Do You Need an Academic Subject-Matter Expert to Edit Your Article or Book?

Working with an SME developmental editor, copyeditor, or dissertation editor can improve your writing and publication record, but there are downsides as well.
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Anyone who has searched for an academic editor knows that there are many options available. There are several factors that you might consider when choosing among the individual freelancers, agencies, and big companies to edit your PhD dissertation, journal article, or book manuscript. But should you consider whether your editor is a subject-matter expert (SME) in your field when making your decision?

An SME is a person with a higher degree (PhD or master’s) in a particular academic subject area or discipline. They are often specialized within that discipline or research area and have published in that area. In other words, in addition to having skills and training as an editor, they are also an accomplished scholar in their own right. 

SMEs can be in your field (e.g., you’re an art historian and your editor also has an academic background in this area) or they can be further specialized in your particular subject matter (e.g., not only an art historian but one who knows about your specialization).

In this post, I’ll explain the pros and cons of hiring an SME for certain academic editing projects, and whether you should find someone who simply has the editing experience you’re looking for.

Dissertation Editors

When searching for a dissertation editor, you need someone who can help you navigate not only your PhD program’s requirements, but also your advisor’s particularities and the needs of your committee members. 

Dissertations are often jargon heavy because they are meant to demonstrate your ability to perform high-level academic research. Therefore, you might want to find someone who has a research degree in your area of expertise to perform an edit on the material.

SME dissertation editors will not only help you clean up your grammar and make your writing flow in native English, but they will also speak the language of your subject. They are intimately familiar with academic writing in your field and may also be able to suggest gaps for you to fill in before your manuscript reaches your committee!

While PhD students can certainly benefit from SMEs in their fields editing their PhD project, it can often be difficult to find one who will work on dissertations at a price that graduate students can afford! At this level, your readers should be the ones most concerned with your content, not your editors, so I’d advise you to find an editor that you trust to do the job, especially if you’re under time constraints.

Developmental Editors

There are pros and cons to working with an SME on the development of your argument, organization of your book chapters or article sections, and the flow of your sentences and paragraphs.

It can be beneficial for scholars in the humanities and social sciences to work with an editor who is familiar with conventions in their field. SME developmental editors will have a handle on publishing standards in your discipline and may have even published with the same press you’re aiming for. They can also help you navigate new trends in academic writing so that you can grab the attention of acquisitions editors at university presses and executive editors at top-ranked journals.

However, when you work with a developmental editor, you’ll want them to focus on bigger-picture issues, rather than the details. Leave the literature suggestions and gaps in research to the peer reviewer. If you choose a Kant scholar to edit your book on Kant, then you might end up with more suggestions on the analysis of his theory rather than how your argument plays out for readers who aren’t Kant specialists.

That said, if you do work with an SME and your problem is with your content, then they will likely be aware of recent publications in the field as a whole so that you can improve your manuscript before it even gets to the review stage.

When might you not opt for an SME editor? If you’re solely focused on improving the argument and organization of your manuscript for a broader readership. A well-trained developmental editor knows what it takes to improve your writing, no matter the subject. As an art historian, I’d trust any of the editors at Flatpage to help me get my article into an art history journal, for example.


Copyediting is a highly trained skill that requires a keen attention to detail in addition to the ability to improve a piece of writing. While there are many trained copyeditors who can apply a style guide to your writing and correct grammatical errors, there are fewer who are SMEs and have performed their own PhD research.

There are numerous benefits to working with a copyeditor who has research and publication experience in your specialty area. As with hiring an SME to perform a developmental edit, their knowledge of the publishing industry and conventions will mean that they can give you more specialized feedback. 

They will also be more likely to have more intimate knowledge of the style guides typically used in your field. For example, those who have done academic research in the humanities are more likely to know how to handle sticky citations, like archival documents, as well as the difference between common types of publications. Without this knowledge, your editor might have to spend more time performing research to complete the edit.

Furthermore, their ability to speak the language of your discipline means that they not only won’t need to look up jargon (which adds time to your clock!) but they’ll also be able to suggest simpler alternatives, if they exist. 

That said, if all you need is someone to help you improve your grammar, make your writing more native-level English, or correct your citations, then you can trust a trained editor (and certainly one with a certificate!) to do the job.

SME editors do tend to be more of a financial investment than the common editing mill, but you’ll find that their knowledge has immense benefits to your work and publication record. 

At Flatpage, you’ll find a range of academic editing services and a team of experienced, trained SME editors, most of whom have PhDs in the humanities and social sciences. When you work with us, you can have confidence that you’re getting the best, most personalized service.

Just know that if you do get matched with an editor who’s not in your particular field, there can be numerous benefits to that as well!

About the author

Cara Jordan is chief editor and president at Flatpage. She has spent her career editing academic and artists' writings, primarily as a developmental editor and copyeditor. She received her PhD in art history from the Graduate Center, CUNY.


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