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Do Editors Need a Code of Ethics?

In the United States, there is no national organization that sets guidelines for all editors. We also don’t have a standardized method for training editors, or certification that proves mastery or that obligates us to edit or behave in a certain way.

That’s not to say that there aren’t organizations that represent editors, reliable methods for teaching the craft, or ways to prove mastery and professionalism. It’s just that there is no one organization that represents us all, no standardization of the craft, no universal guidelines. 

American editors have to piece these things together themselves.

For the most part, the resources are out there. You can join an organization that represents editors by employment type, geography, or type of editing. You can take any number of classes and read lots of books, blogs, and articles. You can listen to podcasts and watch videos. And you can prove your skills and professionalism through reputation and work samples.

One glaring need, though, is guidance in ethical situations and professional practices. Only a few organizations provide codes of practice, and I’m aware of only one that provides a code of ethics. Although what we editors do is not often of life-or-death importance, I think most of us would agree that doing our jobs in a way that conforms with our personal ethical compasses is important. And the more experienced among us know that publishing can present situations that challenge those compasses.

It behooves us, then, to consider the ethics of editing before troubling situations arise and to create for ourselves some sort of guidelines we can follow in moments of doubt.

Exploring Your Moral Philosophy

What sorts of troubling situations can editors find themselves in? Consider the following:

  • You’re offered a lucrative project that requires subject-matter expertise that you don’t have. Do you accept the project?
  • You’re offered a project that requires a faster pace of editing than you have thus far been capable of doing. Do you take on the challenge?
  • You’ve been tasked with only a copyedit, but the manuscript requires a substantive edit. Which edit do you do?
  • You find the topic of a manuscript morally objectionable. Should you take on the project? Does the answer depend on whether you’re an employee or a freelancer?
  • You find out that your publisher employer is being dishonest about the authorship of a manuscript you’re working on. How do you handle the situation?

These are not easy questions, though each of us will find some questions easier to answer than others—at least hypothetically. Each question seems to lead to another, as well. Ghostwriting projects notwithstanding, I couldn’t work for a company that was passing off one author’s work as another’s. But if I did find that my employer was being dishonest about a project I was working on, how far would my responsibility go? Is it enough to refuse to work on that project? Do I need to inform the real author or an authority? Do I need to quit my job?

Sometimes answers vary based on other factors. Under the right circumstances, I might take on a project that required a faster editing speed than I’d currently achieved, if I had a strong reason to believe I could increase my editing time.

And sometimes what we would hypothetically do is much harder or more complicated in real life. It’s easy to say I’d quit a full-time job for my principles, but would I? I have to consider how I would pay my bills and how my family would survive until I found another job. Should I find another job first? After all, it’s a tough market out there.

The more complications there are, the harder it is to decide what the right course is. Editor Rich Adin has mastered the art of creating ethical conundrums. Here’s one he published on An American Editor:

For example, we work alone [and] there are 3,000 manuscript pages to be edited; they require a “heavy” edit; the subject matter is a sub-sub-subspecialty area of nuclear physics, an area with which we have no familiarity; the manuscript is heavy in math, which we know is a weakness; the schedule is six weeks and cannot be extended, which means we would have to edit 500 manuscript pages a week, yet the best we have ever done is 300. The project is for a long-time client who pays very well (more than any other client we have) and will pay double our usual rate. Finally, if we do not accept this project, we currently have nothing else to fill the time, although it is always possible for something to come along. Also, the project still will have to be done by someone—and that someone might be even less qualified.

I couldn’t take on this project because I know there’s no way I could do a good job; there are just too many obstacles. If I could recommend another editor who would do a good job, I would. But other than that, I can’t control who does the edit, so I have to let that concern go. As far as having work during that period, I’d have to do my best to fill the time, but even that is something I have limited control over. For my own sanity, I have to let go of things I can’t control. Recognizing what I can’t control makes deciding easier for me.

Discussing questions like these, either in a formal setting or informally among colleagues, can be an excellent way to develop your ideas of ethical editing behavior. Adin’s ethics-themed posts are great fodder for conversation, as are some comments to the posts. Teresa Barensfeld asks some great questions in the comments section of “The Business of Editing: Certification & Ethics,” including:

  • Do you tell clients if you have an illness or family emergency?
  • Do you tell clients if you hire another freelancer to work on a job you’re doing?
  • If billing by the hour, do you count time for breaks, as you would if employed? 

