by William Magette
AFEPI Ireland Code of Practice requirements for student work
Each year, typically during the summer months and again just prior to year’s end, members of the Association of Freelance Editors, Proofreaders & Indexers of Ireland (AFEPI Ireland) receive enquiries from postgraduate students seeking professional assistance on their theses before submitting them for examination. Often the requests have extremely short deadlines. Through its Code of Practice, AFEPI Ireland limits what assistance its members may give to students. These restrictions are well founded and are designed to ensure that AFEPI Ireland members do not inadvertently compromise the academic integrity of the student’s work.
AFEPI Ireland’s Code of Practice also says its members should obtain ‘… written confirmation from the relevant institution granting permission to the client to use proofreading and/or copy-editing services’. If the student seeks this confirmation from her or his academic supervisor, the academic supervisor may not agree, even if the institution’s policy allows it. Responses to an informal survey of academics that I conducted give a glimpse into why this may happen.
Survey on professional editing services
I asked about 100 academic former colleagues for their views about the use of external professional editing services to help their postgraduate students become more proficient in academic writing. The survey was limited to individuals in engineering and environmental disciplines at three Irish third-level institutions and one in the USA. Although the number of responses (twenty-nine) was disappointingly small, the respondents represented the range of academic ranks.
Of those responding to the survey: 90% said they that were not devoting as much time to academic writing as they should or would like to (due to multiple demands on their time); 68% felt that the writing produced by recent postgraduates required more than a ‘modest’ amount of time to review and edit; 89% believed that the amount of time they would need to spend in future to edit student work would increase (owing to the increasing enrolments of postgraduates for whom English is not their first language); and 67% were amenable to having someone other than themselves edit research works written by postgraduates. In addition, 100% of respondents claimed that they had never personally used a professional editing service, and 97% said that no ‘in-house’ editing service was currently provided to staff or postgraduate students at their institutions. (It should be noted that most or all Irish third-level institutions make some form of writing assistance available to students. This help is typically delivered peer to peer with oversight by academic or non-academic staff.)
Several respondents felt that handing over editing duties would be shirking their own academic responsibilities. A few respondents questioned whether anyone other than themselves would have enough technical knowledge to provide meaningful editorial assistance. One respondent stated that her university expressly prohibited external editing of postgraduate theses. Almost all respondents expressed some level of concern about allowing external input into postgraduate theses, and many were completely opposed to the practice.
Theses versus postgraduate publications
At first it seemed inconsistent that so many respondents were amenable to letting their postgraduates receive some external editorial assistance, yet most were opposed to this assistance being given on theses. In fact, I believe this dichotomy distinguishes theses from journal papers as academic outputs and highlights the unique status of a thesis as the basis for assessing a student’s academic performance and awarding a degree.
Most AFEPI Ireland members have themselves written a postgraduate thesis and appreciate the amount of work that is required to produce an examinable document. From a postgraduate’s perspective, the thesis is the culmination of two to four years of intensive research and (together with the viva) is the last hurdle on the way to earning an advanced degree. Importantly, a thesis is not a collaborative writing effort, even though a student’s academic supervisor provides feedback, including some degree of editing, on multiple drafts of the work.
In contrast, refereed publications that arise from a postgraduate’s research are very much a collaborative effort. Some academics believe that an important element of their academic responsibilities is helping postgraduates develop their writing skills. Often this training is provided during the production of a journal paper, in which the student typically takes the rank of ‘first author’ and the mentoring supervisor takes the second (or lower) rank. Given the multiple demands on their time, academics may welcome external editorial assistance on a student-drafted journal paper to improve its chances of a successful peer review or to minimise the amount of time the supervisor needs to spend revising the paper.
Examiners judge both the content of a thesis and how it is presented. The editorial quality of a thesis depends on the student’s own writing ability and the extent of editorial assistance and other guidance provided by the academic supervisor. Whatever the level of that input, it is an authorised element in the student’s academic programme. In the interest of academic integrity, third-level institutions strive to ensure that a student’s thesis is exclusively the student’s own work, as guided by the academic supervisor. Most institutions now require a student to explicitly provide this assurance in the form of a written declaration. In practice, by allowing the thesis to be submitted for examination, the student’s academic supervisor provides implicit confirmation that it is the student’s work.
Ethical response and professional integtrity
AFEPI Ireland has taken a responsible and ethical position in explicitly limiting the services that its members may provide to undergraduate and postgraduate students. It is right that a student client be made aware of these constraints from the outset. However, I believe most postgraduate students (and many academics) do not understand what editors and proofreaders do – perhaps because they have not availed of these services before. The problem this can cause is compounded when a student also has poor English skills.
As a copy-editor or proofreader, to protect one’s own professional integrity it is prudent to provide a potential student client with Section 2.3.7 from AFEPI Ireland’s Code of Practice as well as explanations of what editors and proofreaders do, as described in the code’s appendix. Furthermore, I think it is wise to have the student client sign a declaration that says she or he not only understands what service will be provided within the constraints of Section 2.3.7 but also has the consent of the institution to receive the service.
William (Bill) Magette, PhD is a former Associate Member of AFEPI Ireland and has completed several continuing education editing courses to aid his transition from a lengthy career in third-level education. He specialised in editing journal papers and research reports written by authors for whom English is not their first language. Bill can be contacted via LinkedIn (www.linkedin.com/in/williammagette). He is grateful for helpful input from Rachel Finnegan, PhD (Member, AFEPI Ireland; www.irishacademicediting.ie) on an early draft of this blog