Fact Checking – Vital or a Waste of Time?

questions, choicesHmmmm.

I spend a lot of my time editing non-fiction; no matter how much I love fiction, the factual stuff takes up more of my time at the moment.

And with factual editing comes fact checking.

Now, you may have a client who says ‘all the facts are correct’ but if, as you are working through the book, or article, or brochure, a ‘fact’ jumps out at you as incorrect, what should you do as a professional wordsmith?

Do you just shrug your shoulders, flag it and move past it, or do you start checking?

What should you do if you’re only being paid for a basic edit, and fact-checking is not included?

If it’s a subject you are very familiar with, you may automatically notice an incorrect ‘fact’, but if you are new to the subject it may not be immediately obvious. And fact-checking is time consuming. VERY time consuming.

time, clocks, rush job

Take, for example, an 80,000 word manuscript that has a lot of company names and personal names.

You spot an error, stop what you are doing and hit the internet.

You need to know if a university professor’s name is correct – so you go to his university webpage and look for the staff list. Easy peasy – but you’ve lost three minutes right there.

You suspect a company name is wrong – again, you look for the company website. Bingo. Three minutes.

But then you come across a name that seems wrong, but he isn’t an academic, nor a company CEO. How do you confirm the spelling? You hit the internet and look at Wikipedia – but beware … although the site is now a LOT more believable than it was, it is still not a primary source, and errors occur. You have to conduct more of a search to pinpoint the actual name, or the one most commonly used. Ten minutes gone. If you are lucky.

There’s a scholarly paper that’s been cited, but it looks odd. Go to the publisher, institute or author. If it’s not there, hit Google Scholar and search. Bang. Ten minutes.

question mark

Say you have an average text of 80,000 words, with an industry standard of 250 words per page. That’s 320 pages.

And there are two possible errors every five pages. That’s a very generous 128 facts to check (I have worked on documents where there have been four or five (or more) facts to check per page!).

Say each fact check takes you on average three minutes – that’s 384 minutes taken over the whole book. Have you done the maths yet? If I’m right, and admittedly I’m rubbish at maths, that means that throughout the course of the edit, you will add on around SIX AND A HALF HOURS for fact checking. SIX AND A HALF HOURS!

Makes you think doesn’t it.

Bet you’ve never looked at it like that have you? It certainly opened my eyes.

worry shock stepping out of comfort zone

So now, with this information, what do you do when you come across a factual error in the work you’re editing?

Ideally fact-checking should be done before the manuscript reaches the copy-editing stage but, if you are required to fact check, get it in writing exactly how much checking you will do, and what types of information will be checked. No matter what you are required to check, be aware of potentially libellous or damaging statements, and flag them up.

You may decide that you can’t live with moving past potential errors – consistency and accuracy are part of a copy-editor’s brief after all. As a professional it’s something you have to be aware of and address.

But errors can creep in in all kinds of ways:

names – personal, place, business.

dates – of anything and everything.

addresses – includes email addresses and websites as well as physical addresses. Addresses are important, especially with company documentation; an incorrect address can be devastating for business.

titles – personal and published. Think nobility, governmental and honorary titles as well as titles of books, periodicals and anything physical, published or not.

instructions and directions – I was taught to write down instructions by breaking them down to the smallest action, something that comes in very handy for checking instructions. Break them down, people, and see if they really make sense.

Remember if you do fact-check – never take the first answer you find, always verify facts with at least two independent sources, and primary sources are your friend.

clock, time, watch

There are a number of ways to deal with fact-checking, and it’s best to lay it down right at the start:

  1. Make it quite clear to the client that fact checking is not included in the negotiated price, but consistency will be attempted and obvious errors flagged for checking.
  2. Allow for a certain, small, amount of fact-checking in your time working on the manuscript. Encompass this in your base rate and don’t charge any extra for it. Flag up any time-consuming searches that may appear – the ones where you know it’s going to be difficult to check them.
  3. Negotiate with the client for an additional flat-fee charge for fact-checking, or an increase of hours quoted for, if it becomes apparent from the editorial sample that there may be an issue with factual information (you do get a sample to look at before agreeing to take on a job, don’t you?).
  4. Negotiate with the client for an additional charge for fact-checking, with a proviso that only XX number of minutes will be spent per manuscript and if work exceeds that, you will return to the client to negotiate further.
  5. Say hell, yes! Dive in, correct all the facts, take as much time as you like, and watch your profits slowly slide away.

