...on proofreading, editing, maths, miscellaneous

Two methods for marking up maths on PDF

If you proofread maths-heavy material on PDF, you might be interested in these methods for clear mathematics mark-up.

The problem

The commenting tools in Adobe Reader are excellent for marking up changes to plain text, but although the comment boxes support italics, superscripts and a few other formatting options there is no way to enter mathematical expressions.

I’ve seen proofreaders use shorthand, LaTeX-style commands and different types of brackets to enter changes. These can be hard to decipher and they don’t give the typesetter much guidance about what the final version should look like.

Suppose you were collating proofs, and the proofreader had put the following text in an ‘insert text’ comment:

integrate_a_b {3x^4+[x^2+2x]/3 dx} [a,b,x italic]

You can make an educated guess about what should be inserted, but a few questions immediately spring to mind:

  • Should ‘a’ be at the bottom of the integral symbol and ‘b’ at the top, or the other way round?
  • Should ‘[x^2+2x]/3’ be set as an upright fraction?
  • If set as an upright fraction, should the square brackets be shown or are they part of the shorthand used to show which part is the numerator?

Until LaTeX or MathType support is enabled in Adobe comments, I’ve got a couple of methods I use to try to make the mathematics clear. Which method I use depends on how I’ve been asked to mark up the proofs.

Using BSi stamps

If you don’t already know, there are standard BSi marks for proof correction that can be entered into PDFs using PDF stamps. For more information, see PDF Proofreading Stamps on Louise Harnby’s Parlour.

If I’ve been asked to use BSi stamps, it’s usually because the client wants to be able to read the mark-up without opening the comments window. They might want to work from print-outs, or they might just find it easier if everything is on one page. In this case I use screenshots to insert the maths directly onto the appropriate page.

I write the expression in MathType, then take a screenshot of it and paste it into the PDF. The normal BSi proofreading marks (mostly insert and replace) indicate where the expression should be placed. Here’s an example1:

Example of BSi mark-up

My favourite software for taking screenshots is Greenshot. It can be activated using the Print Screen button on the keyboard and it allows you to select the area of the screen to include in your screenshot.

If there isn’t room in the margin for the new expression, I put the change at the top or bottom of the page and use a letter in a diamond to identify it (this is the standard BSI mark for a text change that doesn’t fit in the margin).

Using the commenting tools

If I’ve been asked to use the Adobe commenting tools, it’s usually because the client wants to be able to go through the comments one-by-one onscreen. In this case, I put all my changes in an attached Word document, with each change clearly labelled, and reference the expressions in the comment box. Here’s how the previous example would look using this method:

Example of Adobe comments mark-up

And here’s the associated Word document:

Reference doc for Adobe comment mark-up

Having to refer to another document isn’t ideal, but it creates less scope for misunderstanding than trying to enter the expression in plain text in a comment box.


Each of these methods is something of a compromise – ideally I would like to enter the expressions directly into Adobe. But I find this the clearest way to express what is needed and I’ve had excellent feedback from clients about the clarity of my mark-up.

If you have another method that works well for you, I’d love to hear about it! Leave a comment below, or contact me on Twitter or via email.

1Using an extract from an article I wrote for Chalkdust magazine. The changes are unnecessary, and probably even unwanted, but they serve as an illustration.

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About Sam Hartburn

Sam offers proofreading, copy-editing and answer checking for maths textbooks and digital resources at all levels and for popular and recreational maths books and content. Follow her on Twitter at @SamHartburn or find her on LinkedIn

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