Ethics of Post-Publication Editing

In the digital media era, a new problem has arisen. Should pieces be edited post-publication? If so, in what situations? Amid the chaos of media distrust, misinformation, censoring, and “fake news,” questions of post-publication editing ethics have arisen. Editing published articles should be approached with transparency and caution as distrust in the media is rampant.

Digital Media Consumption

Digital media consumption has skyrocketed in recent years. In a Pew Research study conducted in 2016, only 38% of Americans reported often consuming news media digitally. In another Pew study conducted in 2022, 86% reported consuming news from a digital device. In the span of just six years, digital media consumers doubled. 

 Pew Research conducted another study, this time concerning Americans’ trust in the media in 2022. Findings revealed 61% of Americans trust national news sources and 31% trust social media. The usage of digital devices to consume media has increased yet trust in media sources is relatively low. In the same study, 64% of Americans noted that fabricated news stories or “fake news” creates confusion about the actual facts of an event. 

While post-publication editing is not the sole cause of Americans’ distrust in the news, it is likely a contributor. Before digital media production and consumption, undetected post-publication editing was impossible. Edits can be conducted digitally post-publication without the consumer’s knowledge. With the rise of digital media, distrust in the media and those who produce it has risen. Knowing this, writers and publishers should attempt to mitigate the growing distrust. 

Committee on Publication Ethics (COPE)

Many journals have chosen to join the Committee on Publication Ethics (COPE) or similar organizations. COPE is a nonprofit organization dedicated to promoting ethical publishing. COPE does not allow editing of articles post-publication without specific criteria followed.

“Any necessary changes will be accompanied with a post-publication notice which will be permanently linked to the original article so that readers will be fully informed of any necessary changes. This can be in the form of a correction notice, an expression of concern, a retraction and in rare circumstances a removal. The purpose of this mechanism of making changes which are permanent and transparent is to ensure the integrity of the scholarly record.”


However, most publications that are not peer-reviewed scholarly journals do not subscribe to any regulations for editing published material. Even if a publication does not wish to join a committee, the publication should introduce regulations on post-publication editing specific to them. With the increasing fear of misinformation, editing articles post-publication could be necessary in order to correct any realized mistakes. These mistakes should be corrected to protect the perceived accuracy of the publication. However, corrections should be rare, and the publication should be transparent about the edits.  

When should post-publication edits be conducted?

Sometimes the information within an article is false and either slipped through the cracks while undergoing editing, or the correct information was simply confused by the writer. For example, maybe the name of an individual referenced or discussed in the article was misspelled, or a date was incorrect. Perhaps, however, a larger mistake was made, with greater repercussions, like a statement made about the wrong company that could affect their business. 

In the first situation, it could be appropriate to simply change the spelling of the individual’s name. Most people would agree that in that case there is no need to make a public statement justifying the decision. However, with an incorrect piece of information with larger ramifications, it would be appropriate to notate the date of the edit and the information changed. 

Occasionally, another contributor to the published article will argue that they deserve recognition for their contributions to the piece of media. An author’s name may not appear on the piece, but they greatly assisted in writing it. In this case, it would not be inappropriate to properly recognize the article’s contributors. 

In extreme situations, an article may necessitate retraction. If the information is suspected to have been intentionally fabricated or misleading, the article may need to be removed. In this case, it would be appropriate to mark the article as having been retracted or as undergoing investigation. However, this should of course be reserved for extreme cases.


In a research article from “The International Journal of Press/Politics,” a statement was made regarding the importance of trust. “Trust can be understood as an asset on which news organizations capitalize to generate reputation and economic profit.” As we move to a digital world, retaining trust in the media is critical. Editing an article post-publication was unheard of before the current era of digital media. Print publications cannot simply press a button and delete or edit an article that has been released to the public. The ability to quickly edit with ease is both a blessing and a curse. While it may save a writer, editor, or publisher from a difficult situation, it also creates new problems as they navigate how and when to utilize that ability. Writers, editors, and publishers should do their best to maintain consumers’ trust as they utilize post-publication editing.

I, Robot Author

Image of Myia Fitzgerald

Earlier this year, science-centered publisher Springer Nature produced the online textbook Lithium-Ion Batteries: A Machine-Generated Summary of Current Research. This e-book has no earth-shattering findings on the batteries, but it made headlines all the same: “This is the first time AI has authored an entire research book, complete with a table of contents, introductions, and linked references.” 

AI Now 

The first fully AI-authored e-book is here. Similarly, an AI-authored travel novel was released this year, though only in print. In The Verge, James Vincent wrote, “For decades, machines have struggled with the subtleties of human language, and even the recent boom in deep learning powered by big data and improved processors has failed to crack this cognitive challenge,” but this no longer holds true. Now multiple businesses have released writing AI in the past year, all capable of producing intelligible sentences.  

