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The ethics of proofreading for students - an update

Posted on 15th January 2013

A while ago I wrote a blog about the ethics of proofreading students' work and then I have to admit I didn't think much more about it. However, members of my local SfEP group* raised the issue again recently and I decided to take action and have an additional meeting for us to discuss what we consider acceptable and unacceptable when proofreading students' work that is to be assessed.

I invited a local businessman who also happens to be a supervisor of Master's-level students at a local university as, though his opinions only reflect his perspective and not that of the university, it was good to get reassurance from someone assessing students about what we should and shouldn't do.

One or two of us turned up armed with Ts and Cs we had privately been developing and we then proceeded to go through the elements and discuss the finer details. We also referred to LSE's guidelines, which I believe other universities are 'borrowing', and collated them into the following.

Proofreading for students includes:

  • correcting spelling, punctuation and formatting and ensuring consistency throughout
  • ensuring the grammar and syntax are correct
  • shortening long sentences or paragraphs
  • making notes where the writing is unclear so the student can re-write it. This relates to lack of clarity due to the language and not due to the argument being unclear
  • ensuring references match the correct style (e.g. Harvard) and correcting obvious spelling errors or inconsistencies in the entries.

Proofreading for students does not include:

  • paraphrasing, editing or translating
  • altering the structure of the thesis
  • changing the argument or adding to the content of the work
  • cross-checking references with external sources or making sure that in-text citations are listed in the bibliography
  • specifically reducing (or adding to) the word count of the thesis or dissertation. Obviously amendments may slightly affect the final word count but the service does not include helping the student cut (or add to) the word count to fit the assessment criteria
  • implementing format from scratch for both the entire essay and the reference section
  • making the work 'more academic or professional'.

We also agreed to make sure students are aware that it is their responsibility to ensure that their department/supervisor allows them to have their work proofread or checked by a professional proofreader, because due to the last-minute nature of student work this is not something the proofreader will realistically be able to check.

Hopefully this list now makes it very clear what students should expect from the service, and at least the supervisors in one specific department at one of my local universities can be assured that the proofreader isn't potentially colluding with the student.

The above list is a shortened version of my new Ts and Cs for the purposes of brevity in this blog, but don't hesitate to contact me if you have any queries about them. If you're a fellow proofreader, feel free to take the basic ideas from my Ts and Cs or the list above but PLEASE re-word them for your own use if you are putting them on your website.

* Almost all attendees at the meeting are members of the SfEP and we know each other via the South Warwickshire and Coventry SfEP group. However, the decisions made relate to us as individuals and are not necessarily the views of the SfEP itself.

Written by Kate Haigh.