Correcting a Style Guide

American Psychological Association concedes its new manual has plenty of mistakes, but won't pay to provide error-free copies to faculty and students.
October 13, 2009

Scholars turn to style manuals for guidance in authoring error-free manuscripts, but what happens when the manual itself is laden with errors?

Users of the Publication Manual of the American Psychological Association are trying to answer that question now, after the APA last week released dozens of corrections to the first printing of the book’s sixth edition. In addition to being used in psychology, the manual is also used in sociology, economics, business, nursing and justice administration, among other fields.

“It’s egregious,” said John Foubert, an associate professor of education at Oklahoma State University, who bought two copies of the book – one for his office and one for home – when it was released in July. “These are the standards for how we write our manuscripts and how our students write their papers …. The irony is so thick.”

The corrections include four pages of “nonsignificant typographical errors” and five pages correcting errors in content and problems with sample papers in the book. The APA also released four corrected sample papers in their entireties. One correction is "Page 88 – Change last line under 'Exception' to read 'Spacing twice after punctuation marks at the end of a sentence aids readers of draft manuscripts.' " Another is "Page 64 – First paragraph, line 2, insert a comma after 'e.g.' "

Mary Lynn Skutley, editorial director for APA books, said she’s faced “an uproar” from readers upset about the mistakes. “It’s very understandable that people would not be happy about the situation, but we’ve tried to be honest about it. We very much believe in transparency and acknowledging the mistakes we’ve made.”

The manual, she added, was “very complicated to put together” because it includes 188 style rules and 980 examples. “With so much in the book, it’s unavoidable that we wouldn’t need to make corrections of some kind.” A second printing, with corrections made, is already available at bookstores and online.

Gavin W. Henning, associate director for assessment in Dartmouth College’s Office of Institutional Research, learned of the errors and corrections last week, when a librarian at another institution sent a warning about the corrections to CSPTalk, a listserv for faculty in student affairs preparation programs run by the American College Personnel Association (ACPA).

The corrections have led Henning to become “concerned about the quality of the product we’re getting,” he said. “The APA manual is about precision in writing and having the manual be as imprecise as it is seems wrong to me.”

Foubert asked for replacement copies of the manual. In an e-mail to Skutley, he made his case: "Given the focus of APA on ethics, it is APA’s ethical obligation to replace first printings with complimentary copies of the second printing."

Skutley declined to send him new copies of the book and suggested he download the corrections from the APA Web site. “Being intimately familiar with both the book and the nature of the corrections I firmly believe that replacement of the first printing would be both unnecessary and wasteful.”

Wasteful or not, Henning wants a new copy, too. “If I buy a sweater, or even a car, if there are flaws with the item I can take it back for an unflawed item – the same should be true of this book,” he said. “I’m going to have to create some kind of workaround to make sure the rule or example I’m using isn’t one that’s been corrected. Having an error-free copy would make my life easier.”

The corrections on the APA’s Web site, he added, are difficult to find. There’s no direct link from the APA Style homepage and "someone who didn’t know to look for corrections would have no idea where to find them."

He’s also concerned that "students trying to learn the process of writing in APA style aren’t going to find any of this helpful."

One of Foubert’s students at Oklahoma State, Avi Zacherman, who’s working toward an M.S. in educational leadership, said he’s “frustrated by the mistakes … everyone I know who’s writing with APA 6 worries they’re writing with mistakes.”

Even so, he’s not going to use the corrections. “I’m not going to sit here and look at the list of mistakes with the copy I have. That would be silly.”

He’s planning instead to return his copy to campus bookstore where he bought it “if they’ll take it back.”


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