If a job is going sour, do you (a) cut corners, (b) tell the client and try to renegotiate time and/or money, (c) just grind through it even though you’re making no money and the rent/mortgage/bills are due or (d) something else?

Freelance editor and That Word Chat host Mark Allen gives editors broader questions to think about:

  • What is my responsibility to the truth?
  • What is my responsibility to the reader?
  • What is my responsibility to the author?
  • What are my business-related responsibilities, such as following contract expectations, billing honestly, and maintaining confidentiality?
  • What is my responsibility to my own convictions?

To that list I’d add two more:

  • What is my responsibility to the manuscript?
  • What is my responsibility to the publisher?

We know, even when publishers don’t, that how well we edit affects the overall quality of the published work. True, no manuscript is ever perfect, and we often have to settle for good enough. But if we’re not doing our best work for the given circumstances, are we doing a disservice to the manuscript or the publisher who hired us?

Crafting Ethical Guidelines

Such questions and any ensuing discussions are useful, but they need to lead somewhere. For a few organizations, they’ve led to codes of ethics and practice. The American Medical Writers Association (AMWA), for example, has a code of ethics for all medical communications. The code comprises eight principles, including:

  • Medical communicators should recognize and observe statutes and regulations pertaining to the materials they write, edit, or otherwise develop.
  • Medical communicators should apply objectivity, scientific accuracy and rigor, and fair balance while conveying pertinent information in all media.
  • Medical communicators should write, edit, or participate in the development of information that meets the highest professional standards, whether or not such materials come under the purview of any regulatory agency.

Membership in AMWA includes a commitment to the code of ethics. An editor who breaks the code is subject to a committee review of the grievance and possible expulsion from the association.

AMWA was the only American organization I could find with a code of ethics.

The Editorial Freelancers Association has a code of practice, but it focuses more on what freelancers need to know to get started. Other organizations offer codes of practice that can influence a personal code of editorial ethics, such as the Chartered Institute of Editing and Proofreading (CIEP) and Editors Canada. By reviewing those, as well as the aforementioned questions and hypothetical situations, I came up with this list of practical guidelines to help editors keep their ethics intact:

  • Be honest and fair in business dealings. Treat others with respect and fairness. Act like a professional at all times. Respect confidentiality. Only take on jobs that you can actually do. Resolve conflicts fairly. 
  • Follow any applicable legal guidelines. This will matter more for some editors than others, such as those working on copy closely regulated by a government agency (e.g., medical copy). 
  • Set expectations at the beginning of each project. Be clear about the kind of results you can or are willing to provide. If you’re tasked with copyediting, clients and supervisors shouldn’t expect you to do substantive or developmental editing instead of or in addition to copyediting. 
  • Outline the details of the project. Freelancers: spell out each party’s responsibilities, payment terms, project schedule, dispute settlement, and other details important to the project, preferably in a contract. Employees: make sure everyone knows their responsibilities, the project schedule, and any other important details. Record these details in an email to all the interested parties. 
  • Follow directions. Keep your end of the bargain. 
  • Be prepared to defend your edits. The author has a right to understand the reasoning behind any edit. 
  • Explain opaque edits up front. Be sure the author can follow your reasoning. Also explain any edit that might push the boundaries of what you’ve been asked to do. 
  • Respect the author’s opinions. This is the author’s work. You don’t have to agree with the author’s opinions, but you do have to respect the author. 
  • Bill clients based on the agreement and the work you actually do. If your contract allows for 75 hours on a project and you complete the work in 50 hours, only bill for 50 hours. 
  • If you can’t meet a deadline, let the project manager know as soon as you know. Adjust expectations and help resolve any conflicts. Freelancers, the amount of personal detail you share is up to you. Employees, check with HR to find out how much detail you’re obligated to share with your supervisor and other interested parties.

Although most US editors lack access to a code of ethics and a governing body to guide and discipline them, we do have the means to find what we need. We have to find our own training, our own way of getting news and improving our skills (Right Touch Editing can help you), and our own sources of what’s right and wrong. It may be less than ideal, but it can be done.


We were informed that additionally, the Professional Editors’ Guild (PEG) of South Africa has a Member Code of Conduct and the Institute of Professional Editors Limited (IPEd) of Australia has a Code of Ethics.

A version of this article originally published in the October–November 2014 issue of Copyediting newsletter.

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