18

I'll be simple and direct, since the situation I'm asking after is pretty general, and hardly requires an anecdotal context.

Would it be ethical of a student for him/her to act as a proofreader/editor for other students' essays and works?

For example, students unfamiliar with English seek out this student for proofreading - this student corrects all the grammar and spelling errors in their papers, and fixes cases of terrible vocabulary (e.g. using "mail" instead of "male," or replacing instances of "spinning plane" with "helicopter" when it is clearly meant to be so).

And to further push the boundaries, this student gives critiques and advice of sorts. If Paragraph A doesn't make sense, they will advise them to rewrite it. If Paragraph B fits better as a conclusion, they will advise them to move it. If the essay suddenly dives into ill-fitting rambling for a page or two or goes off-topic, they will advise them to cut it.

Is this ethical?

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    This is unanswerable without more context. In which sort of postgraduate courses is this happening? Is quality of communication a marking criterion? – EnergyNumbers Aug 21 '15 at 2:58
  • After seeing @ewormuth's answer, I do think you need to clarify the question. What essays or homework are you talking about? English class? Humanities class? Math? Science? – scaaahu Aug 21 '15 at 3:09
  • We need to know if the editor is being paid, whether the editor is feeling pressured to provide all this help, and whether the student receiving the editorial assistance is acknowledging the help. (One way of acknowledging it would be to hand in both versions.) – aparente001 Aug 21 '15 at 4:03
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    I like to draw the line at actually writing anything vs making recommendations - i.e. marking a draft with red pen is fine, but typing the words or writing them is a no-no - basically the words need to come from the student tasked with the assignment, not from any help they received. – user2813274 Aug 21 '15 at 5:11
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    Critical reading, including proofreading of drafts and appropriate commenting, is an important part of academic work. It should be encouraged. Writing work for someone else is assisting plagiarism. It should be stopped. There's quite a gap in between. – Chris H Aug 21 '15 at 19:44

11 Answers 11

24

As an student instructor, I would consider it ethical if certain conditions are met:

  1. The proofreader isn't taking unfair advantage of the student, especially when paid for his services. There are plenty who call themselves 'tutors' who will use dishonest tactics; for instance, deliberately being unclear as to his editing methods in order to encourage continuing dependence on his services, making false criticisms of edits the student's friend made for free, or emotionally manipulating students who are from abroad.
  2. The student isn't taking unfair advantage of the instructor. It's important that the student respects classroom policy on external assistance and observes the relevant boundaries when working with his editor.
  3. The editor isn't taking unfair advantage of the instructor. It's not clear from your question whether the editor is in the same course as the writer, or merely at the same school. If the editor is enrolled in the same course, I'd consider it unethical for him to read through other students' work before his own is handed in.
  4. The instructor isn't taking unfair advantage of the editor. There should be reasonable office hours to work with students, because that work is the responsibility of the instructor, not the classmates.
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    I think #3 is only applicable in some situations. For the majority of my courses that required writing papers, the students' topics differed enough that it would not be cheating to read someone else's work. In fact, in some classes it was a required activity to proofread and critique each other's work before submitting. – David K Aug 21 '15 at 13:06
  • @DavidK agreed, in many classes it's encouraged to work together, and final grades aren't on a curve and so there's no reason not to learn from a peer's work and there's no (direct) incentive to sabotage their work, which are the two concerns that seem to be brought up by #3. – Jason Aug 21 '15 at 16:58
  • I wouldn't call 2. and 3. "taking unfair advantage of the instructor" – the instructor itself is usually not really damaged by this, only maybe the other (non-involved) students in this class. – Paŭlo Ebermann Aug 23 '15 at 10:23
24

I believe it is good practice for students to proofread and edit each other's work. I also believe it is ethical, provided that

  1. it is consistent with the professor's instructions,
  2. the final product is still substantially the work of the student submitting it, and
  3. it is properly attributed.

See, for example, my university's honor code (paragraph IV.C).

