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I am supervising a master student for his thesis in a technology field. His English is so-so and it takes quite a bit of work to correct it. I feel that correcting English is not my job, but to correct the technical aspects of the manuscript. Back when I was a student, I knew of students whose English wasn't that great and who would ask friends to correct their grammar, spelling, and wording. Can I ask my student to have his text corrected in this way—of course not the technical content! I would not consider it "somebody else's work," since it would also not count as contribution in the sense of authorship. However, I am also not sure whether it is rude to have him ask somebody else to proof-read. At my university we even have an official proofreading service (but only for PhD candidates), so I would expect it to be okay.

Edit: Good answers! Thanks. Just to clarify: The English (which is none of our's mother tongue) could be a lot worse and I had worse. With my last two students I did the mistake of correcting everything, which was a lot of work. Now I thought back and asked myself whether this is really my job. According to the answers - it actually isn't. Thanks!

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    I don't think is rude. As a non-native speaker I wouldn't feel offended if my advisor thinks my English needs to be proof-read by a peer, in fact, it is likely that I would have looked for a native speaker to read to proof-read it anyway. – M.S May 23 '18 at 16:01
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    It is rude and foolish to hand in a work in bad grammar, because it makes it very hard for the reader to judge it's content. Every thesis should be proof-read by colleagues, who are of course also allowed to comment on the content! Why not? Do you send the student away if he comes to you asking for advice? – Karl May 23 '18 at 18:56
  • When I was in the end of my own PhD studies, I proofread (from a purely linguistic point of view) theses of two of my colleagues. They asked if it's ok, I agreed, helped them, and even learnt some new stuff (both scientifically and about assessing the clarity of the exposition) - so it was a win-win. So if you ask someone for it, they will most likely also benefit. – user68958 May 23 '18 at 19:23
  • This isn't really an "ethical" question but I don't know what toc hange the tag too. – Azor Ahai May 23 '18 at 20:10
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    I proof-read several of my colleagues final year projects / theses and they did mine AND we did this BEFORE we would even consider submitting it to one of our professors... Yes, tell him to get it sorted before you read it again. – Solar Mike May 23 '18 at 20:38
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As a supervisor it is not your job to proofread your student's work, but it is your job to help them produce good-quality work. Good communication skills are critical in research, therefore you should take some sort of action to improve your student's writing. When you communicate this to your student, make sure to present it in a constructive way, rather than as a criticism.

As to how you should proceed, you have a few options. One option is to ask another student in your department that has stronger English skills to help your student proofread their work. That only works if both you and your student know another student that you're both comfortable working with, and if that student has time to help. A second option is to ask your university's proofreading service if they can help your student. A third option, which may be the best bet if your student's writing needs a lot of work, is to suggest they enroll in a technical writing course to develop their skills.

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    I strongly agree with this. Most of the technical writing (research papers) is not only about grammatically correct English. The student needs to do his job. But also the advisor should help in sharping the technical writing of the student including common phrases and way of writing. – seteropere May 23 '18 at 23:42
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    Perhaps the problem is the professor asking another student to do such busywork that isn't their job either. Some people, myself included, hate proofreading (particularly of my own writing). I have proofread the work of others (both native English speakers and second-language) where it undoubtedly took me far more time and effort to pick through that impenetrable minefield of horror, than it took them to write it. Anyway, tell the student to ask others themselves, so they aren't put on the spot so much as when a supervisor asks them. – A Simple Algorithm May 24 '18 at 1:00
  • @ASimpleAlgorithm I wouldn't suggest the supervisor ask a random student, but I was often asked during my Master's degree to help out other students in my group with English. I always saw it as part of being in a research team, sometimes I have to take on some more menial work for the benefit of the whole group. I'll admit though, it's more common when we're working on journal papers, I've never been asked to help proofread a thesis – BarbalatsDilemma May 24 '18 at 2:23
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Can I ask my student to have his text corrected in this way - of course not of content / contribution!

It is not your job to assign a mandatory proofreader. Nor is it your job to proofread it yourself. Especially as a graduate student, part of his job is to ensure he is proficient in English (or whatever language the thesis is written in).

Next time he turns in written work that is not proofed to your standard, you need to have a conversation where you explicitly tell the student he must address is poor writing skills.

I would say something like

This paper is filled with grammatical and spelling errors. Currently, I'm spending the majority of my time on these errors instead of evaluating the technical contribution of the work. Please proof-read this document and I'll read it once the grammar and spelling issues are addressed.

I'm guessing there is a writing center on campus for undergraduates. Look this up and tell the student about it. Something like

The writing center in the student lobby will help you with grammar and spelling issues, and is open from 10AM-6PM every weekday.

