One of the services I provide that I find myself having to defend on occasion is editing dissertations and theses.* While it’s taken for granted as a perfectly acceptable practice among most academics, I’ve sometimes come across editors and other freelancers who are very distressed at the idea of helping a student refine the ultimate paper of their graduate school career.
It is true that there are ethical matters associated with dissertation editing that don’t apply to other types of documents, like conference papers and journal articles. But the sheer antipathy that I’ve encountered from some dissenters simply shows how unfamiliar they are with this area of editing. I hope to clear up some of the associated confusion here.
Myth #1: Nothing Heavier than Basic Proofreading is Ethical
Fact: There are a few things that an editor cannot ethically do for a dissertation: produce original writing, develop original ideas, or conduct research. Beyond that, as they say, your mileage may vary.
The arbiters of what kind of editing is acceptable and what is not are the PhD candidate’s advisor/supervisor/chair/professor and sometimes the department or the university, but most often the former. The advisor knows whether the candidate’s writing skills are relevant to the degree or whether she will be judged primarily on research- and theory-oriented criteria.
The purpose of a dissertation is to make sure that the candidate has become enough of an expert in her chosen topic that she can come up with a concept, theory, or body of research that contributes substantially to the field of study in which the degree is to be awarded. While she needs to be able to communicate that research to an audience effectively, most candidates are not going to be judged on how good of a writer they are, and so editing that focuses on cleaning up the use of language and conveying thoughts clearly and concisely is, more often than not, entirely welcome.
Further, many candidates who are told to receive professional editing do not speak English as their first language. They may have brilliant contributions to their field, but they struggle with communicating those contributions in a way that an English-speaking audience will particularly enjoy reading through.
Still, different advisors are likely to have different ideas about how much editing is appropriate, and it’s the candidate's responsibility not to overstep their advisor’s expectations in this regard. The editor plays a role in this, as well, of course, but the candidate is ultimately the one whose degree is at stake and who takes responsibility for its content in the long run.
Myth #2: The Student is Trying to Pass Off a Professional’s Work as His/Her Own
Fact: Although I’ve sometimes had to clarify with candidates where the appropriate lines between editing and, for instance, supplementary research are, it’s pretty rare that they’re trying to pull one over on their advisor. We aren’t talking about undergrads here. In fact, you might notice I’ve been careful not to refer to these clients as “students” when using my own words. In the dissertation stage, you’re no longer a class-taking PhD student but a PhD candidate. You’ve reached the point where you’re trusted to be just one last project (and often a few administrative hoops) away from earning your degree. While the research and ideas presented in the dissertation must be the candidate's own, finding help to improve the writing is not usually a matter of circumventing institutional requirements.
The majority of my dissertation clients were actually told to get an editor by their advisors. I’ve heard other academic editors say the same. In fact, some of my earliest clients, the ones who solidified this type of editing as my chosen niche, were referred to me by my advisor. I had only just finished writing my own dissertation—I hadn’t even graduated yet—when she was arranging for me to edit one of her other advisees’ dissertations for everything from language to references to structure. A few months later, I was helping on another one.
It is possible that a client's idea of editing differs from their advisor's, and those details need to be addressed before editing gets underway, but this is very different from the assumed scenario in which the desperate student unloads work onto an editor that he’s going to be judged for himself.
Myth #3: All Right, Then. If Editing is OK, then Anything Goes
Fact: No. The limitations determined by the client’s advisor, or possibly other parties—the department, the university, or other members of the dissertation committee—must be respected. If the advisor says that line editing and reference work are fine but restructuring the chapters is not, then that covers that.
I use an Agreement Form, a sort of contract-like document, with dissertation clients to nail down what kinds of tasks are acceptable for this particular project. I adapted it from a sample form provided by the Editors’ Association of Canada (the fact that the EAC even has one is indicative of how dissertation editing is not an institutionally frowned-upon practice but must be done with consideration for ethical matters).
The EAC's version of this form, which consists of a lengthy list of discrete editing tasks the client might receive, is designed to be given to the advisor, who will check off all permitted forms of editing and sign the document. That method is good for any editor who wants to make absolutely sure that they're not doing anything the advisor objects to.
My adapted version of the form is a little different. I have clients themselves fill it out, selecting, as an option for each task, "editor may correct," "editor may query," or "no editor action." The bottom of the form says, among other things, "my thesis/dissertation advisor, chair, supervisor, or committee is aware that I am seeking assistance with the above types of editing and proofreading and approves of my doing so," and this is what the client is giving explicit assurance of when signing the agreement.
On the one hand, this method may not be as ironclad with the advisor as sending it to the advisor themselves. On the other hand, it means the client will have looked carefully and thoughtfully at each and every task, knows what is included in and what is excluded from the work I will be doing, and has explicitly taken responsibility for any misjudgments in representing their advisor's wishes.
Having a form like this is not obligatory for dissertation editors, but I strongly recommend it, regardless of whether you have the advisor or the client fill it out.
I hope that editors who work on dissertation and thesis material can feel confident that doing so is not in itself a violation of academic integrity, as long as it's done with the appropriate limitations in mind, and will do what they can to help PhD candidates at the end of their long trek toward their degrees.
* I just refer to "dissertations" throughout most of this post, but one can assume I mean "dissertations and theses," partly because all of these points apply as well to master's degree projects, but also partly because of varying global use of the vocabulary. In the US and Canada, we usually use "dissertation" to refer to a PhD project and "thesis" to refer to a master's project. In many other areas, the terms may be used differently, in some cases with the two directly swapped.
I'm Lea, a freelance editor who specializes in academic and nonfiction materials. More info about my services is available throughout this site.