It may seem a difficult subject, but some people make a living from fact checking and nothing more. Don’t shy away from talking about this with your client, and don’t take it for granted that you have to fact-check as standard. Negotiate, get it in writing and remember that although a copy-editor’s job can be fascinating, you are a business owner, and must think like one.

When photos go viral

Last week the Aurora Borealis (or Northern Lights) put on a spectacular display and amongst all the grainy pictures taken all over the country one picture was doing the rounds on Twitter and Facebook – supposedly coming from NASA’s Twitter feed that evening.

All over my timelines people were ooohing and aaaahing, no one could beat the picture that NASA had posted.

Aurora oval THEMIS mission NASA

A quick search showed that NASA’s Twitter feeds @NASA and @NASAhqphoto showed no such tweet. I also couldn’t find the original tweet in amongst all of the retweets doing the rounds that night.

Some people thought it was real, some people thought it was fake. Having ‘played’ on Photoshop for a number of years, and with an eye for detail, I had a look at the photo and realised that it wasn’t a photo at all. It was also old… the resolution on the Twitter ‘photo’ also seemed slightly wrong for these high tech days of ours.

I carried out a quick search and came up with the image on Astrobob’s lovely astronomy blog dated March 2013, also a few people on Facebook had found the same link. It popped up a few months later in July 2013 on the UniverseToday website.

The image popped up on other websites too, but when it was credited, all the credits said were ‘credit: NASA’.

Not very helpful.

As something of a researcher this kind of thing gets under my skin, as it shows that once something is ‘out there’ the origin of an image, or piece of text, can be difficult to trace without correct attribution. A friend found the ‘photo’ on an Icelandic site from 2012… so that took it back another year – it really wasn’t a new ‘real’ picture from space, although it did seem to come from NASA.

So I started searching.

I couldn’t find anything on the NASA website, but then again if you don’t know what search terms to search under it can be pretty difficult. All I had to go on was the Aurora.

Finally, after a while searching under a number of terms, I came across the Berkley University website, and a picture on a page from February 2007 that looked surprisingly familiar… linked to a video about the THEMIS mission. The Berkley website informed me that:

NASA is poised to launch on Feb. 15 five identical space probes — the largest number of spacecraft ever attempted by the agency on a single rocket — to solve a decades-long mystery about the origin of magnetic storms that turn the green, shimmering curtains of the Earth’s Northern and Southern Lights into colorful, dancing light shows.

So, we have a spacecraft about to look into the Aurora. The picture tied in with the subject very nicely, and NASA too. But the search had taken me back seven years!

Back to THEMIS and I found the actual mission website. And there is a video on substorms… with a very, very similar impression of the auroral ring in the animation, but we’ve jumped forward in time to 2012.

But hang on….

In July 2008 NASA announced that THEMIS had discovered what triggers the Northern Lights, and on this part of the website we have a picture in the sidebar that looks like it was made by the same artist.

*Cue image of the TARDIS swinging backwards and forwards in space time*

I couldn’t view the Berkley University video but I found something similar on YouTube, uploaded in 2010, which seems to be the original mission animated video. And there is our image!

Having a further look around the THEMIS website I found pages here and here that allow educators to download images from the original promotional video. Although there is a similar image to ours it’s not actually our picture.

Now while I have been unable to find the origin of the first picture as an actual picture, I’m certain it comes from the animated mission video, distributed to highlight the THEMIS mission into Auroral origins, and as a picture it was likely to have been used in the mission documentation.The lead animator for the project was Walt Feimer,

So… I can conclude that without further information, this isn’t actually a picture of the aurora from space, it’s an artist’s impression from the THEMIS launch video, from 2007.

Aurora oval THEMIS mission NASA

Image Credit: NASA/Goddard Space Flight Center, Conceptual Image Lab

Phew! I do like a happy ending.


If you fancy seeing some real photos taken on the night, there are some fabulous ones on the BBC website.