Just about my favorite professional topics of conversation are plagiarism and academic integrity. I love them with a nerdy little glee because they seem like they’d be pretty straightforward, but they are so not. I am likely to delve into the more complex aspects of plagiarism in this blog and try not to bore anyone to death with them. Let’s start with the following question:
When are editors responsible for identifying plagiarism and related problems with attribution in clients’ papers?
I’m not a lawyer, but from a contractual standpoint, I believe this should only be the case when the editor and the client explicitly agree to it. Ideally, the parties would pin down very specific tasks the editor accepts responsibility for, rather than requiring the editor to return a plagiarism-free deliverable. If nothing is said on the matter, then responsibility for academic integrity should be entirely in the author’s hands.
From an ethical standpoint, the editor is responsible for pointing out such problems if he or she notices them. This is not the same as being charged with the obligation to find them.
This whole topic is probably a no-brainer for any editor, but I think it bears discussion because I’ve come across some writers who aren’t really clear on the subject. Usually, they’re working with an editor for the first time and might need to be told that their expectations are out of scope. If that’s you, and you’re reading this: yo — it’s out of scope.
My biggest surprise when I started editing was that while most academics know exactly when and how and why to cite their sources, others don’t have as strong an awareness of what constitutes plagiarism as you'd expect them to have at their stage of schooling or career. After a bit of trial and error in early projects, I now try to be clear upfront about what I do and don't take responsibility for. I tell the client that if attribution errors jump out at me, I'll flag them, but if I miss any, I can't be held responsible for them. The document that serves as a contract for us specifies that they have final responsibility for any issues of plagiarism that end up in the finished product.
Why I think some people think editors do this stuff
I do this specifically because I've edited dissertations that were so poorly cited, I couldn't tell if the student really didn't know what she was doing wrong or if she thought that looking up the sources for all her quotes was my job. Similarly, a librarian friend who sometimes sends me referrals had this conversation with a potential client once:
Librarian: "My friend is an editor and can help you get your dissertation straightened out."
In addition, I have seen requests for proposals for freelance projects in which the client seems to think it's an editor's job, too. Here are a couple I came across last year:
“Looking for someone to edit a dissertation. Need it to be checked for following 'current' APA guidelines. Also, need to make sure it has good flow. Check references and for plagiarism. Word count is 47,808.”
Emphasis mine. These both came from listings on Elance, a site where freelancers and those who wish to hire them can connect with one another. I submitted proposals for both of these jobs explaining the limits of my abilities in this regard. I didn’t hear back from either of them, and I have wondered ever since whether they found editors who actually agreed to that part of the project listing.
Errors in attribution in something like a dissertation aren’t usually the result of authors not knowing their sources; the authors know where the text comes from when they first use it. But either they don't write down the source, figuring they'll get to it later, or they don't actually know they're supposed to cite it. People end up with unexpected and varied gaps in their knowledge if their understanding of academic integrity came piecemeal and informally. The same person might cite books and journal articles with no problem yet copy/paste text from websites verbatim and without attribution as if pixel monkeys just generated the words at random and glittered the page with their sorcery.
In one project I took on, the text contained author-date citations, but the reference list consisted only of URLs, so there was no indication which author-date referred to which URL. Part of my job was to go through the entire thesis and match up the author-dates (which didn’t all use the correct “author”) with the URLs the author had listed, making full cites for them and trying to decipher the incorrect ones by going through the web material, matching content with quotes. While sloppy citing doesn’t always rise to the level of plagiarism, it points to what might be going on.
What editors can do
Why these problems plague individuals who are far advanced in graduate school or have entered faculty positions is a big question and best covered in a future post. Let’s return for now to the question of editor’s responsibility.
I love working with citation formatting, so if a client’s citations are messy and inconsistent, I’m all sorts of excited to jump in and polish them into squeaky-clean APA or Chicago style. If any components are missing or questionable, I will flag them all and figure out the best way to work with you to get them organized into a pristine reference list or bibliography. I know, I’m disturbed. I really do like this stuff.
I’m not a walking TurnItIn machine, however. I’ll get to know your writing style so well as I peruse and analyze your paper that I might be able to spot something that looks out of place, but I’ll be working on hunches and Google results. If you misattributed something in a not-so-obvious way, it might get past even my keen awareness. It might not get past the notice of someone who is more an expert in your field than I am.
While editors can help writers understand plagiarism and rules of attribution better, the final responsibility will continue to lie with the person whose name is on the final product as its author. If you have a gray-area-type need like the client with the URL-based thesis, we’ll figure out a plan.
I'm Lea, a freelance editor who specializes in academic and nonfiction materials. More info about my services is available throughout this site.