A common assumption about those of us who copy edit science papers is that we have a science background. Some of us do, but by no means all. After [mumble-number] years in the medical publishing field, I might feel like I “practically” went to medical school, but I did not. I could probably take out your gallbladder, though. Want to let me try?
Anyway, as long as you are a good reader, writer, thinker, and editor, and know your way around IMRAD, it is possible to edit a manuscript on a wholly unfamiliar topic. The authors are the content experts; the paper has (probably) been through peer review; and the copy editors have skills, coffee, and Google.
When a paper is excruciatingly hard to edit, it’s not usually because of the science but because of the writing. Some authors pile up jargon like hoarders collect cans of beans, as protection against the deadly apocalypse of someone being able to read their article without feeling squashed by the weight of all those words. Why settle for a teeny nothing word like “use” when “utilize” sounds so much more important? Why give us actual data when you can just talk about “trends” and “robustness”? Make sure you add a lot of “it has been shown that” and “the fact that.” And make sure you start every sentence in the Discussion section with “furthermore” or “moreover”!
Real talk from Nature: “You can always look up jargon, but with a poorly constructed sentence you’re on your own.” The best-case scenario between author and manuscript editor is a partnership—we don’t want to be on our own! We want to help explain complicated things in a simple way, and that often starts with authors picking the most direct words available.—Brenda Gregoline, ELS