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Student proofreading ethics

Posted on 11th July 2011

A proofreading forum I often go on recently raised the issue about the ethics of proofreading students' work, and I can't deny that this got me thinking, lots!

I know that some members of the Society for Editors and Proofreaders ask the student to get their tutors to email them to confirm they're happy to have the work checked by a proofreader, but I often find that students are working last minute and this additional requirement might mean the difference between having time for the proofreading to be done or not.

I normally take the approach that as long as the student isn't studying English language then it seems morally fine and ethical to proofread the work for spelling, grammar and punctuation. After all, why should a foreign student (who is paying a lot to study here!) be disadvantaged because they have to write about engineering, politics, history etc. in a second, sometimes third, language?

Now is confession time for me - I studied German at university and spent a year living in Jena where I had to write a dissertation in German to pass the year abroad. My own university tutor told me herself that I should 'make the most of the local resources' and get my work checked by a friend or colleague (I was working in a school) before submitting it. Surely then by my own experience, I should even offer proofreading services for those studying English. Morally and ethically, I think this is a fine line and would be the one scenario where I would get permission from the tutor first.

I also hasten to add I have proofread work for native English students too. A lot of universities offer guidance on how to write an essay from a content and structure perspective but don't offer much help with grammar and sentence structure. When you spend so long working on a piece of research/writing, it's difficult to spot any errors yourself so even if someone's spelling and grammar is ordinarily good, you will often miss things when re-checking your own work as you read what you expect to have written. After all, what's the difference between paying a professional proofreader to check it or getting a friend/colleague to do it? I would hope that the service of a professional is more thorough but if you can't afford it, then any second set of eyes to check the work is better than none, and I truly doubt many people hand in their final dissertations and key essays without having at least one other person read it first.

I don't think this is cheating, plagiarism or ethically questionable - almost all books (including research and factual ones) have been edited or proofread so why should it be any different for students? I do draw the line and only offer my proofreading services i.e. spelling, grammar, punctuation and reference consistency as I do believe paraphrasing or heavy copy editing blurs the line of declaring the work to be by the student.

If you are a student and are unsure of whether to have your work proofread, ask your tutor or check your university's guidelines.

Written by Kate Haigh.