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Thoughts on Copyediting, Outsourcing, and the Technical Communication Profession

A discussion list summary article by Russell Willerton, russellwillerton at boisestate.edu

In July 2008, Business Week published an article by Nandini Lakshman called “Copyediting? Ship the Work Out to India .” This article focuses on Mindworks Global Media, an Indian company that handles copyediting, layout, and reporting tasks for several American newspapers. When Mindworks started, the company took on Indian clients. Over the past several years, however, the company has taken on more U.S. clients as readership of print publications has declined and cost-cutting efforts have increased.

Nandini writes that outsourcing work to India helps keep publications in business. She quotes Mindworks CEO Tony Joseph, who said editorial outsourcing “helps [publishers] improve efficiencies in editorial packaging and reallocate resources to reporting and writing.” Mindworks told Nandini that the company helps publications cut costs 35% to 40%.

I posted a query to STCTESIG-L on July 11—primarily out of curiosity—to ask if anyone was familiar with copyediting of technical publications being outsourced to India. (Clearly, such a question reflects the fact that I live and work in the U.S.) Virginia Janzig, Ben Jimenez, and Marie Highby cited examples of copyediting being done by or in tandem with employees in India. Gururaj B. S. and Sankara Rajanala pointed out that while many editors work for Indian companies, work done by Indian companies is not always outsourced work.

We know that native speakers of a language often reach a level of fluency in that language that can be difficult for others to achieve. Said Jennifer Collister, working in the U.S. for a company founded by Indians, “When I’m editing pieces of the proposals, I can tell just by the writing style who is a native English speaker and who isn’t. However, the non-native English speakers get their point across but are just making grammatical and sentence structure mistakes.”

I suspect that this not-quite-native fluency in English contributes to a reduced level of confidence many U.S.-based writers might have in work done by editors whose native language is not English. Janice Gelb’s comments reflect such sentiments: “The cost of hiring an inexperienced or less competent employee (and I hasten to add that I am not speaking specifically of employees in India) often appears to be less in strict monetary output but in fact does cost the employer in the long run. These costs are both in real dollars (cost of redoing unacceptable material, increased cost of translation, increased volume of support calls, and so on) and intangibles such as customer product satisfaction and perception of corporate concern with quality.”

However, a detailed post from Sankara Rajanala (affirmed on the list by Mike Boyd), provided a different view. I provide these excerpts.
“It is not true that non-native speakers can never do as well as native speakers, especially when it comes to writing and editing. Eminent examples of this are Joseph Conrad and Vladmir Nabakov. I am deliberately omitting Indian authors…. Recently, I was on a conference call with a lot of new ‘faces’ (new to me). The next day I was asking a friend who was also on the call (from a different location) who the American on the call was; he said everyone is an Indian: turns out, one was based in the U.S. for a long while and I mistook him for an American…. No one can defend outright ungrammatical use of English but there are a lot of Indianisms that make our use of English colorful (to be avoided in technical documents for sure) and the name of the game is accommodation….

Not so long ago American English itself was dubbed as Americanisms, until H. L. Mencken got into the act. Right now, there are many Indians who proudly say ‘we are like this only’. But on the job, we diligently follow the norms of whichever language (Am, Brit) we are supposed to be writing in.”

Don Cunningham, professor emeritus at Auburn University, wrote that recent trends in outsourcing reflect on the state of the technical communication as a whole. “If we do not market ourselves and our profession effectively we will likely lose a significant amount of work to those who are willing to work for less. And this is not totally a geographical/locational issue.”

Adrienne Maxie pointed out that jobs do not necessarily belong in any one country. She asks, “What if we changed the way we looked at ‘our jobs’? Technically, the jobs don’t belong to ‘us’; rather they belong to the employer who then contracts with us to provide a specific task in exchange for a monetary value. Since the jobs do not belong to us as writers, editors, etc., then the employer can contract with whomever he or she decides can provide the most output for the least amount of money.”

Ram Venkatraman’s comments (in excerpts here) reflect a similar view:

“The other day, while holidaying in a remote Indian town, I met three young Frenchmen. Two of them had just completed their engineering degrees and secured internship in an Indian company. The third young man is expecting to complete his degree in networking technologies sometime next year and took my business card and promised to get in touch with me when he is ready to take up an internship. This is what students in India did when they did not have opportunity in their homeland decades ago. That is what I did….

Now, while I totally understand the concerns of folks whose jobs might migrate to other countries where cheaper labor is available, the big picture is a historical transformation that has been shaping up for centuries. Like the three Frenchmen, people may move to places where there are opportunities. Living and earning in India can provide the same lifestyle as earning and living in Germany. Millions of people around the globe do precisely do that. My family moved to study in US more than a decade ago. Then, one fine day we moved back to India because the opportunity was there. If the opportunity moves to Timbuktu, I will be packing the bags again.”

This discussion reminded me that technical communication is one of the many facets of the global economy, and that technical communication tasks can be done from any spot on the globe. Wherever we find ourselves, we must demonstrate and articulate the value we bring to our employers and their consumers. Standing still will ensure we get left behind.

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