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By Cally Guerin

When I was at the Plagiarism Advice conference in the UK recently, the role of professional editors in doctoral theses came up in a discussion. I was taken aback by the surprise expressed by my UK counterparts that such a thing could be possible, even perfectly respectable, in Australia. It made me reflect (yet again!) on what best serves the candidate and the academy in this respect.

The Deans and Directors of Graduate Studies (DDOGs) and the Institute of Professional Editors (IPEd) in Australia agreed on a set of guidelines for professional editing of theses in 2001. These have since been updated to take into account current digital technologies in order to allow editors to use track changes on theses. The details are available on their website. 

Some myths about doctoral writing and editing

Editing is mostly for international students who use English as an Additional Language (EAL): Of course, for those students who are struggling with English grammar and sentence structure, an editor can tidy up their writing to ensure that the reader is not distracted by surface details of expression. Research by Mullins and Kiley and Carter into the examination of theses has shown that carefully proofed, polished documents are received well by examiners. Many people find it hard to notice errors in their own work, so this is an advantage for all students, not just EAL students.

PhD students are already good writers: We know perfectly well that some PhD students are already experienced writers, but others have not previously written long documents. Achieving high grades in exams focusing on multiple choice and short answer questions as an undergraduate requires very different skills from presenting a sustained argument over the course of a whole thesis. Even for those presenting a thesis by publication with a series of journal-length papers, the expectations of this level of writing can be somewhat mysterious. And then again, some students are comfortable communicating through formulae or diagrams, but struggle when it comes to writing prose.

Supervisors know how to help students develop their writing skills over the course of candidature: Certainly, some supervisors have an excellent understanding of how to teach writing, but others ‘correct’ their students’ writing without being able to articulate the grammatical or stylistic principles underlying the changes. Students can happily accept those changes, but do not necessarily in the process learn to be better writers without direct instruction about why the supervisors’ suggestions are better than their first attempt.  Certainly some students will improve their own writing when working this way, but others need rather more. Lots of students and supervisors also tell me that supervisors simply don’t have time to focus on writing development for individual students.

But how much editing is too much?

The concerns expressed by my colleagues at the conference seemed to stem from anxiety that the editor might intervene in the writing too much, so that it was no longer the student’s own work. This is where the Guidelines mentioned above can be very helpful. The appropriate level of intervention is clearly spelt out there in relation to copyediting (clarity of expression, grammar, spelling, punctuation) and proofreading (checking for consistency, ensuring everything is complete, including accuracy in references). Professional editors should not comment on substance and structure, which is the domain of the supervisors and the students themselves. The details of what is included under each of these headings can be found in the Australian Standards for Editing Practice.  

It would be interesting to hear about your experiences with academic editors – what has been most useful, and what has been disappointing (hopefully any negative experiences have been disappointing rather than devastating!).