The day will come when the proofs of an article that you submitted some months ago arrive unexpectedly in the post or on your screen. The proofs will be accompanied by a note:
1 indicating that they need to be corrected and returned to the publishers within a day or two; and
2 making dire threats about the costs of making major changes.
Proofs allow the author to check the accuracy of the typesetting, especially if the text has been altered to fit the printer's house style, and possibly to make minor changes. In point of fact, most proofs these days have few spelling and typographical errors because the text is handled electronically. However, errors still creep in. It is indeed amazing that these 'typos' do occur, despite the fact that the text has been repeatedly read by the author(s), the journal editor, the referees and the copy editor setting the text.
Checking the accuracy of the typesetting is not the same as reading the text. When reading we make inferences, and the text flows on without us noticing minor errors. When checking the proofs, we need to look at every word, every number and every comma separately, two or three times at least. Some authors find it useful to read the individual sentences and the table entries backwards, and to do it at least twice - on separate occasions - using fresh copies of the text each time.
Publishers using printed rather than electronic methods usually supply a set of 'proofreaders' marks' - ways of indicating changes - that they send to the authors with the proofs (see Day and Gastel, 2006, p. 134). Authors are required to mark the text and to indicate in the margins their requirements. However, these days, electronic proofs are more common, and these are typically accompanied by a numbered set of 'author queries'. Here, the numbers are printed in the text at the appropriate places, and a numbered list of queries is printed at the end. Typically, these ask about minor things, such as the spelling of a particular word or name; page numbers omitted in a reference; the date of a reference in the text being different from that in the reference list; the name of an author in the text spelled differently in the reference list; and whether or not references listed as 'in press' when the manuscript was submitted can now be updated, and so on.
These queries apply to the proofs as they are printed. Making changes rather than corrections is more complicated. Minor revisions of grammar may be acceptable, but complete revisions of paragraphs of text, deletions and insertions are not. Including a new additional reference might be appropriate if the name(date) system is used, but it might be seen as more difficult if a numbering system is used and every subsequent reference number has to be changed in both the text and the reference list. Making changes can thus be time-consuming and expensive if the results require re-pagination of the article and, indeed, possibly the whole issue of the journal in question.
Nonetheless, electronic typesetting makes this much easier than it was. Consequently, I find it helpful when returning proofs to indicate those changes that are essential, those that are optional, and those that might fit in between. For example, if the spacing between the elements in a table is poorly done, then you can ask for this to be improved, but, if you want to move a table (say back from the discussion to the results section where you originally placed it), then I find it best to ask if this can be done (Hartley, 2007). Often there is more space available to make changes than you think, as few articles run to the foot of their final page.
Sometimes, authors will find that a copy editor has changed what they originally wrote to make it fit the house style. Thus, a structured abstract might emerge in a traditional block form, a sentence written in a lively present tense might be rewritten in the passive, and your in-text boxed examples relabelled as appendices and placed at the end of the article. Authors need to reaffirm that what they wrote is what they want, and hope that it will be achieved.
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