Behind the Scenes at APA: MWS Interviews Mary Lynn Skutley, Editorial Director

The Publication Manual of the American Psychological Association—now in its sixth edition since its inception in 1929—is a constant companion to many of our academic writers (whether they like it or not!). We recently interviewed Mary Lynn Skutley, the editorial director of APA Books, who headed up the manual’s latest revision. From Skutley, we learned firsthand just what goes into the making of this slim volume, frenemy to so many.
Needless to say, revising the manual and its five ancillary texts is an undertaking of imposing proportions. “It feels like messing with the Bible,” Skutley said. “I was really aware [of that] and really didn’t want to make changes that were not necessary, because of how much people rely on it.”

Despite its biblical authority, Skutley and her team know that the APA’s role is to serve the manual’s users and reflect their concerns rather than dictate rules from on high. Ultimately, the APA’s primary responsibility is to meet “the needs of researchers and writers, to make their work easier and to encourage the smooth dissemination of information.”

Of course, revising the manual is a Sisyphean task, given the ever-changing universe of scholarly publication. Creating the sixth edition was a painstaking process that entailed soliciting feedback from general users, panels of experts, and internal task forces and editorial boards: “One paragraph in the manual may be the product of an incredible volume of discussion and analysis,” Skutley reported.

Many of the updates reflect changes in technology and information sharing. In the sixth edition, Skutley explained, “there were a lot of changes in referencing, with the beginning of digital object identifiers [DOIs] and changes in tracking online resources.”

Other updates involve trying to eradicate bias in language and dealing with historical bias in existing publications; making the organization of the Manual more intuitive and user-friendly; and clarifying concerns about intellectual property and plagiarism in light of changing practices around data sharing.

Maybe the most useful addition has been a companion blog that works to keep pace with changes in the field between editions. APA’s editors diligently respond to questions and criticism, and flexibility is a priority in their decision-making. Skutley wants to “make things as easy for the user as possible—so rather than developing new forms for new kinds of references, for example, we’re trying to use existing forms and communicate them through blog posts.”

As an editorial maven herself, we asked Skutley about her favorite resources for writers. Her personal go-to text is Joseph Williams’s Style: Lessons in Clarity and Grace. For APA users, she also recommends the blog, along with the manual’s companion website.

As for the seventh edition of the manual, its timing “really depends on what happens in the field over the next several years,” Skutley says. And she’s grateful for a bit of respite before starting to push that boulder up the hill again.