“Can you proofread my thesis by tomorrow?” – Editorial Freelancing in the Student Market
A note from Louise: This guest article from my colleague Dr Shani D’Cruze is a thoughtful assessment of the dissertation/thesis market for editorial freelancers. It reviews the reasons for the growth of the sector, the possibilities and potential problems for the proofreader and copy-editor (including ethical issues), and the guidance offered by education institutions and professional societies.
As someone who not so long ago supervised and examined student dissertations and theses, and now offers to proofread and copy-edit them, I was interested when I found the online discussion board for the Society of Editors and Proofreaders preoccupied by the professional and ethical issues that student clients raise for SfEP members.
Although especially perfectionist students and those with dyslexia or similar conditions do seek professional editing and proofreading advice, the main constituency for proofreaders’ or copy-editors’ services are students for whom English is not their first language. (The issues are also somewhat different for students with dyslexia, for whom external proofreading can come under the rubric of “special needs” and, on a case-by-case basis, these days may be negotiated through their university.)
The growth of the international student community
The number of international students in UK universities has been rising for some time. The global dominance of English (and American English) as the language for political, administrative and academic communication – and the status of a degree from an English (or American) university – ensures that despite recent increased difficulties in obtaining visas for some students, the growing opportunities to earn a UK university qualification by studying outside the country, and concerns in some quarters that increasing student numbers will put undue pressure on resources and the student experience overall will deteriorate, international student numbers in the UK will go on rising, helped, not least, by a recent initiative from the prime minister (John Morgan, Times Higher Education, 19 January 2012; Eliza Anyangwe, Guardian, 16 April 2012; Claire Rodwell and Kyle Thetford, Cherwell, 3 May 2012).
In 2010–11, 428,225 students in UK universities (17 per cent) came from outside the EU. International students comprised 70 per cent of full-time taught postgraduates and 48 per cent of full-time research postgraduates (IKCISA). In 2012 there are 67,000 students from China and 39,000 from India studying in the UK, and numbers from these countries are set to increase (Sean Coghlan, BBC News, 13 March 2012).
The reasons for the universities’ readiness to recruit more overseas students are not hard to find. It has comparatively little to do with altruistic impulses towards the globalization of knowledge: these days UK universities can’t afford to be altruistic.
It’s about hard cash. UK higher education has been struggling for some years against declining levels of government funding, and increasingly the funding they receive is allocated according to assessments of “excellence” in research and teaching. Today, while fee levels for UK and EU students are capped, universities can charge other students as much as the market will stand (Graeme Paton and Heidi Blake, Telegraph, 12 February 2010).
The challenges facing international students
Earning an undergraduate or postgraduate degree in your second (or third) language has its challenges, and so does providing a supportive learning environment for non-native English speakers.
Universities want to be able to award good, academically sound degrees to the international students that they recruit: academic staff and departments are for the most part committed to providing a good learning experience for their students and the university as a whole is driven by the imperatives of maintaining “quality” and “excellence”.
Nevertheless, as professional proofreaders and editors can testify, it’s no easy matter to write in fluent academic English when it’s your second language, even for someone who can handle everyday communication with ease.
As an academic editor (and as a copy-editor) I’ve worked on many occasions with accomplished scholars, both postgraduate and faculty, whose research skills and conceptualization were far better than mine, but whose written academic English needed extensive editing to make it effective (sometimes to make it intelligible).
The challenges facing proofreaders and copy-editors
Judging from discussions on the SfEP discussion board, professional proofreaders and copy-editors have mixed views about working on students’ theses and dissertations. Some stick to the position that if it's meant to be the student's unaided work, and that is very strictly interpreted, there isn't any role for a professional proofreader.
This has been argued to be particularly the case in arts subjects where the quality of expression is so closely integrated into the creation of meaning and argument. A bad experience with a non-paying or overly demanding student customer can also deter professionals.
The PhD student expecting to find a proofreader for their 80,000-word thesis a week before their final deadline is not that uncommon. Others from the SfEP find that student clients tend to question every change or correction because of their lack of familiarity with academic conventions.
Above all, students are perhaps the category of clients who are least willing to pay the rates recommended for this kind of work. Nevertheless there are now growing numbers of freelancers in search of work, and this together with the increasing number of overseas students in UK universities means that more of this kind of work will be commissioned, done and (hopefully) paid for.
There are also, of course, a growing number of agencies offering to “improve” students’ work. Some of the services offered far exceed what universities or indeed most professional proofreaders and copy-editors would see as legitimate intervention in work due to be submitted for assessment.
Free-market rules apply to the offer and purchase of such services, of course, and it’s up to the universities to police any consequent academic dishonesty. The problems are probably greater in undergraduate work, where students are being assessed on a series of smaller assignments.
Does proofreading improve grades?
From my own past experience as a marker or examiner I would be surprised to find that proofreading (as understood by professional colleagues) made a worrying difference to a student's grade. It might lift a miserable piece of work to what a colleague of mine used to refer to as a “good fail”, or maybe add a couple of percentage points to the grade for a sound or good assignment, but that's about it.
