Editor's Choice

The pleasure of corrections

BMJ 2004; 328 doi: https://doi.org/10.1136/bmj.328.7442.0-g (Published 25 March 2004) Cite this as: BMJ 2004;328:0-g
  1. Richard Smith, editor (rsmith{at}bmj.com)

    “In my article on milk production last week please read cow for horse throughout.” This correction of H L Mencken's is my favourite, but corrections are often the best part of a publication. Another favourite is: “Instead of being arrested, as we stated, for kicking his wife downstairs and hurling a kerosene lamp after her, the Reverend James P Wellman died unmarried four years ago.” As an editor who must rightly accept responsibility for all errors in the BMJ, I experience some schadenfreude with such an excruciating mistake. How could it happen? Presumably they got the wrong man. I haven't yet experienced that chilling moment when the subject of an obituary rings you up to tell you he is alive, but in time I will. It happened to one of my predecessors.

    I'm stimulated to muse on corrections by the bumper crop we have this week (p 762). Readers sometimes observe wearily to me that “The BMJ seems to be full of corrections these days.” The implication is that I'm running a sloppy ship: a little more discipline, and order would return. I'm wholly unapologetic. “Great publications,” I observe loftily, “are full of corrections. Look at the New York Times or the Melbourne Age. It's crummy publications that don't have them. We all make mistakes, but we don't all admit them.”

    The BMJ does have more corrections (and clarifications, as we somewhat coyly call them) because we have lowered our threshold. We also take more trouble to explain them, and our “corrections editor” Julia Thompson (who is a long way from being the dominatrix her title might imply) does a splendid job.

    We don't this week have a correction quite as complex as another from my collection: “Mr Harris has asked us to point out a number of inaccuracies in our story. After returning from India, he served in Ireland for four years and not six months as stated; he never farmed at Heddington, particularly not at Coate Road Farm as stated; he has never counted cycling or walking among his hobbies; he isn't a member of 54 hunts; and he did not have an eye removed at Chippenham after an air raid…”

    But we did manage to describe as primiparous a woman who a few paragraphs later was revealed to have a 5 year old daughter, “inexplicably” insert the word evacuate into an article on eclampsia drills, and make a third wife a second wife. We also made a complete mess of a map of northeast Africa through using an outdated atlas, although it wasn't nearly as bad an error as our map of years ago that put Canberra on the coast and showed Melbourne to be in New South Wales—a mistake that cost us a few Victorian readers.

    Errors are usually pointed out to us by assiduous readers, and we are grateful. The primiparous mistake was spotted within hours of publication, and well over 150 readers told us some years ago that we had got Mozart's birthday wrong—showing what cultivated readers we have the privilege of serving.

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