Record numbers of PhD students are having their dissertations proofread. Should it be counted as cheating?
This might seem like a strange thing for someone who runs a PhD proofreading company to say, but it’s true.
It’s a wild-west out there and it’s difficult for students to know where to draw the line between legitimate proofreading and cheating.
This post is for those thinking of hiring a proofreader for their PhD thesis. It’ll tell you what is and isn’t allowed when you hire one and how you can make sure what you are buying is legitimate and, most importantly, ethical.
Why? Because too many students are getting caught out without realising it.
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Isn’t it cheating?
Whether hiring a proofreader counts as cheating depends on the service that’s being offered. Proofreading for conventions of language, grammar, punctuation and syntax is legitimate and has a long history in academia.
How many people do you know who have had their friends or family proofread their thesis? Lots, most likely. Similarly, all journal articles and books are professionally proofread. It is difficult to spot language and grammar mistakes in our own work, so it is sensible editorial practice for any text to be proofread, not least one so important as a thesis.
But, proofreading is often equated with content writing.
Having someone write sections of your thesis is most certainly not allowed. Pay someone to do this and the text they send back isn’t yours.
Trouble is, it’s a wild-west situation out there. There are plenty of legitimate, honest and ethical proofreaders, but there are many cowboys offering to rewrite your work.
What’s more, it’s up to you as the student to know what is and isn’t allowed. Sure, by the time a PhD student submits their thesis they know about the rules surrounding plagiarism, but the rules surrounding proofreading are less well understood.
To make matters worse, the information that’s available is often conflicting. Some universities have been proactive and have published codes of practice governing the use of proofreaders and copyeditors. Trouble is, many of the students we speak to don’t know they exist and far from all universities have been so proactive.
So here I want to talk directly to students interested in paying someone to proofread their PhD. I want to tell you what you need to know and ask in order to make sure you choose an ethical proofreader and don’t fall foul of the rules.
What do you need to do?
1. Make sure you understand your university’s proofreading policy. If there isn’t one, speak to your adviser. Work within these rules at all times.
2. Ask the proofreader whether they will be willing to work around the university’s requirements or any requirement you specify.
3. Check that the proofreader doesn’t offer to rewrite sections.
4. Some proofreaders may wish to make suggestions about how to improve the flow of your text. Make sure that they leave comments, rather than rewrite the text directly.
5. Ask them if they are willing to have their name included as a third-party editor (your university will most likely require this). If they say no, be sceptical.
6. Ensure they have experience proofreading academic texts. Generalist proofreaders might not be aware of issues to do with plagiarism.
7. Be open with your supervisors and express your intention to have your work proofread. They may offer you advice.
8. When you get your work back, read through it thoroughly.
Love it or hate it, proofreading is here to stay. The issue is controversial, but largely because there is so much cheating masquerading as proofreading.
Three things need to happen for the situation to improve.
Most importantly, those offering proofreading and copyediting need to be much more heavily regulated. Most, including us, choose to operate ethically, but if we were to choose not to there would be no punishment. The risk is shifted to the student.
Australia is a role model in this regard. The government there has introduced a standard for professional editing services, which has been adopted by universities. It clears up any misconceptions of what is or isn’t allowed, whether on the part of the examiner, the student or the proofreader.
Second, universities need to be more proactive and publish proofreading codes of practice. Many have begun to do so, which is a welcome sight. The LSE comes to mind here; they have gone a step further and set up their own proofreading company.
Third, students need to be be better educated about what is and isn’t allowed. It is my hope that this post helps in that endeavour.
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