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Is it OK to edit a student's thesis or dissertation?

Posted on 19th October 2016; slightly revised in June 2022

I've discussed the topic of student proofreading ethics a few times now (updated article on ethics) but in 2016 I attended a workshop titled "Editing Theses and Dissertations" and was forced to look again at what level of service I am willing to offer based on what students are (or are not) allowed.

The interesting angle, and reason for this blog post, is that most attendees at the workshop were based outside the UK, working with students not at UK universities. When I raised the issue of editing being beyond the remit for students, a few attendees suggested that it's different if a student is studying at a non-UK university but having to write in English, e.g. a student might be from Germany, studying in Sweden but writing in English. Perhaps the difference here is that the student is going to get a degree certificate from a Swedish university so I don't think employers would assume a level of English language on the back of that; this is in stark contrast to students from anywhere in the world studying in a country where English is the main language as I believe a degree certificate from a university there might mean people assume the student has a certain level of language to have been able to pass that degree.

As an example, I edit work for doctoral and PhD students at a Finnish university as by that stage of education, the students are not assessed on language; however, undergraduates are not allowed this assistance and the editing is always restricted to language and never content. I work directly with the university, not the students, so I know that this level of work is allowed.

Australian universities tend to follow the guidelines from the Australian Institute of Professional Editors, specifying clearly that the proofreader/copy-editor "should not make corrections to the content, substance or structure of the thesis [...], although they may note problems for the student's attention". This is in line with the details I have set out for my work for students, though I accept that it might be difficult to know what the difference is between editing, copy-editing and proofreading, which is why I clarify the services on offer. If a university does not allow editing and finds out that work has been edited, this might be considered collusion and the student will be penalised accordingly.

Australia seems to be the exception at having one set of guidelines for all universities. Ultimately, I think that each situation will vary according to which university the student is studying at, sometimes even varying between faculties within the university. If I have explicit permission from the student's supervisor, I will be happy to edit a thesis or dissertation but if a university or supervisor only allows proofreading, that's the service I will offer.

If you are a student or academic looking for help and assistance with your thesis, dissertation or articles, by all means get in touch and we can work out what service you are allowed and what is required.

Written by Kate Haigh.