomplish retroactively because researchers nearly always have easier and more immediate access to their sources than editors do. Nonetheless, editors will be asked to perform the following occasionally:
Examples of Heavy Hitting: These Need Author-Editor Communication and Agreement
Once, I edited an MBA thesis on which the author used a large number of web sources. He had cited them in the text in author-date style, but his reference list consisted of a list of URLs with neither author nor date assigned to each. I needed to look up each link, determine who the author was from the content (easy for news articles; more time consuming for some of the other types of sources), match up the web source with the author the client used to refer to it in the text, and correct that author if it was incorrect (for example, he’d used the names of newspapers as authors quite a bit even when a human author’s name was readily available at the link). This was unquestionably a “premium” service, but the client was so deep in research and revisions that he was thrilled to have someone take the work off his hands at the price the work was worth.
In another instance, I edited a book manuscript by a professor with references in footnote/bibliography style. The manuscript’s chapters had gone through so many revisions in so many different document formats that the footnote numbers no longer lined up. I needed to get them back on the same page (literally). In some cases the cited author’s name showed up in the text, and clusters of footnotes would show up in the right relative order, but then a quote would appear that bore no relation to the note it supposedly applied to, and I'd be at sea again. Ultimately I made a table of quotations and content, footnotes, and the current numbers to hand off to the client. The discipline was history, so we’re talking hundreds of notes per chapter. He then confirmed the ones I’d guessed correctly, fixed the ones I hadn’t, and filled in the gaps. Eventually, we established a good system, but it took a lot of time and patience. The finished and cleaned-up book was published by Rowman and Littlefield with the most pristine footnotes and bibliography that material had probably ever had (if I do say so myself), and I’ve completed smaller projects for the same client—a great person who is easy to work with—since then.
These are examples of citation work that an editor can do if it’s discussed beforehand and if both parties understand the extent of the work required. Some editors will not consider it within the scope of their jobs, in which case the author will need to decide whether to continue with that editor or seek a different one; that editor might be able to refer the author to a colleague who does that sort of work. The costs will vary widely; someone who charges significantly less than what you find to be average likely isn’t experienced enough with the tasks to anticipate the amount of work involved and will either grow grumpy and upset with themselves for undercharging when they realize their mistake (that was me on a couple of jobs when I started out!) or match the work to the cost and not do a thorough job.
Resources and a Note about Ethics
For editors as well as authors refining their own citations, there are resources available to facilitate a retroactive info search (that is, a search for a source that is no longer in front of you). If you have incomplete sources in your reference list, the WorldCat library catalog and the database at CrossRef can save time and googling.
One more note concerns responsibility for the final content of the references. Although an editor can help fill in missing pieces (if agreed upon by the parties), the ultimate responsibility for them always lies with the author. If a doctoral candidate receives editing and reference help for a dissertation, for example, they’re the one who must maintain that the citations are complete and correct to the best of their knowledge. The candidate is the one who handled the sources (one hopes, since citing sources you didn’t actually use can be a form of plagiarism), and hiring an editor doesn’t shift the ethical burden to represent them correctly.
I'm Lea, a freelance editor who specializes in academic and nonfiction materials. More info about my services is available throughout this site.