Fact-Checking: The “Behind the Scenes” Editing Work

by TEC Editors

Published at 2021-08-17

Why Do We Fact-Check?


As The Chicago Manual of Style points out, in publishing, the author is ultimately responsible for the accuracy of a work. And while most publishers do not perform fact-checking in any sort of systematic way or expect it of their editors, obvious errors should always be pointed out to the author, as well as any questionable proper names or other dubious details that might take away from the quality of the manuscript. Fact-checking ensures accuracy, which in turn grants the author a measure of credibility in the eyes of the reader.


Editors need to be systematic about what they fact-check to avoid being distracted from the primary task at hand. Most obvious errors can be checked easily and quickly against reliable sources. If there is greater doubt about a fact stated in a manuscript, a well-composed query to the author should be included pointing out the editor’s concern so the author can continue the search to verify accuracy.


While the final accuracy of a work is the responsibility of the author, as copy editors we can and do help with this “behind the scenes” research that double-checks questionable facts so that the content of the manuscript is as valid and reliable as possible.  



What Do We Fact-Check?


Facts that might appear in a book, article, or report can include anything from scientific facts to historical facts to even what might be considered common knowledge.


If a manuscript refers to a town or city and gives an estimate of the population size, make sure you confirm this number as best you can.


Or, if an author refers to a certain historical event that occurred in a certain place, check it out. Most historical facts can be confirmed if you do a little digging.


Even things we might take for granted as correct should be double-checked—common knowledge can be incorrect, and things we think we know might not be as accurate as we might hope.


Here is a list of the types of facts we often check out when editing a manuscript:


Company names

Country names and capital cities

Organization names

Proper names

Honorific titles

Names of prime ministers and presidents

Names of towns and cities

Names of streets and geographical features

Dates of historical and current events

Birth and death dates


Let’s look at a few of these.


Business Names

Is it Wal-Mart or Walmart or WalMart? Shoppers Drugstore or Shoppers Drug Mart?



Does Ontario Teachers’ Pension Plan have an apostrophe?


Prime Ministers

Is it John A. MacDonald or John A. Macdonald?


Birth and Death Dates

If a manuscript refers to Andy Warhol as having lived from 1928 to 1987, take a second to confirm that those dates are correct.


Country Facts

If an article states that the capital of Australia is Canberra, check to be sure. Many writers identify Melbourne as the capital, which is incorrect.


Brand Names

Is it Tim Horton’s or Tim Hortons? Many people still mistakenly spell it with an apostrophe as Tim Horton’s, but while this was its original spelling, the name dropped the apostrophe in the early 1990s. (An interesting fact: According to The Canadian Encyclopedia, the change was made to the pluralized Tim Hortons in order to meet the requirements of Quebec’s language laws and to ensure the name was consistently used across Canada.)



When Do We Fact-Check?


Different editors may prefer to fact-check at different stages of the editing process. Some prefer to check as they move through the manuscript, and others may prefer to finish the copy editing and then do a final read-through for fact-checking purposes. We asked each other on the TEC team what our preferences are and we concluded that checking as we edit is the best approach. If we were given the time, as Samantha points out, we would prefer to do the fact-checking as its own separate pass through the manuscript, but extra time is not usually a luxury editors have! Fact-checking as we edit is usually the reality.



How Do We Fact-Check?


Remember having to go to libraries to consult a specific encyclopedia or dictionary, or even a reel of microfiche? Or purchasing those giant reference books for in-office research? Today, all that information is online and generally accessible thanks to search engines like Google. Facts can be looked up from your desktop and with much greater speed. Nonetheless, we still need to rely on credible sources.


The Internet has made fact-checking easier, but along with that comes more opportunities for misinformation as well. When fact-checking, stick to sources you trust:


Government sites

Online dictionaries

Canadian Press Caps and Spelling Online Edition

Research sites such as the Canadian Encyclopedia and the Dictionary of Canadian Biography

Official websites of corporations, famous people, and places

Trade name databases, such as the Canadian Trademarks Database or the American Trademark Database


What about Wikipedia?


Generally, be wary of Wikipedia. This site is popular, and it is generally accurate in terms of facts; however, it is often less carefully edited when it comes to mechanics such as capitalization.


One way you can use Wikipedia is to look for the sources the writers and editors cited in providing the information. These are marked with footnotes throughout each article, and all the sources can be found listed at the bottom of every article. Will every source be credible? No, of course not. However, you may find sources you can use, such as older magazine and newspaper articles, interviews, and reports. Sometimes you get lucky!



Why Fact-Check Quotations?


Verifying quotations can actually be one of the most challenging aspects of fact-checking. While it’s not generally the copy editor’s job to check that all quoted material in the text is accurate, sometimes a specific request may be made to add this type of fact-checking to the scope of your work. This can be difficult because while authors typically have direct access to the resources they used in their writing (books, articles, library materials such as scanned newspapers, and so on), a copy editor is unlikely to have that same easy access. For this reason, it’s generally the author’s responsibility to ensure any quoted material has been sourced properly and accurately.


However, if you come across a well-known quote, or one that is attributed to a famous person, it can be a good idea to check it for accuracy, using available resources.


It is best to avoid popular quote collection sites such as BrainyQuotes and Goodreads, as these are often rife with inaccurate and wrongly attributed quotes.


Some reliable quote verification sources are:

The Quote Investigator


Google Scholar


If a quotation in a manuscript includes the author and the book it is taken from, you can try the Amazon’s “Look Inside” feature or the preview option on Google Books. These allow you to plug in the quote (or part of the quote) and ask for a search inside the book. If the quote is included in the material that is searchable, you may get a result and will be able to confirm the exactness of the quotation.



Get Checking!


So, next time you encounter a questionable fact, take a moment to look it up and confirm its accuracy. Once you have a system, fact-checking will become a regular part of your editing practice. And it is always worth it. You don’t want to let something slip by on your watch, plus you’re guaranteed to learn a lot of interesting facts along the way—Tim Hortons above being one example.




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