I am lucky enough to be on a good schedule with my own edit: Thesis and have a little extra time. Earlier in the year, I offered to edit one of my classmate's/close friend's dissertation in Computer Science. I made sure to leave enough time to do this in the writing process and they gave me a copy to edit a week before the deadline.

The time frame is fine, but the issue is I am unsure of how much help I am allowed to offer. They are an ESL (English as a Second Language) student, and I don't believe they have had much formal English training. Our University makes clear that they accommodate ESL students, as it is a large portion of the student base. The dissertation guidelines note they don't come down hard on syntax and grammar, but that the paper does need to make sense in written English, and that the examiners can't grade a paper they can't understand.

I'm looking at the paper now, and it's pretty rough. I'm not going crazy over the syntax and am helping with that some. However, I'm finding I'm having to make a lot of corrections and completely restructuring sentences and paragraphs in order to make the sentences make sense.

My question is how much should I be fixing? How much would I be allowed to fix? I am mostly worried about plagiarism, as it would be obvious that my friend's paper has been dramatically changed. My friend's supervisor has seen some drafts of his writing, and it would be obvious if the writing was suddenly much clearer. Getting a paper edited is not against the rules, but I have to make so many dramatic edits I'm worried it may risk plagiarism.

When there's a bad argument, I don't rewrite it, but just write a sentence or blurb below it to guide my friend to making a better one. Like, "do you have evidence for this?" or, "this is not relevant here, move to...".

Thanks for the advice!

  • 8
    Ask your friend's advisor whether this is permitted. And to what extent.
    – GEdgar
    Commented Sep 11, 2017 at 16:24
  • 4
    Most colleges I know of have a Writing Center of some sort that offer resources on helping student's write better. Perhaps refer them there?
    – Michael
    Commented Sep 11, 2017 at 16:27
  • Michael - That would have been good to look up a few months ago, they do have one, but it's open M-F by appointment, and my friend works a 9-5 unfortunately. @GEdgar, that's a good point. I think the onus is on my friend to ask that, but I will pause before continuing. The advisors here tend to be... aloof. The advisor has seen the writing several times at this point and not commented. The advisors are also the graders though, so I'm not sure how much they can say.
    – NateH06
    Commented Sep 11, 2017 at 16:47
  • 1
    Can you expand the abbreviation ESL at least once? Commented Jun 4, 2018 at 2:59
  • @henning can do, and done.
    – NateH06
    Commented Jun 4, 2018 at 20:24

3 Answers 3


It sounds like you're doing all the right things regarding helping without actually writing for your friend. I would explain to your friend, and ask them to meet with their adviser, either with or without you, to discuss how much/what type of help is appropriate. With the adviser included in the process, and some boundaries identified, it will be clear that plagiarism is not taking place. That being said, this is a huge time committment on your part. It might help you and your friend for them to work with a writing coach. Your school probably has a writing center or ESL center that can help with this.

  • Thank you! The only problem is that the advisor is known for being a bit of a brush-off, or can be unresponsive, we may not hear back in time. But I think this is a good thing to try, and if not responded to, it will establish a paper trail of good intent in the event of any issues.
    – NateH06
    Commented Sep 11, 2017 at 16:48
  • 2
    Make sure that your email in which you ask to meet contains a very brief description of the problem. Even if (s)he does not respond, you will still have left a paper trail showing that you intended to act in good faith. Commented Sep 11, 2017 at 17:36
  • Exactly. There are people who are trained to do just this, while extending the non native speaker's facility with English, without risking plagiarism accusations. Commented Sep 12, 2017 at 1:59

As far as I am aware, the use of proofreaders to correct grammatical or usage errors is not normally a problem. Regulations cover the intellectual content—the ideas should be those of the Ph.D. candidate, but there's no reason they shouldn't be able to have someone help them with writing.

If there's a writing center that students are encouraged to use, then it would stand to reason that a friend should be able to help. Your creation of a paper trail through a marked-up copy shows your contributions and should act as a defense in case there is an accusation of plagiarism.


This isn't about plagiarism; it's about academic honesty. Your statement that the paper is now "dramatically changed" points to that. If the paper is 60% your friend's work and 40% your work, this is dishonest. 20% your work is dishonest---that's one chapter out of five.

This is a very common problem for nonnative writers of English at the PhD level. When a university grants a degree, there's an assumption that the student is leaving with the ability to function professionally in an English-speaking environment (regardless of where the person plans to live and work). Language skill is inseparable from subject-area knowledge. I've worked as an editor with PhD students and new professors from other countries for many years. It's clear to me that their level of English is directly related to their ability to understand and analyze complex concepts. Both mature simultaneously over time.

I NEVER edit a dissertation so that it turns out at MY language and intellectual level. This would be an ethical violation and a disservice to the student. Those who plan a career in academia will immediately be faced with much higher challenges as soon as they have their PhD in hand: the journal articles and book required for tenure, followed by active research and writing for the duration of their career. If I do their work for them now, there will never be an end to it.

From what you write, it appears that your friend is simply not equipped to write a dissertation. I know this sounds harsh, but a dissertation isn't a trivial thing. It represents years of study and hard work. As an editor I could turn out a dissertation for an ESL student that would be superior to one written by a native English writer. That would be wholly unfair. Students and faculty from other countries simply need to come to terms with the fact that they have this challenge to overcome and that overcome it they must. Thousands have done this, and your friend needs to bite the bullet as well.

My advice: pull out of editing this dissertation. Tell your friend, "This really isn't ready to be edited. You need more help than I feel comfortable giving."

Sorry to be so long-winded. This is a really important issue. When your computer is getting eaten alive by a worldwide virus you want to know that the person charged with eradicating the virus did his or her own work in the PhD program. So many important roles in society related to our safety, health, financial well-being, and so on depend on competence fairly gained through one's own hard work.

  • I'd just like to add that your friend's situation is very similar to native English speakers who major in foreign languages and litteratures. They're expected to develop full competence in their second language, which takes years of work. They're held to a high standard of language competence, which is unlike the leeway you describe being given to ESL students.
    – Eggy
    Commented Jun 3, 2018 at 16:40
  • Good points, and ultimately, I ended up telling them that they need to redo the whole thing, and engage with a coach. I also realized, in my naivete, that I dramatically misunderstood the difference between a thesis and dissertation. My question is actually about a thesis for a Master's, which is why there was some leniency allowed. It's for a STEM course, so excellent English does not determine how good they actually are at their field, which is quite good.
    – NateH06
    Commented Jun 4, 2018 at 1:07
  • 1
    If the paper is 60% your friend's work and 40% your work, this is dishonest. 20% your work is dishonest---that's one chapter out of five. I'm not sure value of editing can be quantified in this way. The OP has not produced one chapter out of five, they haven't produced any chapters. That said, I appreciate that editing can push a paper's value from a lower-tier conference to a higher-tier one.
    – user2768
    Commented Apr 1, 2019 at 7:32
  • "Language skill is inseparable from subject-area knowledge." "Level of English is directly related to their ability to understand and analyze complex concepts." Good god, where to even start.
    – Robin
    Commented Feb 25, 2021 at 9:59

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