  • 1
    I think number 1 on your list sums it up. If the instructor say you can proofread why wouldn't a student taken advantage of possibly getting a better grade just by having another student suggest a few edits? If the instructor says no proofreading then it could be considered cheating by looking at another students work. number 2 on your list is redundant I think but it does state a relevant point. Proofreading is no excuse for plagiarism. +1 – Memj Aug 21 '15 at 5:32
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    (3) has the advantage of testing (1) and (2). If you would not want to write on your homework assignment, "this assignment was edited by X, who made numerous corrections to spelling and vocabulary and provided invaluable insights regarding section 3 that have substantially improved the result", because you think the professor would consider that dodgy, then you shouldn't be having someone do it in the first place :-) Doesn't apply in all situations, but I think this is one of those where if you don't want to publicly admit it then that's probably because it's unethical. – Steve Jessop Aug 21 '15 at 9:32
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    @Memj Are there professors who don't allow proofreading? I never want to read their articles... – Raphael Aug 21 '15 at 16:35
  • @Raphael I don't. If you read my answer you will see why. My students find similar answers through research normally. Just seeing the links a students used could give another student the answers. My course isn't about writing skills but course skill comprehension. I care about what students learn in my course not what grammar and spelling skills they lack. – Memj Aug 21 '15 at 22:36
11

I'm going to offer a CS perspective from Germany, which may apply to other engineering fields, as well:

While there is quite some writing in CS, within my circle of academic contacts, we usually go by the rule: A few minor mistakes are sloppy and irritating, but are to be expected in long documents and therefore excusable. What is not excusable is failing to have someone else proofread the document. This is particularly (but not exclusively) true when writing in a foreign language, such as (for us) English.

So, in other words, having someone else proofread each of your more significant documents (theses, seminar papers, ...) is considered a part of due diligence. This is, of course, not limited to student assignments, but will continue during one's professional life - authors of a paper should always give the camera-ready version of a research paper to someone so far uninvolved to do some proofreading, for instance.

In the student context, preferrably, this proofreading should be done by a fellow student:

  • They are likely to be savvy about the topic. This reduces the chance of false positives, where they consider something incorrectly written or expressed, which is actually correct in the terminology of the subject at hand.
  • It is a good practice for them; like that, they will not just train writing, but also proofreading/correcting, which they will have to do efficiently also later on.
  • As all students have to do the assignments, and all students need proofreaders, this allows for inherent compensation to some extent, as students can simply thank each other by returning the favour of proofreading.

As other answers remarked, it is important that proofreading is really that - identify mistakes, point out unclear or confusing statements and document structure, possibly suggest how to improve the text on an abstract level, but do not change anything other than the simplest of mistakes (straightforward typos that leave only one option for correction).

Concerning the attribution, I am undecided on whether it is obligatory:

  • It is certainly the polite thing to do.
  • In longer documents that feature acknowledgments (such as graduation theses), those acknowledgments provide a good opportunity for mentioning that the author received help by proofreaders. (Of course, not everyone puts acknowledgments in graduation theses; especially when the deadline is closing in, there are more essential parts of the document to work on.)
  • Given that proofreading is, as explained above, an indispensable part of writing a document, and a rather "technical" one (just like, e.g., using a text editor), it is debatable whether it should be mentioned. Maybe it should, but in that case, the producers of one's text editing software, or the manufacturer of one's computer, should probably be mentioned just as well, which is rarely done.
  • In shorter documents (especially papers with a page restriction), there is most probably simply no space to mention mere operational details of the paper writing process such as proofreading.

To summarize, I have rarely seen mentions of proofreading in documents, even though they occasionally do occur. Especially in student documents, when I do not find any mention of proofreading and I ask the student whether they have had someone else proofread their document, I am definitely much more dissatisfied with the answer "No, that's why I didn't mention it." than with the answer "Yes, of course; having someone else proofread my document before I hand it in is so self-evident that I do not see a point in specifically mentioning it."