Where students submit purchased off-the-peg essays or assignments re-written by commercial agencies, the abrupt change in the writing style usually makes the dishonesty obvious. My experience lies in the Humanities and Social Sciences; I can't speak for scientists.
For (longer) postgraduate dissertations and theses it’s even more unlikely that extensive academic dishonesty through re-writing by a commercial agencies (or anybody else) would go undetected. Supervisors see samples of students’ writing over the whole period of the project and guide them in the development of the research and the structuring of the written dissertation. Any sudden last-minute change in fluency or “voice” would be highly suspicious.
A postgraduate thesis or dissertation depends upon extended and detailed research. Examiners are assessing that project as a whole, including its design, originality, how it contributes to academic knowledge in its field, its findings and how they are evaluated and discussed.
The standard of academic writing and presentation is important, but a conscientious and diligent research project will be evident to examiners despite awkward, ungrammatical prose in the final dissertation.
At the same time, the work of a proofreader in cleaning up (not re-writing) the thesis, done professionally and responsibly, is as much a service to the examiners and to future readers as to the student, whose hard work in planning, researching and shaping the argument is then better revealed in the written work. The crucial issue is transparency and clear guidelines.
The US and Australian approaches
In the USA the use of outside services seems more generally accepted, providing the extent of the intervention is disclosed. In Australia, a formal and extensive code of practice, the Australian Standards for Editing Practice (ASEP) (see Guidelines for Editing Research Theses download) is embedded in universities’ degree regulations.
Across the country therefore, students, supervisors, examiners and universities know what to expect and what level and what kind of intervention is acceptable. For example, the regulations for Macquarie University [3.1.2], referring to the levels of editing specified in the ASEP, state that supervisors should be aware that a student is using a professional editor, and that the intervention should be restricted to the detail of the text in language and illustration (Standard D) and completeness and consistency (Standard E). Any advice on structure (Standard C) should be provided only as exemplars (HDR Guide).
ASEP require that editing or proofreading should be carried out on hard copy so that students themselves have to consider each editorial suggestion and make the required change themselves. They also specify that the editor’s name and a statement of the service provided should be appended to the thesis.
The UK approach
In the UK, universities each set their own approach to the proofreading and copy-editing of students’ work. A quick straw poll of my academic colleagues and contacts showed that most had little knowing involvement with externally proofread theses. It can’t necessarily be assumed, however, that students were not availing themselves of outside services, only that they weren’t consulting with their academic supervisors about doing so.
Indeed, without clear guidelines and fully resourced practice much of the work of helping students improve their written English falls to academic supervisors, whose workloads have increased exponentially over the last few years. In the good old days, when academic routine generally included time for coffee and the broadsheets in the Senior Common Room, written English coaching was generally handled informally and could be passed down the line to keen junior (not infrequently female) members of staff.
It is rare these days that even the most dedicated supervisor has the time to work closely with a student, instructing on the written presentation of research. Dedicated study skills departments have filled some of this gap. Many universities provide high-quality ESL training that aims to equip students with the English language skills they need, but comparatively few have clear written policies or guidelines about proofreading.
A member of staff in one ESL department (in a university with no written guidelines or policy in this area) described to me how regularly they fend off requests from students to proofread or edit their work.
It’s not uncommon for UK PhD regulations to contain a statement such as this: “The thesis shall include a statement declaring the work to be the candidate’s own and acknowledging any assistance received” (University of Westminster Regulations, 14.3) but such provisions are generally aimed at situations such as in the sciences where a student’s PhD research forms part of a larger collaborative project.
Often general guidelines to students seek to remind them of the importance of error checking in the final stages of thesis preparation; for example, this from Reading University: “… leave yourself enough time to have a final read through of your dissertation to pick up any lingering mistakes or typos”.
It all sounds so easy. Or this from Birkbeck, apparently drafted with input from exasperated PhD examiners: “You must make every effort to correct errors before submission. It is not the task of examiners to act as editors and/or proof-readers [sic] of a thesis.”
Essentially, of course, a PhD thesis or Master’s dissertation is a form of examination and as such should be the student’s own work. At University College London the plagiarism regulations state that “Recourse to the services of … outside word-processing agencies which offer correction/improvement of English is strictly forbidden” (also quoted in M. Macdonald, EM, Jan/Feb 2008).
However, the situation varies, even within different colleges of London University. Currently (2012) the LSE issues guidance on students’ use of professional proofreading services, which is explicit and brief (see LSE). The key section states that a third-party external editor or proofreader cannot be used to develop ideas and arguments, to trim an over-long thesis to regulation length, to help with referencing or correct information, or to translate the thesis into English. What is permissible is for a proofreader to correct spelling and punctuation, to ensure correct grammar and syntax, to clarify the writing, for example by shortening sentences and changing to the active voice, to format footnotes and endnotes, and to make headings and page numbers consistent.
These guidelines do permit online proofreading using tracked changes, but require that the student be responsible for reviewing and accepting changes.