Google, Springer Nature, and OpenAI produce the most crucial writing AI. Google’s BERT works with NLG or natural language generation. BERT aims to replicate the way language organically flows.  

BetaWriter outranks BERT, though, for writers. BetaWriter wrote the first published e-book from Springer Nature. The publishing industry has hailed the 250+ page textbook as a turning point in the advancement of AI writing. 

OpenAI’s GPT-2 also holds serious status for authors. GPT-2 excels in language modeling. The program can create anything from a realistic news headline to an entire story length tale from one line of input. 

Positive Aspects of Writing with AI 

Writing with AI can certainly benefit authors. The bots excel at matching texts in their samples, which makes them ideal for both writing passages in foreign languages and adding multiple versions of an e-book. Macho from PublishDrive touches on this subject saying, “This innovation shows a more accessible future translation market by listening to or reading a book out loud and getting them translated realtime.” 

While the AI bots may not be able to write precisely what the author imagines, they can compile large libraries easily. This research aspect helps authors streamline the writing process. As Kevin Waddel points out in this Axios article, the bots’ function ideally to “Dig researchers out from under information overload.” This function benefits both academic writers trying to compile educational or experimental data and the pleasure writer logging settings, mythical characters, and historical events. 

Bots also function within an established framework, making them ideal for online authors. Not only can AI compile all the information necessary to make writing easy, but authors can use the formatting “technicality” to format their e-book files with little error or effort. The bots can do all the formatting that people can, so authors and publishers should take advantage of what the bots can reliably do to maximize the payoff. 

Downsides to Writing with AI 

Writing with AI can come with some real drawbacks, especially if humans don’t run interference. AI learns through what it reads by searching for patterns, but that’s it. Macho explains, “The key lies in EQ or EI – whatever you call it – using emotional intelligence to engage your audience.” AI can only copy writing moves people because people are where the emotional intelligence comes from. 

AI also struggles to understand the more profound meaning and context that often fills writing. The more thorough parts of the pattern analysis, deep learning, can still only measure so much. The resulting text, though accurate, is filled with continuity errors and cold opens. These issues regularly leave the reader confused or lost, which deems AI an unreliable tool for writers. 

Many experts consider the AI’s self-learning from input to be the most dangerous drawback for writers. CNN and The Verge both criticized the newly available, high-quality AI writers for their potentially dangerous results. Vincent’s article in The Verge says the following: 

In the wrong hands, GPT-2 could be an automated trolling machine, spitting out endless bile and hatred.” OpenAI’s helpful research tool could be used to publish hateful propaganda with minimal effort. These downsides and ambiguities raise many questions. 

 Questions About Credit 

Whenever new technology develops, it always takes time for rules and general knowledge to catch up. With AI itself being so new, authors or publishers intending to use it don’t have very much guidance on doing so ethically. Coldewey of TechCrunch raises several questions about crediting when writing with AI: 

Who is the originator of machine-generated content? Can developers of the algorithms be seen as authors? Or is it the person who starts with the initial input (such as “Lithium-Ion Batteries” as a term) and tunes the various parameters? Is there a designated originator at all? Who decides what a machine is supposed to generate in the first place? Who is accountable for machine-generated content from an ethical point of view? 

Springer Nature credited the program itself in the textbook they produced, but this does not factor in the rest of Coldewey’s questions. In fact, those questions can’t be answered until the industry knows more about the instrument. In the meantime, each user must rely on their instincts for best practices.  

 Best Practices for Writers and Publishers  

Some experts in AI gave their advice to authors and publishers about the truly effective ways to incorporate AI into their trades. Macho wrote, “There are two big areas of publishing where AI can (and will) make an impact: content analysis, recommendation and creation; and audience analysis.” 

The best ways to use AI without cutting out the human touch are by using the bots for everything but the writing. Publishers should use the bots for marketing: find out the types of people viewing the content, their preferences, and then use the bots to implement a targeted marketing plan. 

Authors should use AI to prepare their library for writing. The bots can compile all kinds of data which allows the author to focus only on producing the text. The bots could even theoretically produce dialogue to help the author create realistic conversations that sound varied and natural, especially if dialogue challenges the author. 

Publishers and authors can both use AI to make widespread changes, such as name or location changes. They can also use AI to reformat the text and files for publication or to determine the best place to insert features like images and other interactive aspects. With these options, authors and publishers should feel motivated to incorporate the bots more effectively. 

While writing AI advances further and further in ability each day, the writing AI produces has a very narrow audience, as Springer Nature’s e-book shows. People simply have more skill and nuance. AI can be incorporated more into the writing and publishing world, but only at the writer and publisher’s discretion.