EDIT: Whether or not to add an attribution may also depend on cultural customs. I recently brought up the topic concerning one of our papers in my department in Germany, when we had handed out that paper to a few colleagues from other departments for checking comprehensibility and clarity of the text (i.e. not restricted to spellchecking, but actual contents of the paper). My tentative suggestion to add a note in the acknowledgments thanking them for their suggestions was rejected as "silly" by my co-authors, because the colleagues from the other department "have just read the paper and suggested a few minor changes", and because "everyone always gives other people one's papers for external suggestions and those external people are normally never mentioned". People from other cultures might agree on different courses of action that are "normally" followed.

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    @J.J: I'm confused - are you commenting on another answer or another question? Where in my answer have I suggested that one should accept a PhD based on someone else's work? – O. R. Mapper Aug 21 '15 at 11:34
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    @J.J: Well, as I said - if we decide contributions on a mere operational level of writing the text such as proofreading need to be acknowledged, we must also acknowledge a whole other bunch of contributions, such as any spell checking software we used, any text editing software we used, the operating system, the computer manufacturer, ... the list can be continued indefinitely. – O. R. Mapper Aug 21 '15 at 11:38
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    Concerning the attribution, I am undecided on whether it is obligatory — I think it is obligatory. If another human being has directly contributed to the content of the paper, they should be acknowledged. It does not follow that you should acknowledge the people who wrote your spellchecker, cooked your breakfast, or helped your mother give birth to you; they did not directly contribute to the paper's content. The copy-editor did. Without an acknowledgement, the author is claiming that the writing is entirely their own, which is just not true. – JeffE Aug 21 '15 at 15:28
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    @JeffE: If another human being has provided essentially the same help as a spellchecker, and if the reason for the acknowledgment is indeed primarily providing a factual overview of how the author's writing was supported, I do not see why the existence of a human spellchecker must be mentioned, but the existence of an automated spellchecker need not be mentioned. ... – O. R. Mapper Aug 21 '15 at 18:50
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    ... Still, the point of my answer was that "Without an acknowledgement, the author is claiming that the writing is entirely their own" is simply not a correct assumption. Without an acknowledgment, the most reasonable assumption is still that the author had one or more proofreaders, simply because it's such an inherent part of writing that it goes without saying. – O. R. Mapper Aug 21 '15 at 18:50
4

I think the answer depends on the course and here's why:

I, personally, teach business courses which require a lot of research and writing. My best friend teaches a creative writing course both of us teach at a mid-large university.

In my class I would not allow peer editing because of the nature of my assignments. Students often find similar resources for their answers so editing another student's paper will give the editor all the information (even if it's links alone) to complete the assignment.

In my friends creative writing course it's required that students do peer-evlauaiton because it will improve the writers skill by seeing how someone else views their work, style, and even catch grammar mistakes that the writer often uses. Additionally, each individual paper will be vastly different in a creative writing course.

In my course writing skills such as knowing the difference between "male" and "mail" are annoying to deal with but it's not something I will take off points for because I do not teach spelling, grammar, or anything to do with the English language. However, if the paper is unreadable or lacks the effort of using English to the best of the students ability then points will be removed.

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    Exactly. In my lower-level foreign language classes, it'd be completely unethical because I want to see how well the student can I can write on their own. But in my upper-level courses where the papers are more about ideas, there's no problem at all and I encourage it. In that case, it's win win. Students can spend more time asking that person questions about why X is wrote/sounds weird, while I, come grading time, can focus more on the content of the paper rather than the presentation of it. – guifa Aug 21 '15 at 12:54
3

The question of morality might be able to be circumvented entirely if the school offers any sort of writing services. I know my college (and I've heard many colleges) have a writing center which employs and trains students to proofread writing. It's their college endorsed job to help the students who might have trouble with this kind of thing, and since they have been trained, they're much less likely to overstep their boundaries. Classes might also have a TA/TAs that would also be able to help.