In the present situation, this sort of effort to render transparent the proofreading/editorial help received seems the most enlightened for all parties: students seeking to produce the best thesis they can, universities seeking to maintain academic quality and a good student experience, and proofreaders and editors seeking to earn a crust but also to maintain professional integrity and standards.
Current advice and moving forward ...
Professional organizations can also play a key role. The SfEP, for example, has a comprehensive published booklet (Proofreading Theses and Dissertations), aimed principally at members but more widely available. Excellent articles have also appeared in the society’s magazine, Editing Matters.
More, however, could be done, even though this would mean more work for the organization and its officers. Universities have departments that focus on study and research skills and also on supporting international students.
Making direct contact with such departments and encouraging them to have a direct link from their own web pages to a page on the SfEP website specifically addressed to dissertation/thesis writers would (a) promote the advantages to students in using the editing services of SfEP members and (b) provide useful information for students, supervisors and examiners about what SfEP proofreaders/editors expect from student authors.
Ultimately, spreading the kind of good practice adopted at LSE or working towards the kind of editing standards adopted in Australia would seem the most intelligent and practical way to manage this growing trend.
My thanks are due to Patrick McMahon, Judith Rowbotham, Mandy MacDonald, Louise Harnby, and to the collective wisdom of SfEP members on their discussion board.
Copyright Shani D’Cruze 2012
About Shani: After more than fifteen years as an academic historian in UK universities, Shani D'Cruze moved to Crete where she combines olive-farming with research and writing, editing, and copy-editing. View her LinkedIn profile.
20/6/2012 07:47:37 am
Thanks very much for this excellent post, Shani. It seems to me the issue is known and debated, but not always directly addressed or solved. Importantly, it's not only having more international students in English-speaking universities that makes a difference. It is the change in status of English, which is still taking place in our globalized world. I work in Germany, where the only language for writing academic contributions used to be German. This is changing dramatically. Many students are now studying in English, writing in English, and presenting in English. These are *not* international students. In fact, German students writing in English as ESL in Germany, do not even have the advantage of studying in an English-speaking environment, thus do not have as much useful linguistic input. I believe this to be true for many other countries as well, certainly in Western Europe.
16/7/2013 03:19:32 pm
I'll try to be brief, Shani (and Dafna)
6/3/2014 07:29:53 am
I understand that there are English proof-reading soft-ware packages available for subscription, any suggestion as to which is most effective?
6/3/2014 07:42:06 am
27/4/2014 03:46:03 am
Thank you for the information. I am a research scholar from India and English is a second language for me. I am studying entrepreneurship. I would like to improve on my research writing skills and generally be careful about my sentence formation, punctuation, commas and more. My guide has suggested that I follow the APA format. Can you suggest a online course which will help me assess my skills and guide me to improve on the above mentioned? Pl help.
29/4/2014 11:17:42 am
Hi Ruta - I'm sorry but I can't advise you. I only know about courses that deal with the more technical side of professional proofreading and editing. These are not writing-skills courses. Have you tried searching for relevant LinkedIn discussion groups?
29/9/2014 05:56:49 am
This article and its comments are the best help for my current quandry! My services are designed for clinical authors' research manuscripts, mostly authors whose first language is not English, but recently I had an inquiry about proofreading a thesis. I was a little in the dark on the ethics...until now.
29/9/2014 06:15:39 am
Hello Ruta, have you looked into what Coursera offers? You may find something close to what you are looking for.
2/5/2015 07:03:15 am
Thank you for writing and posting this article.
4/5/2015 06:07:07 am
Hi Cliff. Some editorial freelancers do take out indemnity insurance, though many don't. If you don't have the confidence to write terms and conditions that make it clear what "proofreading" entails, and that you are absolutely not responsible for the substantive content of the work, then you probably should seek legal assistance from a professional who can help you with the wording. You mention the term "grade" so I'm assuming you're talking about student work. I can't imagine a scenario whereby a student would get an unsatisfactory grade because of a stray typo. Rather, it would be because the quality of the argument wasn't up to scratch. It isn't the proofreader's job to rewrite the student's work - that would be cheating on the student's part. You would therefore be advised to use your T&Cs to make it clear that you won't assist in plagiarism.
4/5/2015 07:33:41 am
Thanks, Louise. I'm a very analytical, detail-oriented person and have taken graduate-level courses in law and ethics, so I have the confidence to write clear terms and conditions that will make the student responsible for their own content and argument.
20/8/2015 09:35:08 pm
I'm a professional editor. Most of my clients are graduate students and young professors working toward tenure. Some of them are tenured professors. I have often thought about these ethical issues. Here are some additional thoughts based on my experience.
20/8/2015 09:40:13 pm
Sorry, I guess I exceeded the length limit. Here's the tail end of my post:
3/10/2017 01:04:06 pm
That was really helpful. thanks
5/4/2020 12:19:25 pm
Old post but a perennial issue for universities and academic tutors. While I have nothing against those who work as proofreaders in general, I advise all students to avoid using such services for their formal assignments, for reasons I will touch on in more detail.
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