Once the student has re-submitted, and the content is reasonably free of grammar and spelling issues, be sure to tell the student this is the quality of work he must hand in from now on.

  • +1. Though the first quote is a bit direct (to the point of rudeness), it is really unacceptable that this student presents work that is filled with grammatical errors. This would be a no-go in a professional setting, and it's appropriate to sharply call the student on it here. – cag51 May 23 '18 at 20:37
  • @cag51 - Being direct is usually the only way to change someone's behavior. It's important the student fully understands the expectations of the professor, and understands the consequences of not proof-reading. – sevensevens May 23 '18 at 21:54
  • Right, I was agreeing with you; the student's behavior is so unacceptable that the directness/rudeness is called for. – cag51 May 24 '18 at 2:23
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I would start by first communicating the problem and making it clear that you will not review his manuscript unless these errors are corrected. It is likely that he will be able to solve this on his own. He may not even be aware of how bad it really is. This will be a good opportunity for him to grow!

If the problem persists then I would escalate to proposing a solution yourself. After all, if you are supervising him, his success is your success.

I would try to lean on your university's proofreading service. I'm guessing that as his supervisor you are also an author on the paper. I suspect it would be reasonable for you to submit it to the service. If not, simply having a candid conversation with someone over there could probably provide some quality advice on how to handle this situation.

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    I don't know of many Master's theses where the supervisor is also an author. – astronat May 23 '18 at 21:49
  • @astronat - I interpreted "manuscript" to mean a future publication since OP also mentions authorship with regards to a paper later on in the question. I could be wrong. – noslenkwah May 23 '18 at 21:52
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    I am actually talking about the manuscript of the thesis, which is not a paper - astronat got it right. But your points are still valid. – Make42 May 24 '18 at 15:27
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It's not unethical for the student to get assistance with proofreading, copyediting, or developmental editing (that is more substantial than copyediting, which is in turn more substantial than proofreading).

I suggest you institute a policy for this and future students, that before a first draft is submitted to you, the draft must be vetted by an editor. You may be nice about it -- and I hope you will. At any rate, be firm. (Firm is not necessarily the same as unpleasant.) Ideally, this expectation would be given to students well in advance of the first draft being submitted.

However, with this student, even though you missed the boat on the advance notice, you can certainly still institute this policy.

Optionally, you may wish to collect a list of resources, some free and some paid, to give to students when you explain your policy.

You owe this to your students, so that they graduate with the right sort of work habits, and you owe this to yourself. If you get bogged down in drudge work, you won't have the time and energy to do the important things you need to do.

(The approach I outlined -- be nice but be firm -- is inspired by a programming TA who worked in the computing room when I was learning to program as an undergraduate. Whenever you brought her a print-out of a program that wasn't working as you expected, she first, always, asked if the code print-out was the most recent version that had produced the output you were showing her. If you said, "Well, actually it's the previous version, but I only changed one line, so I think this will be good enough," she would firmly but pleasantly send you back to the printer so you could bring her matching code and output.)

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There are different types of errors and potentially different responses to these errors. If the errors are spelling and similar, where something like Microsoft Word actually picks up the error (and suggests a fix) then you can certainly require that those errors are corrected before you even look at the paper. If the problem is more about expression, with clumsy wording, disorganised ideas etc, then you probably need to recommend a writing skills course.

The problem with asking the student to send it to another student first is that there may not be anyone who can actually help. I did my PhD after working in policy jobs for 15 years where I not only did a lot of writing, I also supervised other people who were doing a lot of writing. I was also the only native English speaker in the group of students so during my PhD, I did a lot of chapter/article reading and my supervisor often asked students to ask me to help them. I was fine with this, it was reasonably easy for me to help. It was also time consuming, but the other students helped me with other aspects of my PhD (such as programming) so the time wasn't too much of an issue.

But it seems to me that this was a very unusual set of circumstances. In most cases, other students and friends are unlikely to be much better than the student you are having the problem with. Even if they have access to a native English speaker, that won't really help the student improve.

There's other things you can do too. Do your students do mock presentations to each other of their work? Do your students write (or present) analyses of key papers to circulate to other students? If not, try creating such a process. Go to the lecturer of the first year philosophy course and ask for some of their student exercises. The English abilities of all the students will improve if they are forced to practice presenting structured arguments in English. Even the students with native English can probably benefit from such exercises.

  • The student does not have time anymore to go to a writing course, but I did suggest reading up on how to write scientifically. The issue you addressed of others not being able to help (because they aren't native speakers either) is really an issue. – Make42 May 24 '18 at 15:34

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