I am nearing the end of the publication process for a journal article, and yesterday I received what are called page proofs.
I hate page proofs.
Those who know me know I'm not typically a hateful person...but page proofs, oh they get my blood boiling. Let me start at the beginning.
The birth of a paper (at least for me) goes something like this. One day, an idea will strike, an idea of unbridled loveliness and all around awesomeness. Of course, then begins the long process of taking the idea and putting on paper, where in the cold light of reality, the awesomeness factor was perhaps overrated.
After maybe a few months to a few years of kneading the idea into a form suitable for publication, the article is submitted to a journal. A few months later, an editor at the journal will find one or more people to referee the article--read it to see if it seems roughly correct, if it is novel, and put their own awesomeness rating on it. Sadly, the referee's awesomeness rating can go negative, and it usually takes anywhere from 3 months to a year in mathematics journals to get the referee's report.
If it survives the process, the editor usually returns it with some notes: Fix this, move this figure over here, take that figure out completely, what does iid mean? A month or two later you resubmit the article to the journal, they send it back to the referee, and the merry cycle continues until it is finally accepted.
So the editor sends it over to the publisher, and then at a surprise date returns the paper to the author with the dreaded page proofs. Keep in mind that this could be anywhere from a few weeks to a year after the paper was accepted for publication, depending on the backlog.
One day, out of the blue, a message will arrive in your inbox: "These are your page proofs. You have 24 hours to check them over, and return any corrections to us."
Okay, the generous ones give 72 hours.
Let me reiterate. A paper that was literally years in the writing, you now have at best a few days to check to see if the publisher messed something up accidentally. But that's not all!
See, editors like to edit, and they do. So not only have they returned your paper to you for checking, they have also made what appear to be random changes throughout the paper in order to make it "read better". Some of these changes will be marked. Others will not.
You have the next few days to try to unearth these changes, and correct it before it is too late forever. Sometimes I have succeeded, other times I have failed.
The worse change I missed: one editor replaced every use of the Number sign (#) with the musical symbol for sharp. I have to believe I'm not the first person this has happened to, since the Wikipedia entry for the musical sharp opens with: "Not to be confused with the Number sign...", but I failed to catch it, and now it's a part of the mathematical literature.
This latest page proof? They edited one of my definitions. An edit that completely changed the meaning of the definition. Fortunately, this wasn't just any old definition.
It is what I did my thesis on.
So I caught it. I caught that, I caught a few others, but of course those aren't what worry me. Those aren't what give me the sinking feeling in the pit of my stomach. The ones I didn't catch, the edits that got away, that's what keeps me up nights.
I hate page proofs.