That being said--if that option not available at this university (which I'd find strange) or if students choose not to use it--I would still be ok with students reading each other's work, as long as they're transparent about what they've done. Peer reviews are used in lower levels of education to build student's writing skills. When I was a TA in a Freshman level college course, we encouraged students to go to each other as a resource--as long as they followed the school's honor code. It's better for the students to be able to learn before they send the paper in, rather than be punished for it after it and, let's be honest, professors don't have time to proofread every paper before it comes to them.

The same goes for critiques. As long as the second student doesn't rewrite the paragraph for them, they're doing a service to the first student and everyone who has to teach them later on. The idea that instructors are the only people who should be allowed to help students improve their writing is absurdly limiting.

3

At least one university in the UK provides this type of service free to all non-native English users at undergraduate level and upwards, via bookable "office hours" type consultations as well as by running regular courses, English language workshops, etc. http://www3.imperial.ac.uk/academic-english

That avoids any blurred boundaries between "improving the quality of language use", "unauthorized collaborative work" or "plagiarism" caused by informal arrangements between students.

2

It depends on the situation. This is very essential when we talk about journals. Because such unfamiliar proofreader's understanding/suggestions greatly help to make simple/clear the content of the topic/essay, especially to the newcomers in that topic. Switching to your case, it is also necessary but not always. Because some students have a bad tendency to depend on others during their homework instead increasing their skills in it.

2

I would say that it is not (unless explicitly permitted), since essay answers are graded in part based on writing -- writing instruction takes place implicitly not just in English classes. In my classes, well-constructed arguments and sentences are as much a part of the grade as knowing the factual answer. However, in some classes, instructors don't care about expression and they are only grading based on knowledge of content (but for some reason cannot reduce the exercise to check-boxes). If the instructor explicitly allows writing assistance, then okay. Otherwise, you have to consider that the instructor considers content and expression to both be valid bases for evaluating a paper.

2

Unless there is a prohibition of this activity by the instructor, there is nothing unethical about this, because the students have specifically requested your help, and because your help consists of editing something they have already written by themselves. You are providing assistance in how to best render their composition in the English language; as long as your function remains that of an editor, not a composer, no ethical problem should arise.

1

It's frustrating for those who are teaching writing, those papers that "my cousin" helped me with. I'm talking about non-native students in a native-student class -- in a class for second-language students, it should never happen. I'd like to teach them those things, rather than having someone else just do it for them, and see their grade based on what they can actually do, rather than on what someone else can do for them. A trained tutor won't simply change things but will take the student through the process, so that they understand why they are making the changes. Once they start having someone else just correct their work, they have to keep doing it. And then when they get out in the real world, they haven't learned how to do it for themselves.

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    To clarify, do you mean that this kind of editing should not happen in an English class, or should not happen in any class? For example, second-language students taking History should not seek out writing and essay help from outside sources? – SirDerpy Aug 21 '15 at 1:42
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    No, it's not that I think it shouldn't happen in any class, but I hope you can understand my wish that whoever is helping is actually helping the writer to understand how to do it on his/her own, rather than just making the corrections and saying "here you go." It particularly shouldn't happen in a writing class, where it's the teacher's responsibility to give the writer the help s/he needs. – ewormuth Aug 21 '15 at 1:47
1

There's a way to handle this that prevents this situation from turning into something it shouldn't.

Let's refer to the non-native speaker requesting assistance as Student A. We'll refer to the tutor/proofreader as Student B.

If Student A enlists help from Student B, Student A should turn in two copies of the paper. The first copy is the original draft with red-pen annotations from Student B. The second copy is the revised copy, typed by Student A, after receiving the feedback from Student B.

This way, there is some traceability. You can see exactly how much of the ideas belong to Student A, and you can see how much assistance was provided by Student B. Hopefully, the changes are largely cosmetic (there to their, e.g.), and the grader doesn't have to wade through all these problems and provide feedback during grading. It's a win-win.

If Student B is willing to assist Student A in this capacity, I don't think it needs to be prohibited, it just needs to be acknowledged and attributed. In fact, Student A wouldn't necessarily need to be a non-native speaker. Two students could proofread each other's papers with the aim of turning in higher quality work, so long as the instructor accepts this step as an acceptable form of help.

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