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Proofreading documents for orthography is a pain. I consider that I am decent at writing in my native language (on the grammar and orthography side), but proofreading for typos and whatnots is a time-consuming pain. I’d much prefer to have someone else do it for me, but it's a pain to bother other people with it. Also, when I read students’ work, in some cases it requires two iterations (because it's hard to focus on the science when the spelling is… suboptimal).

So, given that a professional proofreader would be much more efficient at this job than me, leaving me more time to review the scientific content or otherwise actually do research, the logical conclusion is that I should hire one. This would work either for my own writing or for

I know some people actually do that (and also buy more extensive services) for grant writing. However, I wonder: is it ethical to hire a proofreader for theses and academic articles?

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Short answer

Yes, it is ethical

Long answer

The three options are:

  1. Proof-reading it yourself

  2. Asking a co-author (for academic article) or a 3rd person (for theses) to proof-read it

  3. Pay for a commercial proofreading service.

As I see it:

  • Option (1) is inefficient. You've written the text, read it many times over, and your brain will simply fool you in not seeing the typo's.

  • Option (2) is done quite often in practice. In my opinion, it's most suitable for journal articles; some articles have quite a lot of co-authors, and one could give a section to each co-author and distribute the work. That's what I usually do (my thesis will be quite small, because it's just a summary for a sandwich thesis).

  • As for option (3), I don't see any ethical problems with paying for a proofreading service. I know a number of people (they are not native speakers) who do this systematically for theses and academic articles. They buy commercial services who check and correct the quality of their English writing. This improves the quality of the text and therefore reduces the chance to annoy the reviewers.

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    Speaking as a frequent reviewer, I wish more people did this for the articles I review. Grammatical errors do distract me somewhat from the actual content. I see no ethical dilemma. Go for it. – Dan C Oct 28 '12 at 19:42
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    @Dan But note that some popular proofreading services are sub-standard; I recently reviewed a paper with a company's certificate stating that it had been proofread. Not only were there some grammatical errors, but there was some ambiguous and poorly written content. On the other hand, it had the overall feel of native English. – Abe Nov 2 '12 at 2:25
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    I've recently had for the first time experience with option 3 (in addition to some such experience where corrections were done during the publication process). I've had to change particularly some of the grammar "corrections" as they completely changed the meaning of sentences. (I don't think the commercial proofreaders are even remotely connected to our field). However, that is still useful: it points out difficult places that are easily misread. So the change is often not to undo the "correction" but to rewrite. – cbeleites Jul 10 '13 at 7:49
  • @Abe, how can you have the "overall feel of native English" without grammatical errors? – Ian Jul 1 '16 at 11:03
  • I've proofread my brother-in-law's psychology thesis, and a friend's thesis on modern Irish church architecture. I have a background in neither area. – TRiG Jul 1 '16 at 14:39
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I see no problem in hiring an external proofreader. However, I would ask them to flag all the changes they made and then re-check those changes myself. It is certainly possible that the proofreader could misunderstand what the paper was trying to say. So if the proofreader is essentially pointing out places that need my further attention, that seems valuable to me.

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Not only is it ethical, but, for really important documents like grant proposals, hiring a proofreader/editor is a really good idea. I've done it, and am glad I did.

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