The pinch-hitter syndrome: a general principle?

A few years ago I was checking an article that was about to be published in a statistics journal and I noticed that the copy editor had made a bunch of stupid changes that I then had to go back and fix. Actually, this has also happened for my two books.

This is a funny thing. A copy editor is a professional editor. All they do (or, at least, much of what they do) is edit, so how is it that they do such a bad job compared to a statistician, for whom writing is only a small part of the job description?

The answer certainly isn’t that I’m so wonderful. Non-copy-editor colleagues can go through anything I write and find lots of typos, grammatical errors, confusing passages, and flat-out mistakes. (And check out the long list of errata for the first printing of our book!)

No, the problem comes with the copy editor, and I think it’s an example of the pinch-hitter syndrome. The pinch-hitter is the guy who sits on the bench and then comes up to bat, often in a key moment of a close game. When I was a kid, I always thought that pinch hitters must be the best sluggers in baseball, because all they do (well, almost all) is hit. But of course this isn’t the case—the best hitters play outfield, or first base, or third base, or whatever. If the pinch hitter were really good, he’d be a starter. So, Kirk Gibson in the 1988 World Series notwithstanding (I was watching that on TV—that gives me credit for being there, right?), pinch hitters are generally not the best hitters.

There must be some general social-science principle here, about generalists and specialists, roles in an organization, etc?

5 thoughts on “The pinch-hitter syndrome: a general principle?

  1. I think your problem with your copy editor is not a case of pinch-hitter syndrome. I've been an editor for 35 years. During that time, I have seen a wave of illiteracy overtake the country (and my profession) of tsunami dimensions. No one knows what "enormity" means anymore. "Affect" and "effect," noun and verb alike, have traded places. What you had in your copy editor was simply another underpaid illiterate making a travesty of all my works and days. I am sorry for you and sorrier for me….

  2. There are a couple of splendid books by Michel Crozier, Le phenomene bureaucratique and L'acteur et le systeme, which talk about the various ways that the interests of people with specific roles may conflict both with those of their colleagues and those of an institution as a whole. (I'm pretty sure they've been translated, but French has a severity which suits the subject.)

  3. Helen,
    This sounds interesting but I would distinguish these general different-people-have-different-goals scenarios from the more specific syndrome of thinking that a person who only does task X is better at X than a person who does the task as part of a larger job.

  4. I believe the principle of comparative advantage explains this.

    Traditionally, comparative advantage is used to explain why trade is beneficial to both parties even if one party is more efficient at producing everything. I won't explain it because now you have a term to google.

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